Mississippi's Poisonous Snakes
by Rob Ballinger
we came to the bridge crossing Deer Creek, I noticed what I thought
to be a stick laying across the bridge. As we got closer the “stick”
began to move and then I knew it was actually a large snake, apparently
basking in the heat being transmitted from the pavement.
Recently my family and I were coming home from the taxidermist shop.
Rain had fallen throughout most of the day and the temperature was fairly
cool, however the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds and the
rain had turned into a light mist. As the temperature rose, steam began
rolling off the pavement making the drive through the countryside somewhat
When we came to the bridge crossing Deer Creek, I noticed what I thought
to be a stick laying across the bridge. As we got closer the “stick”
began to move and then I knew it was actually a large snake, apparently
basking in the heat being transmitted from the pavement. As we neared
the bridge I began to slow down and saw that the snake had made its
way to the side of the bridge and was lying against the retaining wall.
At this point, I was the only one in the vehicle who had noticed the
snake. I told my wife and two girls to look out the window on my side
of the truck and see what was lying on the bridge. The girls were in
the back seat and fighting to look out the window to see the snake.
They were both excited, particularly my 7-year old Sarah who has always
shown an interest in small reptiles and amphibians, but my wife Sherry
was not the least bit impressed. She took one look at the snake and
then simply turned and stared out the passenger window.
I identified the snake as a non venomous king snake. It was quite large,
4.5 to 5 feet in length and beautifully colored. After assuring the
girls that it was safe to do so, I asked them if they would like me
to get out and catch it so they could have a closer look. Shelby, who
is 9 years old, gave me that nervous, but inquisitive yes and Sarah
gave me an excited yes and to hurry up about it, but Sherry was screaming,
“NO.” When I glanced over at her in the passenger seat,
she gave me that look as if to say - well you know the look I am talking
about. By this time the king snake had made its way to the end of the
bridge and was crawling off to the safety and cover of Deer Creek.
The problem most people encounter is the lack of
knowledge to properly identify snakes.
I was not surprised by the different reactions of my family. I have
known for many years of Sherry's intense fear of snakes. Just the mere
mention of snakes would send shivers down her spine, not to mention
the sight of a snake on the Discovery Channel or worse yet, a real life
encounter. Shelby has become more and more weary of snakes as she is
getting older, no doubt fueled by her mother's fear of snakes. Sarah
is still young enough and inquisitive about snakes and hasn't taken
up her mother's fear of snakes. She is still in the learning stages
so I have been careful to advise her never to handle any snake unless
I am present and have identified the snake as non venomous.
I will never forget the day that I found a small garter snake in the
yard. Sarah was eager to hold it and inspect it and even though I knew
better she wanted to go and show her mom. As soon as Sherry saw her
coming with a snake in her little hands, she took off running and screaming
headed for the house, Sarah running right behind her giggling the entire
All of this brings up an important point. The fear of snakes is a learned
behavior. We are certainly not born fearing snakes. This fear is passed
on or instilled in most people through years of listening to legends
and superstitions concerning snakes.
At the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Expos, which were held in Hattiesburg
and Canton, this point was made evident by Terry Vandeventer, a professional
herpetologist. During his seminars he would ask for young volunteers
to come to the stage and assist him with a demonstration. The children
were asked to handle an extremely large snake and each of them did so,
usually without the least bit of apprehension; all the while, most of
the adults sitting in the audience seemed to be terrified.
The problem most people encounter is the lack of knowledge to properly
identify snakes. Of the 55 species of snakes found in Mississippi, only
six of them are venomous. Becoming familiar with these venomous snakes
is a sensible precaution for outdoor enthusiasts in Mississippi.
The venomous species of snakes found in Mississippi are the canebrake
rattlesnake, copperhead, coral snake, cottonmouth, eastern diamondback
rattlesnake and the pigmy rattlesnake.
All the venomous snakes found in Mississippi, with the exception of
the coral snake, are known as “pit vipers.” The term “pit”
is used to describe a sensory organ which is located, between and slightly
below, each eye and nostril on each side of a snakes head. These sensory
organs give the appearance of an extra pair of nostrils; however their
function is quite different. These sensory organs are heat activated,
striking and guidance systems which enable the snake to detect temperature
differences in its surrounding of as little as 2 degrees. This aids
these snakes in locating prey and directing lethal strikes.
