Venomous Snakes of the United StatesNOTE:
All of this information is for North America, and more specifically the United States. If you live in South America, Africa, southeast Asia, or Australia, New Zealand, or any of the islands in that area, you need a whole different guide, because getting bit by a snake in those places could kill you in a matter of minutes. If you have native Gaboon or rhino vipers, cobras, fer de lance, mambas, etc, you have a whole different set of worries about snakes than here in the US. And frankly, if I lived in a place where I might run into a 12 foot angry cobra during an airsoft game, I might consider an indoor hobby.
All of this info is easy to find on the web if you know where to look, but if you have specific questions about snakes in your area, feel free to PM or ask. A good piece of gear to have on your airsoft field is a field guide to the local reptile species. You can usually find them for under $20 on Amazon, with full color pictures of the local venomous species. Just search for "field guide to reptiles" plus your state or region name, and you should find a number of illustrated guides. For Texans, try the Texas Monthly Field Guide series, they're up to date and have great photos.
All photos provided are either my own IP, or are linked from Wikipedia, where they are available for free distribution under the creative commons license. (IOW, I'm not violating anyone's copyright)
If you have suggestions for this guide, questions, or corrections, just post them to this thread.
This is an area where I can actually add some expertise. I breed snakes as a hobby, and have spent more than a decade studying them. While I don't have a degree on the subject, I have performed minor invasive surgery on them, prescribed and administered antibiotics and steroids to them, and handle them on a daily basis. I actually know more about snakes than the vet I take my snakes to, because I've studied them specifically and deal with them daily, and he mostly deals with mammals. But he knows more about drugs like steroids and antibiotics, and how they are metabolized and other such useful stuff, so I still need a vet. I'm also on the call list for the local animal control for when larger or unknown species are called in as pests.
This is one of mine, on a clutch of eggs a in May of 08. She's a 10 foot, 14lb Coastal Carpet Python from Australia.
First, just something that irks me: snakes are not poisonous, they are venomous. Poison is ingested, venom is injected. Snakes, spiders, scorpions, etc, are all venomous, not poisonous. It's one of those things that bothers me the way calling a magazine a clip bothers some people here.
Second, there are only about 5-10 snake bite deaths a year in the US, compared to over 42,000 deaths by car accident, and over 7,500 homicides by firearms, and is approximately the same as the number of deaths caused by being struck by lightning in the US. There are many, many more bites than this, but unless you just ignore it, or unless you have some other condition that may cause you to die from the shock or an allergic reaction, you are very unlikely to die from a snake envenomation. So with that in mind, if you get bit by a snake, try not to think of it as life and death, and think of it as a serious emerrgency, like a bad cut or a broken bone: something that needs to be dealt with rapidly, but generally not deadly.Some Things You Should KnowThe Cost Of Getting Bit
There are a number of reasons why you don't want to get bit by a venomous snake, not the least of which is that it is extremely painful. While a copperhead bite won't kill you, it will make you incredibly sick, including intense vomiting, diarrea, nausia, stomach pain, pain/swelling/infection at the site of the bite, and non-stop headaches that feel like your head is splitting open, and it can go on for weeks. You won't die, but you'll wish you would just die and get it over with. Plus, the average cost for treatment of a copperhead bite is about $15,000, so you'd better have insurance. And that's the cheapest and least painful snake to get bit by. A water moccasin or rattlesnake bite costs $15,000 and up for the CroFab alone, not counting the hospital stay and the reconstructive surgery required to repair the damage done to the tissue by the cytotoxins. CroFab is Crotalidine antivenin treatment serum, and the standard treatment regimen involves 20+ vials of CroFab at $750 each over a 24 hour period. Do the math. And then there's the reconstructive surgery.
I'm not going to post them here because they are extremely graphic, but if you would like to see what you may go through if you get bit on the hand by a rattlesnake, look here:
WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC PICTURES OF SURGERY!http://www.rattlesnakebite.org/rattlesnakepics.htm
Think about those pictures before you mess with a snake in the woods. For a text description, if you have a weak stomach, they essentially have to lay your arm open, from wrist to armpit, open the affected veins, and scrape the dead tissue out of the veins and the muscle with a blade. You will be permanently scarred. People lose fingers and toes. Messing with venomous snakes in the wild is not a joke.Handling Wild SnakesJUST DON'T!
