Venomous Snakes of the Southeast

    Venomous Snakes have gotten a bad rap ever since the European colonists moved into the area now called the United States. They have been maligned and cursed, and killed in large numbers, and completely extirpated in many areas. This is in no small measure due to the Genesis writings in the Bible, though many ministers I have talked to have told me that that evil was far more than a poor modern day serpent could muster. I do not want to get into religious controversy here, just realize that almost any wild creature is quite happy to leave us alone. Any venomous serpent will bite to protect itself, and if it does not need to protect itself, it will not bite. Most snake bites in the US are from people trying to kill the snake, or from stepping on one in heavy cover. Just watch where you are going, and if you encounter one in the field, tell your friends where it is, and LEAVE IT ALONE!!
    Always remember this; a venomous snake's venom is for one primary thing, that being for collecting food. You are not food, and the energy required to make this venom is not to be squandered on biting a large animal just for the heck of it. A snake using up its venom on this could very easily die, because it could not kill its food. Many reptile scholars tell me that most bites are dry bites anyway, which makes sense. Get this large creature to leave you alone without having to waste venom, and you are better off when food strolls by.
    A word here about types of venom; there are two types in our native snakes, hematoxins, and neurotoxic. The two types are very different, and act in different ways.
    The haematoxins work on blood and tissues, breaking them down in such a way that when the snake catches up to the prey, it is already partly digested. This is why in a Human, there is a lot of tissue damage around the bite area, but it tends to stay localized. This is the type of venom used by mammal and bird hunters like the Rattlesnakes, Cottonmouth, and Copperhead.
    Neurotoxins work on the nervous system, and cause paralysis of the breathing and eventually general paralysis, and eventually the death of the prey. They are used mainly by hunters of cold blooded prey, to act on the nervous system quickly, where a hematoxin wouldn't work so fast on the slower metabolism of reptiles. Cobras and their kin use this. There is only one member of this family in the US, the inoffensive (and colorful) Coral Snake.

Copperhead Photo taken from Herp Pictures

    Copperheads are a member of the family Viperidae, and are a Pit Viper, called this because they have a heat sensitive pit between the eye and nostril. This pit is used in finding their food, and is found in all their relatives in the US, including the Cottonmouth and all the Rattlesnakes. Copperheads are well camouflaged, as the above picture shows. They are usually an inoffensive snake, and when found in the day time, usually will stay coiled up and will not move unless bothered. I was walking with a group of children once, and stepped within one inch of a Copperhead, when one of the children noticed it. We all stood looking at the snake, and it never moved. When we left the area, it was still coiled in its original position!
    Copperhead bites are rarely dangerous, and most hospitals keep people over night under observation, but do not treat the bite, except to give anti-biotics to keep it from getting infected. I have talked to people who got no treatment for the bite, and they said it was not bad. I do not suggest this however. If you do happen to get bitten, the current advice is to get to a hospital ASAP, and do not cut and suck, and do not apply a constricting band. According to the latest edition of the Peterson's guide, the best snakebite kit is a quarter (to call the hospital) and a set of car keys (to get there). If you live in venomous snake country, and are concerned about being bitten, call your nearest poison control center to find out what to do before you go afield.
    Copperheads usually live on rocky wooded hillsides, near farm land, and around old abandoned buildings, where their food is found, that being mice and other small mammals, small birds, lizards and the occasional frog. Their young are born alive, and at birth have a fluorescent yellow tail. Otherwise they look like mom and dad.
    Many harmless snakes look like the Copperhead, most notably the Corn Snake, but also the Northern Milk Snake, the Fox Snake, the Northern Water Snake, and baby Black Rat Snakes.