All pit vipers also have vertically elliptical pupils, much like a cat.
Most native, non venomous snakes have round pupils. Pit vipers also
have a large head which is distinctly wider then the neck, but some
harmless snakes also exhibit this trait.
Pit vipers have long, hollow fangs which are hinged to the front of
the skull and swing forward as the mouth is opened and back as the mouth
is closed. When a pit viper strikes, these hollow fangs operate like
hypodermic needles as muscles around the venom glands contract to inject
The coral snake exhibits none of the “pit viper” characteristics.
Coral snakes have a round pupil and no facial pits. The head of the
coral snake is also small in size compared to pit vipers and coral snakes
have a very small mouth with short, fixed fangs.
If you are uncomfortable around snakes and uncertain of your ability
to properly identify them, the best policy is to leave them alone. This
may sound like common sense, but approximately 75 percent of all snake
bites from venomous snakes occur when someone is trying to kill or harass
a snake. Provoking a venomous snake, either on purpose or by accident
can cause a snake to become defensive. When left alone, most snakes
are docile and will either try to flee or remain motionless in an attempt
to blend into their surroundings.
When outdoors, always try to walk in clear areas, paying close attention
to where you are stepping. Snakes like to hide in stump holes, in brush
piles, under debris and around fallen logs. When possible, wear leather
boots at least 10 inches in height. There are numerous brands of “snake
boots” on the market today, most of them 15 to 16 inches in height
and they are generally waterproof which make them excellent for spring
turkey hunting and early season archery hunting. When in a boat, pay
close attention to overhanging limbs since snakes have a habit of sunning
on branches. If you should encounter a snake, take a couple steps backwards
and then go out of your way to avoid the snake.
In the unlikely event of a snake bite, the most important thing is to
stay calm. Any increase in heart rate will only increase the rate that
venom is distributed throughout the body. Immobilize the bitten limb
(as in a fracture), treat the victim for shock and get to the nearest
hospital or medical doctor as soon as possible. Never cut and suck,
apply ice or cold packs, or use a tourniquet.
A high percentage of venomous snakebites occur on the extremities, most
often the hands fingers and arms. Next most frequently bitten are ankles,
top of the foot and legs.
Pit vipers' venom is a complex mix of lethal proteins and enzymes which
target specific parts of the circulatory and nervous systems. At the
onset of a strike, the venom begins to destroy blood cells, lymphatic
vessels, capillaries and muscle tissue. Burning pain, swelling and skin
discoloration are the most common early symptoms. Other symptoms may
include weakness, nausea and vomiting, sweating, chills, muscular twitching
and difficulty in breathing. The bite of a coral snake may produce similar
symptoms, but immediate swelling and discoloration are rarely evident
and the pain is mild and short in duration.
A non venomous bite elicits no symptoms. The bite may bleed freely and
there may be bruising of the immediate tissue around the puncture, but
essentially no swelling will occur and the severe pain that accompanies
a venomous bite will be absent. No treatment beyond cleaning the bite
site is generally required, however if you were unable to identify the
snake, leave these decisions up to a physician.
Snakes are an important ecological component and serve as natural pest
controllers, consuming large numbers of rodents. Although snakes are
NOT mean and aggressive, they are accomplished predators with excellent
tools for catching and killing prey. For this reason, snakes should
be viewed from a distance and never approached. Never try to kill a
snake unless it is threatening your life or the life of another person.
One interesting final note; although there have been recorded deaths
in Mississippi attributed to “snakebites,” there has never
been a case where the evidence proved a snake was involved.
EASTERN DIAMONDBACK RATTLESNAKE
Appearance: The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is medium brown
or tan with dark diamond shaped markings. Each diamond is bordered by
a single row of light colored scales and the coloration generally fades
from a darker to lighter hue towards the tail. There is a wide, dark
strip bordered with lighter scales on each side of the head and there
is a rattle on the tail. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is massive
in build and averages 4 to 4.5 feet in length, but has been recorded
to nearly 8 feet. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest
rattlesnake found in Mississippi.
Habitat: The eastern diamondback rattlesnake can be found in
a variety of habitats including coastal lowlands and longleaf pine ecosystems
and are most commonly associated with dry pine forests.