As an experienced hobbyist, I do handle snakes in the wild. But don't take that the wrong way, I do not free handle unidentified species, nor do I free handle known venomous species
. I don't care who you've seen on tv or in person handling rattlesnakes with their bare hands, they're stupid. That's not balls, they aren't a daredevil, they're just plain, old stupid. Evil Kinevil understood the physics behind every jump. His weight plus the bikes weight times acceleration, hitting the ramp at a certain speed, with a given angle of elevation give a predictable flight path, etc. That's a daredevil; he had control over every aspect of the jump. Handling a venomous snake is not, because you have no control over what the snake will do. I use a four foot long steel hook to handle snakes in the wild, which keeps me out of striking range. If I'm sure of the species and its body language is not aggressive, I'll pick up harmless snakes with my bare hands. But even non-venomous snake bites can cause nasty infections, so just don't do it. Size Doesn't Matter
A small snake is no less a threat than a big one. Often, baby snakes are more dangerous than adults for several reasons. For one, they are less experienced at judging threats, so they may see you simply walking by as a threat, where an adult is more likely to hide and let you pass. Two, they are less experienced at envenomating prey, so they generally give you their full payload on the first strike. Adult snakes will regulate how much venom they inject, because venom is expensive in biological terms. It requires time and energy to produce more venom, so if they can get rid of you using only a small amount of venom and have some left over for securing a meal, they will. Babies don't don't that, they give you the full shot every time. Three, babies seem like less of a threat. You are less scared of a tiny snake than a big one, thinking "what is that little thing going to do?", but in truth, that little thing is going to cause you weeks of agony, at the very least, if you mess with it.Venom TypesNeurotoxins
destroy nerves. They break the neural pathways that allow messages to pass from your brain and central nervous system to other parts of the body. Systems that stop receiving communication from your CNS stop working. Neurotoxins can paralyze you. They can cause your lungs to stop working and your heart to stop beating. They can cause permanent nerve damage in your limbs. In prey-sized animals, neurotoxic venom stops their heart and breathing in seconds to minutes. In human-sized animals and larger, it can take hours to days to do the same, if your body can't overcome the effects of the venom.Cytotoxins
destroy tissue. Hemotoxins
are a type of cytotoxin that specifically destroy soft tissue, such as blood cells, skin, veins, muscle, etc. Stronger cytotoxins will eat through bone and hard tissue, slower, but a lot like the acid blood of certain movie aliens. It is thought that the cytotoxins in rattlesnake venom act like a sort of predigestion for the snake, digesting the prey animal from the inside out, before they are even swallowed. A drop of rattlesnake venom left sitting on your arm will cause irritation, and eventually will open a hole in your arm that will eat straight into the muscle under your skin, a lot like a brown recluse bite.First ResponseIf you see a snakeDO:
Move slowly away.
Warn people where it is.DO NOT:
Poke at it.
Try to kill it with a stick or shovel or rake.
Try to pick it up or move it.
Leave snakes alone, and they'll leave you alone. They don't want to tangle with you, you are a massive predator that is 150 times their size, and is almost certain to kill them in a fight. They don't want to bite you. Their venom is for killing prey, which you are not, and for defending themselves in life or death situations. Absolutely every strike from a snake is either to kill prey, or because they fear for their life. If the danger was anything less than life threatening, they would not strike. Strinking is dangerous for snakes for many reasons. One, which you should know as airsofters, is that it requires them to get close enough for counterattack, which is risking injury or death. Striking also risks breaking teeth, and a venomous snake without fangs cannot eat, which is a death sentence. From the snake's perspective, every strike is risking their life.
