Snakes Alive!

September 4, 2013

I posted a picture on my Facebook page the other day of a dead copperhead I ran over on my riding mower. I never saw it but it was in a field behind my house that had not been mowed all summer. One section is still unmowed: a pile of dead limbs someone put there. And I suspect there may be more snakes hiding out. I will approach with caution when I clean it out.

Still, I was curious about the snake, and looked it up to be sure of the identification. Definitely a young copperhead. I also got curious and read a bit more on the snakes found in North Carolina. Too many to list here, but I thought I’d give a rundown on our venomous species.

The most commonly encountered venomous snake in the state is the copperhead. Found virtually everywhere, it is a pit viper with a pretty good dose of venom. However, as I read, the copperhead’s poison is too weak to kill a person, but it will seriously injure, producing necrotic (dead) tissue and severe pain, and often infection. The poison contains no neurotoxins like other pit vipers.

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Though it is not a lethal snake, more snakebites occur from copperheads than other snake, for two reasons. One is they are more common, but the second reason has to do with their method of defense. Rattlesnakes will rattle their rattles, of course, as a warning. The Cottonmouth will stay very still but open its mouth and display its fangs. The copperhead will sometimes vibrate its tail and make noise in leaves or brush. I nearly stepped on one as a child and it behaved exactly so; coiled, ready to strike, and vibrating its tail like crazy. But often, there is no warning; the snake will simply bite. Interestingly, the bite is sometimes a “dry bite.” Little or no venom is released. In other words, for the Copperhead, the bite is the warning. This makes sense; the venom is used to kill prey, and the snake would not likely waste it on defense once a threat is howling and jumping in pain. It can then escape. Other times, they inject a good bit of venom. In any case, a Copperhead bite can result serious injury and will require medical attention.

Less common, and much more dangerous, is the Cottonmouth, also known as a Water Moccasin.

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The way to distinguish this snake is the stripe along the side of the head, as well as the white mouth. Very rare in the Piedmont region but more common in the eastern part of the state. It is fairly docile and more likely to flee rather than engage someone who disturbs it. This snake is highly dangerous, though, and its venom can be fatal. They prefer swamps, streams, lakes and creek areas.

Next we have the Pigmy Rattlesnake. This is a small, fat snake found in Southeastern NC as far west as the Charlotte area but not generally found too far north of Charlotte. Not very aggressive, and not commonly seen. Generally found near water, such as creeks, marshy areas and pine forests.

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The snake’s rattle is tiny and emits a buzzing sound which is hard to hear unless you are within 2-3 feet. Not known to be particularly aggressive, and will flee rather than attack a larger human, unless cornered. Can be seen crossing roads from time to time, but many have never seen one. Maximum size for these is two feet, so it is not a big snake. Its venom is more like a copperhead’s: devoid of neurotoxins and this snake is unable to produce much of it. Its bite will be quite painful, however, and requires medical attention.

The most common rattlesnake in North Carolina is the Timber Rattlesnake, or Canebrake Rattler. Found almost everywhere in the state, it is a medium-sized rattlesnake of fairly docile disposition. Will rattle its tail when approached but is more likely to flee than attack. But one caveat: individual snakes can be wildly aggressive when encountered, while others will not even attempt to rattle a warning. They will simply move away.

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Given its unpredictable nature, it is best to steer clear of these. Unlike the Pigmy Rattlesnake and the Copperhead, the venom in the Timber Rattler is very strong and contains potent neurotoxins. Deaths have occurred from these snakes’ venom.

This snake prefers unpopulated areas and is often more active at night than day in the summer months. Can grow from three feet to five feet in length, though most will be in the two-four foot range.

Next up is the Coral Snake, which is only rarely seen. I may have seen one as a child on my grandparents’ farm, though I cannot remember the markings well enough to state with certainty it was a Coral Snake. This is a highly dangerous snake, the only venomous snake in North Carolina that is not a pit viper. It is instead related to a cobra, so that alone should give anyone pause when encountering one. Another reason is this: there is no longer any antivenom being produced in the United States, simply because drug companies have determined it is unprofitable. In other words, you get bitten by one of these babies, you’ve got real problems.

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There are other snakes which closely resemble the Coral Snake, but it’s easy to remember the distinction: “Red touches black, it won’t hurt Jack, Red touches yellow, it kills a fellow.”

Fortunately, this snake is quite docile and not very likely to strike. And it is so adept at keeping away from humans most people never see one. They grow up to three feet on average.

The final venomous snake found in North Carolina is, of course, the granddaddy of all venomous snakes in America, the Eastern Diamondback Rattler. This is by far the most dangerous snake in the United States. I have not seen one, but my father did on his farm growing up. He killed two that I know of. Their habitat has been so encroached upon that they are now considered endangered. Note: It is against the law to kill this snake in North Carolina.

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This is a very large and very dangerous snake. Its venom is exceptionally potent, containing powerful neurotoxins, and hemotoxins. The hemotoxins will literally destroy red blood cells, while the neurotoxins can result in paralysis (including breathing) and heart stoppage. A bite from the Diamondback is a true medical emergency, and up to 30% of its victims die, though I suspect that number is more like 10-20% given the better and rapid care available today. The venom is also hemorrhagic and causes local tissue necrosis.

That said, the magnificent Diamondback is a very rare snake, hunted and killed to near extinction. Some authorities are not sure there are any left in the state, but I find that unlikely. Still, they have only been seen in the Southeast portion of the state, though, as I mentioned, my father killed two on the farm in Montgomery County, which is part of the Piedmont region of the the state.

This is the heaviest venomous snake, according to one source, but it is unclear if that means in the world or in the US. It is definitely the largest venomous snake the US. It also grows to an impressive size, up to a whopping eight feet long, and fifteen pounds. It also has a long strike distance, up to half his body length, though some say a third. But that means that three feet away is not a safe distance! Best thing to do if one is encountered is to back away slowly, snap a picture if you can, and walk away.

There really isn’t a need to kill venomous snakes. They do not bother humans (running in fright because you have a snake phobia does not qualify as bothering humans) and prefer to live away from most humans, the copperhead being a notable exception. It’s like this: if you happen upon a hornet’s nest in the woods, you steer clear of it, right? Same with a poisonous snake. Steer clear and keep your eyes open.