Cottonmouths: This is a picture showing why they are called Cottonmouth. It is also taken from the Herp Pictures page. (See above for a link.) This one shows the pattern on its back quite clearly, and shows the the behavior of gaping and showing the white lining in its mouth when cornered, earning it the name of Cottonmouth. This one is a Western Cottonmouth, which is a bit darker than the Eastern Cottonmouth, but is otherwise similar.
    These folks live in the swamps of the Southeast, and get up into Southern Illinois along the former Mississippi Embayment.  They are semi aquatic, and feed on fish, frogs, and any small mammals which wander into the swamp. They also bear live young, and the young have the same neon green tail of the Copperhead young.

Another from Herp Pictures

    This is a lovely photo of an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. They live in the Coastal Southeast, and are not often seen, except during the very destructive and offensive "rattlesnake roundups". These shows are put on as an entertainment, but are nothing more than a blood lust sport, and do nothing more than further the fear of and exploitation of a species already in trouble. These snakes are quite happy to leave you alone in the field, and will crawl backwards to get away. They live in Gopher Tortoise burrows in the Deep South, and when the roundup people look for them, they often find them in Gopher tortoise burrows. Gasoline is poured into the burrow to chase out the snake, and the tortoise perishes in the burrow. The tortoise is extremely endangered over its entire range, and the Diamondback is considered endangered over most of the range, but protection is not given due to fear, and the political clout of the "roundups". Snakes collected in these massive practices of destruction are killed before great crowds, skinned, and turned into belt buckles, belts, rattles, and their flesh canned as a novelty food.
    Diamondbacks live in the Saw Palmetto and Pine flat woods of the Coastal Southeast, and eat small mammals, and the occasional bird. They can reach 8 feet in length, though most run around 4 feet. They bear live young, and the young have a small rattle called a button at birth. You cannot tell a Rattler's age from the rattles, as a new one is added each time the snake sheds, and it can shed 4 or 5 times a year if well fed.
    Many people who hunt for Quail or wild pigs in the Southeast wear snake bite proof leggings when afield in scrub country. Not really a bad idea.
    Let me say here that I have no problem with licensed hunters hunting managed species that are plentiful, just people who wantonly kill creatures for the thrill of killing something "dangerous", as in the "roundups".

    This is an excellent photo taken from .  (With permission from the author.) It is a Canebrake Rattlesnake, which is the Eastern form of the Timber Rattlesnake. Timber Rattlers live up to their name, living usually in wooded areas, rocky areas in the Northeast and in the Appalachians, and in the pine woods and canebrakes of the Southeast. They feed on mice, other small rodents, and the occasional bird. They are not nearly as aggressive as people would have you believe, rather like most wild folk, will not bother you if you don't bother them.
    Their young are born alive in the late Summer, and I have heard that they follow the mother's scent trail to the denning site for the Winter.

    The other rattlesnakes in the East are the Massasauga and the Pygmy Rattlesnake.
    These small reptiles of the genus Sistrurusare rarely seen, and are not at all aggressive. They don't get more than 3 feet long, and do not pack a very hard bite, if you can get them to bite. The Carolina Pygmy quite often has a reddish to purple color, especially in Eastern North Carolina. Their rattles are quite small, making a dry insect sound if you get them aroused. They eat small mice, frogs and lizards, and bear living young in the late summer.

    Last but not least is the Coral Snake. These little guys in the Elapidae or Cobra family and the genus Micrurus have an undeserved reputation for ferocity. Their mouths are so small that it is difficult for them to bite anything but a finger, and they are often handled by children who know no better, and don't bite them!
    I knew a fellow in South Georgia who told of being bitten  on the thumb while handling one, and subsequently his arm went numb. He did not seek medical help, and he said the numbness went away after three days. This is not recommended, and if you handle a Coral Snake, and make it bite you (he was fooling with its head, to get a look at the fangs. He did too.), get medical attention immediately, before you stop breathing. Their toxin is a nerve toxin, which operates on the breathing and heart.
    These folks live in the Coastal areas of the Southeast, and lizards and small snakes are their primary food. They mostly stay hidden during the day and are rarely seen except when hunting for food. They lay eggs in the mid summer, and the young are tiny.

    Well, that's it for now. I hope you enjoyed it. Write me at to let me know what you think.

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