So consider that, when you see a snake reared back and threatening to strike. While you are weighing whether you can catch it or kill it without getting hurt, they are weighing whether or not they will survive the next 60 seconds, which is what makes them dangerous. If you back away and give them the opportunity to escape, they will take it almost every single time. Rare exceptions are if you are near a nest with eggs in it, a female that is in her breeding cycle, freshly killed prey, or some other reason for them to be territorial, and they still will not blatantly attack you, they will let you leave if you try to leave. They're not hurting you, give them the opportunity to escape, and both of you walk (or slither) away unscathed.If you get bit
There are four rules when dealing with venomous snakebites, follow these immediately no matter what kind of snake bite it is:
1. Call for help. Get someone's attention and let them know you've been bitten. Someone should call 911 immediately and tell them you've been bitten, they will direct you to the nearest place to get treatment, which may or may not be a hospital. If you are out in the middle of nowhere, often a vet is the nearest place, because dogs and horses get bit more often than people do, so country vets usually stock antivenom/antivenin for local species, and they are perfectly capable of treating you. The saying with snakes, although it is usually applied to cytotoxic or hemotoxic venom, is "Time is tissue". The more time passes before treatment, the more tissue is damaged by the venom, so immediate attention is critical.
2. DO NOT
cut open the bite and try to suck the venom out, it causes more damage than it fixes, and depending on the snake and venom, you may be envenomating your lips and gums as well. DO NOT
put a tourniquet on the limb, again, you'll cause more problems than you'll fix. Apply pressure to stop bleeding only if it continues for several minutes after the bite. The initial bleeding will help to flush some of the venom out, so let it bleed for a few minutes before trying to stop it. You won't bleed out from a couple tiny punctures. Do not do anything else to the wound, wait for qualified medical help. Putting hydrogen peroxide or iodine on the wound is a waste of time, because the bacteria that may or may not have gotten into the wound are the least of your worries if the snake was venomous.
It is useful, however, to observe the wound. Venomous snake bites will have two obviously larger tooth marks on the top and towrds the front. If all the tooth marks are the same size, chances are, you were bit by a harmless snake. Venomous snakes try not to hook you with their other teeth when striking defensively, so often a venomous strike will only have two tooth marks on the top. Non-venomous snakes leave a row of evenly sized, evenly spaced tooth marks when they bite.
3. Stay calm and move steadily and deliberately towards a vehicle, where you should stay as still and calm as possible while someone takes you to get treatment. Running and freaking out causes your heart to race, and if the venom is in your bloodstream, you're only speeding up the rate that the venom moves through your body. I know that's easier said than done, from direct experience, but the calmer you can stay, the less damage is caused by the venom.
4. Try to remember as much about the appearance and location of the snake as possible while waiting to get medical attention. Where was the snake? Near water, in a tree, under a pile of rocks? All of these are clues to what kind of snake it was. What was the snake's overall color? Black, brown, red, yellow, etc. Was there a discernible pattern on it? Checkers, diamonds, stripes, etc. And did it have a rattle? The more you can tell them about the snake, the faster they can take care of you. Giving the wrong antivenom can actually be worse than giving you none at all.
If you can kill the snake without getting envenomated again, or without someone else getting envenomated, kill it. Take it with you to the hospital, it will help to take the guesswork out of treatment. As someone who keeps snakes as pets, I don't condone killing snakes without good reason, but when human life or limb can be saved by killing a snake, crush that suckers head with a rock and take it with you. Be very careful transporting a dead venomous snake, they can still envenomate you. Put it in tupperware if possible, or some kind of bag if not, and be careful with it.
I'd recommend taking a picture with a camera or phone, but the chances that someone has a camera ready at the time are slim. If you can, though, photos or video of the snake are just as good as the snake itself, and are better in the fact that you don't have to come into contact with the animal again. If someone can pin it down with a long stick so you can takle pictures, that would be best. If no camera is readily available and the snake gets away, try to remember as much detail about it as possible.Types Of SnakesNon-venomous Snakes
Most of the snakes you'll see in the wild are not only harmless, but are beneficial members of the local ecosystem. Most of the snakes in the US eat rodents, frogs and toads, and other small animals that most people think of as pests. They are also prey to larger birds and mammals, like owls and racoons. In both of these roles, they are an important, balancing part of the local ecosystem, and should not be killed just because they are a snake. Not only will their bites not harm you, they honestly don't hurt anywhere near as much as, for example a fire ant bite. But no one runs screaming from a fire ant, do they? The average snake in the US is considered harmles because even if they do bite you, they do less damage than the average house-cat does when it play-bites or scratches you. Seriously. More people are seriously injured by chihuahuas every year than by all the snakes bites in the US combined. On top of that, all snakes are terrified of you. To them, you are an enormous predator. They see you the way you would see, for example a tiger the size of an elephant: they want nothing to do with you. Almost 100% of the time they will run if they can, because tangling with a human is a lose-lose situation for them. So if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.
