Nothing can ruin an outdoor adventure quite like a brush with death. Although snake bites only account for around 5-6 fatalities per year, a trip to the medical center to treat a snake bite probably isn’t on your itinerary. To help you avoid a painful and potentially fatal encounter with these slithering serpents, here are some snakes to stay away from on your next outdoor excursion.
There are around 16 different species of rattlesnakes, including the Mojave rattlesnake, prairie rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake, and black diamond rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes can be found just about anywhere in the United States, although the greatest concentration of them seems to be in the southwest regions. Arizona is home to more species of rattlers than any other state. Rattlesnakes have large fangs with venom that attacks the nervous system and can cause muscle damage, internal bleeding, and pain around the bite area.
How to Identify - Each subspecies of rattler has its own distinct markings, but they all have a common identifier: a rattle. However, younger rattlesnakes, although just as dangerous as an adult, may not have developed a rattle yet. Adult rattlesnakes can also loose their rattles, eliminating a key identifying feature and warning sound. Rattlesnakes are typically characterized by darker diamond, hexagon, or rhombus patterns formed by their ridged scales, set against a lighter background. They are typically brown or gray in color, but some have shades of orange, green, or red. Rattlesnakes have triangular heads, and in addition to rattling, they may also hiss to warn intruders before striking.
Also called water moccasins, cottonmouth snakes are semi-aquatic creatures who prefer swamps, marshes, ditches, lakes, and rivers. Cottonmouth snakes are typically found in southeastern states, and are known for standing their ground when threatened. Because their venom is hemotoxic, bites cause a breakdown of red blood cells, reducing the blood’s ability to clot or coagulate. Cottonmouth snakebites can result in gangrene, amputation, or death when medical attention is not sought.
How to Identify - Cottonmouth snakes have thick bodies that are typically brown, olive, or grayish-black in color. They have flat-topped heads with dark, vertical lines by each nostril. A defining characteristic of these snakes are the light “cotton” lining of their mouths, hence where they get their name. When threatened, these snakes may gape open their mouths, exposing the light inner lining as a warning signal before striking.
Copperhead snakes are one of the most common venomous snakes in North America. Although their bites are rarely fatal for humans due to their relatively mild venom potency, copperhead snakes do bite more people than any other poisonous snake. Because copperheads can thrive in a range of habitats they are widely distributed across the US, concentrated primarily in northeast, midwest, and south regions. They prefer hilly, rocky terrain and often seek shelter in brush piles and firewood stacks. Their bites are painful, but they rarely result in death, however medical attention should be sought if a bite occurs.
How to Identify - Copperheads are medium-sized snakes with thick, muscular bodies and plain, arrow-shaped heads. As their name suggests, they are typically tan, copper, or reddish-brown in color. A distinct characteristic of copperheads are the hourglass or saddlebag cross bands of their ridged scales. These dorsal patterns are typically wide on the sides of the body and narrow toward the center of their backs. Their pupils are vertical and their irises are usually tan, orange, or reddish-brown in color.
Of the four venomous species listed, coral snakes are the most toxic, and luckily, the most reclusive. Fewer than 1% of deaths due to snakes are from coral snake bites. These brightly-colored creatures are typically found in the deep southeast regions of the United States. Their venom contains neurotoxins which cause paralysis of the respiratory system. If a coral snake bite is not treated promptly, the venom will shut down the nervous system of the victim, their heart will stop beating, and they will likely die.
How to Identify - Coral snakes are slender and have a very distinct pattern of bright colors, making them easy to identify. They have red, yellow, and black strips lining their bodies, which can make them look similar to the harmless king snake. A commonly known rhyme can help you remember how to distinguish between these two types of similar looking snakes. The rhyme goes like this: “Red touch black, good for Jack. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow.” So, if the red bands and the black bands of the snake are separated by a yellow band, use caution because you are looking at a coral snake. Their heads look similar to their tails, and are black and bulbous.
The best thing you can do to avoid an encounter with these dangerous creatures is to stay alert when you are in snake country. This means watching where you step, being aware of your surroundings, and keeping your hands out of places you can’t see. Most importantly, if you do encounter a potentially deadly snake, use caution and leave it alone.