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We Have Venomous Snake Questions, and the Houston Zoo Has Answers

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the woods...

It actually is safe, but with the advent of spring, some precautions would be good to review. Our slithery serpent friends, aka "Jake No-shoulders," and specifically the poisonous kind, deserve some attention.

People frequently fear what they do not understand. Though much maligned by fiction and fable, the noble snake is an important part of our planet's ecosystems. Snakes play a vital role in keeping not only rodent populations in check, but their own as well.

RELATED: How To Identify Snakes in the Field

It is our goal to shed a little more light on the subject.

Mr. Stan Mays, Chief Curator of Herpetology at the Houston Zoo, was able to take some time away from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us about snakes and safety this season.

WOS: How many species of snakes are there worldwide?

Mays: There are an estimated 3,000 species and subspecies found worldwide. The numbers can vary with taxonomic reclassifications and genetic research. 128 separate species are found in the United States (not including subspecies). In the US, we have four types of venomous snakes. These and their subspecies can be broken down as follows: rattlesnake (37), copperhead (6), coral snake (3), and cottonmouth (water moccasin) (2).

Know Your American Snakes

The rattlesnake, copperhead and cottonmouth are pit vipers. They are so named for the heat-sensing organ located between the eyes and nostril, which enables them to strike their prey (and if need be your leg, hand or flailing body parts) with deadly accuracy. Pit vipers can inject a hemotoxin, which attacks the circulatory system destroying tissue, degrading organ function and disrupting blood clotting.


Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Want to hear a rattlesnake? Go here.

The coral snake belongs to the cobra and krait family. It utilizes a neurotoxin, which affects the central nervous system. Paralysis and respiratory failure can occur. That being said, Mr. Mays reported in our interview that the last recorded death by coral snake in Texas was in 1880. He also cautioned that "there is no FDA approved anti-venom for a coral snake bite at this time."

A bite by anyone of these snakes can be fatal and should be considered life threatening. If bitten seek professional attention immediately.


Texas Coral Snake

Back to the interview...

WOS: How many people die annually from snake bites in the US?

Mays: Between seven and 12. Your chances of being bit are extremely small, especially if you take the proper precautions.

(In a press release from 2010, Mr. Mays said, "Nationwide more people die from fire ant or bee stings and lightening every year than from snake bite." While doing the research for this article I discovered that a person is nine times more likely to die by lightening strike than snakebite.)

WOS: I have often heard that cottonmouths are aggressive. Is that true?

Mays: No, it is not. The water moccasin will, however, hold its ground. While other snakes will take the first opportunity to escape, it tends to leave the area on its own volition, head turned toward its attacker. I like to think of it as 'dignified retreat.'

WOS: Can they bite underwater?

Mays: Yes. Water moccasins feed on fish. They bite them. A water moccasin can, will and does bite underwater.


Western Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin

WOS: I often hear that a snake's head can still bite after being severed. Is that true?

Mays: Yes it is. Because a snake's metabolism is so slow, a decapitated head can actually remain alive for several hours after being severed. They will bite. Do not handle a snake's head even after you think it is dead.

Necessary Precautions

WOS: What precautions should we take now that warm weather is finally here?

Mays: If you are out and about you should wear the proper clothing. Long pants and boots are a good idea, especially in an area where you are more likely to encounter a snake. Brush piles, untidy areas around the property, a pile of leftover leaves, etc. Anywhere you think might be a good place for mice to hide is a good spot for those that feed on them, namely snakes.

(A note from personal experience: In some areas, raspberries, black berries, dewberries and the like grow abundantly. Birds and mice like berries. Snakes like birds and mice. Look carefully before stepping close to a berry patch or reaching for that perfectly ripe berry hidden back among the foliage. Trust me on this...)

WOS: If bitten, what should I do?
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Mays: Try to stay calm, if possible, and at least get a good look at the snake, noting color and size. If it is safe to do so, you or someone else get a picture of the snake. This will help the doctors in identifying the proper amount and type of anti-venom. Immobilize the affected limb. Seek medical attention immediately. Do not drink alcohol or take pain medications. Do not apply a tourniquet or pack the wound in ice. This can only cause more damage. Do not cut the skin and try to suck the venom out.

Bottom Line

To reemphasize: A bite by any one of these snakes can be fatal and should be considered life threatening. If bitten, seek professional medical attention immediately. More information can be found on the Center for Disease Control Website.

Let's face it; humans can be pretty silly at times. Need proof?

In the article "Quantifying stupidity" renowned "Venom ER" Doctor Sean Bush explains: "Human interactions with venomous snakes that result in envenomation can be placed in two general categories. Legitimate bites occur when an individual does not become aware of the snake until after the bite has occurred. Illegitimate bites, on the other hand, occur after the victim has become aware of the snake's presence and deliberately continues to interact with the snake in a way that facilitates the resulting bite."
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In a group studied between 1990 and 2010, males were 2.9 times more likely to sustain an illegitimate bite than females. Those who admitted to drug or alcohol use just prior to the bite were 5.7 times more likely to sustain an illegitimate bite.

Famous last words before the bite? "Hey guys! Watch this!"

Alcohol is not, as some would believe, "Steve Irwin in a can." The handling of snakes is always best left to the professionals.

In other words, do not try this at home. Give snakes the respect they deserve. Observe and enjoy. All too often a chance encounter with a snake results in the needless death of the innocent victim, the snake itself.

So next time you see him, give ol' Jake a break. You'll be glad you did.

Ever been bitten by a poisonous snake? Who was at fault? Leave your comments here.


Images courtesy Houston Zoo

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We Have Venomous Snake Questions, and the Houston Zoo Has Answers