To me, snakes are perfect pets. First, they are seriously low maintenance. I feed my adults once every 2 weeks, and change their water dish once a week. Because they only eat every 2 weeks, that also means they only crap every 2 weeks. So once a week I spend 10 minutes filling water bowls and spot-cleaning their cages, and twice a month I throw a rat in there for them to eat. That's it. They are space efficient, mine are in stacked cages 4 tall, so I keep my 40 or so in a 3'x10' space. They are easier and less expensive to feed than you think. I buy frozen rats online, so I don't even have to deal with prey: they show up by UPS packed in dry ice like a box of steaks, and I keep them in the freezer and thaw them when I need to feed. My snakes are calm and docile, and none of them have even tried to bite me in years. This is how dangerous they are:
My 7 year old daughter handling a 6 foot Jungle Carpet Python
Does she look scared? The thing is, most people have an irrational fear of snakes. It is irrational because the average person really has nothing to fear from snakes. Fear of snakes is a long ingrained, evolutionary response that helped mammals come out as the top tier predators. It hasn't been a necessary response since we developed higher reasoning, though, and we are entirely capable of out-thinking snakes. Honestly, they aren't that smart. Highly efficient predators, but not that smart in terms of planning and reasoning. The only reason people still get bit is because snakes are so good at camoflague. But you practically have to step on them or intentionally irritate them to get bit in the field. Snakes, by and large, are harmless. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone. Venomous Snakes
There are four kinds of venomous snakes in North America: coral snakes, water moccasins, copperheads, and rattlesnakes, and we have all four of them in Texas. I've come in direct contact with all four of them in the wild, and know how to tell them apart, and how to deal with them if I encounter them. I'll describe each of them below.Coral SnakeDistribution, Size, and Appearance
In southern United States, these are small (most commonly under 2 feet in length) snakes whose coloration is red, yellow, and black bands. There are a couple dozen coral mimics in the southern US, including species of corn snakes (sometimes called chicken snakes), king snakes, and milk snakes, to name a few. They all can have similar red, yellow, and black banding, but are completely harmless. The rhyme for telling which is which, in case you haven't heard it, is "Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack." In other words, if the red bands are touching the yellow bands, it is a coral snake. If the red bands touch the black bands, it is a mimic. When in doubt, call 911 and let them determine if it was a coral or not.Venom/Danger
This snake has the most dangerous venom of all North American snakes, a powerful neurotoxin that, injected with a full payload, can kill you in just a few hours. The coral is also the least likely snake to bite you. For one, they are rear-fanged, which means that they would have great difficulty envenomating a human. They are small, and have small mouths, and other than the tips of your fingers or toes, they would have a very difficult time getting enough of any human body part into their mouths far enough to get their fangs into you. Once they do get their fangs into prey, they have to use a chewing action to push the venom out of the glands and into their prey, which means a single, fast strike generally does not cause envenomation at all. Believe me, you'd notice a snake chewing on your toe.