Distribution: The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is found in
the southeastern most counties (boot heel) of Mississippi.
Appearance: The canebrake rattlesnake is usually brown or pinkish
gray with dark crossbands which often break into blotches on the forward
body. The overall coloration grows darker toward the tail. A single
dark stripe generally runs back from each eye and a narrow chestnut
or rusty colored line runs down the center of the back. The canebrake
rattlesnake averages from 3 to 4.5 feet in length and has a rattle on
the tail. The most distinguishing feature of the canebrake rattlesnake
is the uniform, black tail sometimes referred to as the “velvettail.”
Habitat: Canebrake rattlesnakes are found in a variety of habitats
including wooded hillsides, river lowlands and canebrake thickets.
Distribution: Canebrake rattlesnakes are found throughout Mississippi
with the exception of Hancock, Harrison, Pearl River and Stone counties.
Appearance: The pygmy rattlesnake is usually gray to reddish
in color, with dark brown or black blotches along the middle of the
back and alternating spots which run down the sides. It is the smallest
of our rattlesnakes in Mississippi averaging just 18 to 20 inches in
length. The pygmy rattlesnake generally has a rattles on its tail however
the rattle is often missing but will grow back with subsequent moltings.
The most distinguishing feature of the pygmy rattlesnake is the large
scales which are symmetrically arranged on the crown of the head.
Habitat: The pygmy rattlesnake is found in a variety of habitats
from pine flatwoods, cedar glades and mixed pine/hardwood forests to
lakes and borders of small streams. It frequents wet or moist areas
and is often found around abandoned buildings and areas cluttered with
Distribution: The pygmy rattlesnake is found in most Mississippi
counties; however they are extremely rare in the interior Delta.
Appearance: The copperhead is brown, pinkish tan or chestnut
colored (autumn colors) with darker brown hourglass shaped crossbands.
These distinctive crossbands are often incomplete or broken at mid body.
A thin dark line runs back from the eye to the corner of the mouth.
Juveniles generally have a yellow or greenish tail. The copperhead's
body is thick and stout and is usually 2 to 4 feet in length. The copperhead's
soft colors blend in well with leaves on the forest floor.
Habitat: The copperhead occurs in a variety of habitats but is
most often found in wooded, hilly areas sometimes broken by expanses
of rocky terrain. Copperheads are frequently found in abandoned buildings,
wood piles and areas scattered with debris.
Distribution: The copperhead is found throughout Mississippi,
but is rare in the 3 coastal counties (Hancock, Harrison and Jackson).
Appearance: The adult cottonmouth differs in appearance from
the juvenile. The adult is usually yellowish brown to dark brown on
the back with darker black, indistinct crossbands. A white face band
may be present on some. Juvenile cottonmouths tend to resemble a copperhead
and have bright yellow or even chartreuse tails. The cottonmouth is
a very heavy bodied snake usually averaging 2.5 to 4 feet in length.
The cottonmouth is the only venomous water snake found in Mississippi
and it derives its name from the white inner mouth which is commonly
exposed when the snake is threatened.
Habitat: The cottonmouth prefers aquatic areas ranging from brackish
marshes to streams, lakes, ponds, rivers and swamps and bayous. Occasionally,
cottonmouths are found on land away from any permanent water source,
but they are most commonly associated with water.
Distribution: The cottonmouth is found in all 82 counties of
Appearance: The coral snake is most easily identified by the
bright color pattern of black, red and yellow rings or color bands which
encircle the body (the yellow and red rings are always touching, side
by side). The head is small and black with tiny black eyes. The coral
snake is a slender bodied, cylindrical snake averaging 2 to 3 feet in
length. Coral snakes are easily distinguished from harmless members
of the kingsnake family which mimic a similar color pattern, however
the two warning colors of yellow and red are never in contact on kingsnakes.
Habitat: Coral snakes generally inhabit rocky hillsides and valleys,
pine flatwoods and densely vegetated areas in forests.
Distribution: Coral snakes are generally only found in the 4
tiers of the southernmost counties in Mississippi.
This article was written by Robert R. Ballinger, a Certified Wildlife
Biologist with the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The photos
and graphics are courtesy of Terry Vandeventer and the Mississippi Museum
of Natural Science.