For many people, a close encounter with a snake, venomous or not, is amongst the most terrifying experiences imaginable. It’s no matter that only 20% of snake species—one in five—are venomous. Of those, only about a 1/3 of the venomous snake species have the potency to cause serious injury or fatality to a human. That means only 7% of snake species are scary on a practical level.
Like with sharks, the dangerous few create a reputation for all. In reality, most snake bites are not venomous, even when the snakes have to potential to inject venom. About 7500 bites from venomous snakes occur in the US each year, and only about a quarter of those are bites with intoxication. Of those, say, 2000 venomous bites, about five result in death. Bees and lightning strikes kill far more people than snakes every year.
Nevertheless, innocent snakes suffer year and year due to misrepresentation and misplaced fear. So, maybe putting out another article about snakes will save a snake life or two. We are willing to give it a shot. Hopefully, folks are willing to listen. Plus, some of this information could save a human life as well, should the unlikely venomous snake encounter with a venomous ever occur.
Knowing Which Venomous Snakes Are Around
There are 22 species of venomous snakes in the United States, all of which can be classified as rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, or coral snakes. Four states—Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Rhode Island—don’t have any. With 19, Arizona has the most. Texas has 15 venomous species. And, after that, no state has more than 10.
All of this is to say that it is easy to be aware of which snakes are venomous where you are, and knowing that can make a huge difference as to how an encounter with a snake may feel. Furthermore, venomous snakes have very distinct features that make identifying them realistic even for laypeople.
- Coral snakes, which have extremely toxic venom, are very passive, reclusive, and relegated more or less to the southern states (including to the west) and often coastal areas.
- All of the other venomous snakes in the US are pit vipers, which have some shared characteristics. 1/ They have thick bodies. 2/ They have triangular-shaped heads due to the venom glands. 3/ They have elliptical pupils like a cat.
- Half of the venomous species of snakes in the US are rattlesnakes, so they also have 4/ a rattle at the end of their tail.
Avoiding Surprise Encounters with Venomous Snakes
It’s worth noting that most snake bites do not occur as a surprise. Over half are the result of someone handling a snake, and over ¾ of snake bites—period—are on the hands. Most of the time venomous snakes are in the wild, hiding as best they can, looking for bite-sized prey, and doing their best to avoid large animals like humans.
Humans can help them by understanding that. When we stick to trails, we are less likely to have troublesome encounters. When we are careful turning over rocks and logs, where snakes love to hide, and when we step attentively in the forest or snake-friendly habitats like leaf litter, we are less likely to step on a well-camouflaged snake.
Dealing with Venomous Snake Encounters
Should an encounter occur, the best defense is to back away and find a new route. If it is in an unfortunate area, like on a hiking trail or in the garden, then keep an eye on it and warn others. Perhaps a professional should be contacted to humanely remove the snake and put it in an appropriate location.
It’s important not to panic with snake encounters because it will panic those around you, and that might result in someone getting too close or stepping on it. Worse yet, it might make the snake feel threatened. Hunting or chasing the snake will likely make it aggressive. Left alone, it will likely go away.
Should a venomous snake bite occur, it’s important to…
- …get medical attention immediately, which could mean calling an ambulance or driving someone to the hospital.
- …stay calm, avoid excess movement, and breathe slowly, which helps to keep the venom from spreading as quickly.
- …apply gentle pressure where the bite occurred. Do not tie a tourniquet. Do not try to cut the venom out. Do not suck the venom out.
- …get a photo of the snake if possible or note as many features as possible to help professionals identify the snake later.
It’s True. Snakes Are More Afraid of You.
Snake encounters and snake bites do happen, but they are very rare. Fatal or harmful snake bites are far rarer still. So, while it’s good to know what’s up (or, more so, down), there are very scarier things out there to worry about. Most snakes are great to have around.
This article by Jonathon Engels was first published by OneGreenPlanet on 18 May 2023.
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