Coral snakes are also the shyest of the venomous North American species (read: absolutely least aggressive). You should actually count yourself lucky if you even see one in the wild, because I've spent many days out in the field looking for wild snakes, and I've only seen them in the wild twice. Even if you saw one, the most likely way you would see it is as it is fleeing from you, because they are terrified of humans. We're so big, in comparison to their body size, that their instinct is to flee rather than engage us, because even if they manage to envenomate us, we would still be able to kill them before their venom incapacitated us, so engaging us is a lose-lose situation for a coral, and they know it. You literally have to catch one, pick it up bare handed, and be intentionally irritating it to get bit. So don't do that, and you have nothing to fear from coral snakes. The average number of envenomations by coral snakes in the US is 0 per year. Occasionally people do get bit, but the vast majority of the time, it is zookeepers and hobbyists, who are handling captive specimens. Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth)Distribution, Size, and Appearance
Water moccasins are also banded, with a tan or brown base color with dark-to-reddish brown or bands. They are found throughout the south-eastern US, as far north as Virginia, and as far west as western Texas, and everywhere in between. They are often "dirty" or "muddy" looking, due to regional color variations and the phase of shed they are in, so the banding is not always noticable. The picture above is typical looking, but they may be dark brown to black in appearance. These are highly aggressive snakes that live in or near fresh water ponds, lakes, or streams. There are many cottonmouth mimics, including the entire genus Nerodia, who look very similar and also are found mostly in or near water. Again, if you get bit, call for help and let them determine whether it was a mimic or a water moccasin.Venom/Danger
These are territorial and aggressive snakes, so the danger of getting bit if you encounter one is higher than any other North American species. Fisherman (including myself) report them crawling right into their boats to get at caught fish, and they are the only species of snake that I know of that will actually chase a human, although only for a very short distance. Therir venom is a powerful hemotoxin/cytotoxin, which will cause immediate swelling and necrosis at the site of the bite, but water moccasin envenomation, while very painful, is highly unlikely to kill you unless you ignore it. They are more toxic than a copperhead, but less toxic than a rattlesnake.CopperheadDistribution, Size, and Appearance
Copperheads are tan or brown with obvious bands of brown or copper (or occasionally greenish-brown), found in most of the southern and eastern US, as far north as Delaware and New York, and as far east as Texas. They will always avoid humans if possible, so if you are making noise in the woods, they will move away from you if they can before you ever see them. However, if you happen upon one, they are known to freeze and sit very still, so many envenomations occur because peeople fail to see them, camoflaged among the leaves, and accidentally step on them. They will generally not strike unless you physically touch them in some way or make a deliberate attempt to grab or poke at them.Venom/Danger
This is the least toxic of the North American venomous species, although you still don't want to get bit. Even if ignored, most adults will survive a copperhead bite, showing sickness and swelling for a few weeks and then getting over it. That doesn't mean don't see a doctor, because people still die from copperhead bites, so treat any snake bite as an emergency. Their venom is hemotoxic, and will destroy tissue and blood cells at the site of the bite and will cause scarring, so the faster you get treatment, the better off you will be. People do lose fingers and tos due to necrosis and swelling.RattlesnakeDistribution, Size, and Appearance
The ratttlesnake can be small (2 feet) to large (8 feet) in size, and generally has a tan or brown body with a darker brown pattern in bands, spots, or diamonds. The one pictured above is a western diamondback, common to the dryer parts of the south (Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, etc) One thing all species have in common is the rattle. If it has a rattle, it's a rattlesnake. However, that's not necessarily all you need to know if you get bit by one. Many times geographic location is enough to identify which subspecies it was, but often subspecies have overlapping ranges and tend to intergrade (breed between subspecies), causing their venom to be a new, and sometimes unidentified, cocktail of toxins. Southern California has several of the most dangerous subspecies in overlapping ranges. So your location, the overall color, the shape of the pattern on them, tail color, body size, and body shape are all indicators of the subspecies. I won't go through them all, but those are the things EMS will ask you when you call.
There are several mimics, such as hognose snakes, who puff up their heads into a viper shape and tap their tails in the ground to imitate a rattle, but only rattlesnakes have a rattle. Venom/Danger
Rattlers are probably the most dangerous in realistic terms. Unlike the coral, these guys will bite you, and often are not afraid of you. They will usually avoid people and will almost always rattle well before you are within striking distance, but they are common and are large enough with a high enough venom payload to pose a threat. Their venom may contain any mixture of neurotoxins and hemotoxins/cytotoxins, and the specific mixture is what EMS will want to base their treatment on, which is why subspecies is important. The hemotoxic/cytotoxic element of the venom causes necrosis and massive swelling at the bite site and anywhere the venom spreads to, while the neurotoxic qualities may cause pulmonary and/or coronary distress and sometimes rapid failure of one or both systems. You do not want to get bit by a rattlesnake. While not many people die of snake bites each year, the majority who do die, die from rattlesnake bites. Even if you don't die, you may end up with massive scarring from the bite location towards your heart. A bite on the hand or foot may often result in the loss of fingers or toes. A brief list of subspecies you're likely to see
Western Diamondback (pictured above) - AK, CA, OK, TX, NM, AZ, and NV.
Eastern Diamonback - NC, south to FL, and west through MS and LA.
Sidewinder - CA, NV, UT, and AZ.
Timber Rattler - Maine to Florida on the east coast, even into Canada, west as far as Texas.
Northern Pacific - (Great shot of mating!) WA, OR, ID, CA, NV, UT, AZ, and NM
Mojave -CA, NV, UT, AZ, NM, TX
Prarie or Plains Rattler - ID, MO, ND, SD, WY, NB, CO, KS, OK, TX, NM, AZ
This is far from all of them, but these are the ones you're most likely to see. As you can see from the states mentioned with each subspecies, rattlesnakles are everywhere in North America. This is the one to watch out for. EDIT: 7-25-09 Additions
I've recently received several PMs with questions about this thread, so I thought I should post some of the more useful information in here.
----- SVT Cobra quoted from PM by permission. -----
I do have a question though, often I have seen these "snake bite" kits sold at Walmarts, hunting stores, sporting stores etc etc for about $20 or so and they claim that they help in treating a snake bite while you wait to get medical treatment. I was wondering what your opinion on those kits are?
I have been told by some of the airsofters I play with that they are pretty much worthless and are a waste of money. However, I wanted the opinion from an expert. It seems like a good idea to have some sort of kit on hand for airsoft since I play in Arizona and the most common snake I have seen is a Diamond Back Rattle Snake.
Useless. They've shown now that suction on the wound does nothing unless it is applied within 1-2 seconds of the bite, which is almost impossible since the person who was bit is usually still freaking out at that point and hasn't even told anyone else that they've been bit yet. Even when applied within seconds, it does very little. Rattlesnakes don't inject enough venom to have any substantial amount of it sucked out. Cutting and suction at the wound causes damage but doesn't actually fix anything. And if you did suck on the wound and manage to get some venom out, all you've done is envenomate your mouth. Rattlesnake venom is a haemotoxin, which dissolves soft tissue. Needless to say, you don't want it in your mouth.
In most states it is illegal to carry antivenom unless you are EMS or otherwise approved to prescribe it. Anything other than antivenom is useless against venom (and the wrong antivenom is worse than none at all). The best thing you can do if you get bit is remain calm, which may also be the hardest thing to do, and get to qualified medical care as soon as possible. If you want to be prepared for snakes in the woods, get a snake hook so that you can deal with them from a safe distance.
(random image I found on the web)
This is a good brand, you can get a standard hook for about $30.http://tongs.com/standardhook.aspx
You might find one cheaper, but for dealing with rattlers you want something at least 30 inches long, longer if possible. You might also check out the Gentle Giant tongs on that site. They're more expensive, but allow you to actually restrain the snake, which is easier if you don't have any experience with hooking snakes. Don't try to pick them up with the hook (put a 4lb weight on the end of a 3 foot stick and try to hold it out in front of you, it's nearly impossible, especially if the weight is wiggling around), just use it to encourage them to move in the direction you want them to go. Another useful piece of equipment is a field guide for reptiles in your state.
An up to date field guide should have good color photos of all the venomous species you are likely to find, including each of the different rattlesnake species you might see. This will help you didentify venomous from harmless snakes, as well as the exact species of rattler if someone were to get bit.
This seems like a pretty good field guide for Arizona: http://www.amazon.com/Field-Guide-Amphibians-Reptiles-Arizona/dp/B000KKMWWE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248365073&sr=8-1
To find that book I googled "reptile field guide arizona" and read a couple reviews.
I'll add more as I get additional questions that weren't covered in the original post.