A crucial part of preparing for any emergency is developing your prepper skills. This includes expanding your knowledge of the wild. North America is home to thousands of snakes that hide under bushes near your campsite, sit at the edge of hiking trails, and may even saunter through your own backyard. So could you separate the harmless snakes from the dangerous ones? There are four snakes in the U.S. which are deadly venemous. It’s important to understand how to distinguish venomous snakes from harmless ones—a simple skill that could save your life or the life of a loved one. Don’t let a happy day on the trail turn into a tragic emergency by encountering one of four venomous snakes and not understanding their danger.
Identifying:Being able to identify venomous snakes is a great skill to develop. The following infographic from Snake-Removal.com shows what features to watch out for:
You know it’s venomous if…
- It has elliptical pupils. A venomous snake will have elliptical, slit-like eyes, resembling a cat, rather than having round pupils.
- It rattles its tail (sometimes). If you hear a snake rattling its tail, get yourself away. Rattling is an immediate sign that you may be in danger of crossing paths with a rattlesnake. Often, harmless snakes will make a rattling sound by dragging their tail through dry leaves. The western rat snake (also called the black rat snake) is one of these. Either way, it’s not worth getting a closer look to see if the snake is dangerous or not.
- It has a broad, triangular head. Venomous snakes typically have broad, triangular heads. This may sound odd because most snake heads look similar, but the difference in shape is seen near the snake’s jaw. A venomous snake will have a bulbous head with a skinny neck because of the position of the snake’s venom sacks underneath its jaw. Harmless snakes have a more gradual sloping jaw because they don’t have venom sacks. Some of them, like the grass and viperine snake, will even flatten their heads as a defense mechanism, to appear venomous to predators. It's an example of why you need to rely on a variety of the factors listed here before definitely identifying a snake as poisonous.
- It has a heat sensing pit. This is a feature that you may not be able to see very well from a distance. The heat sensing pit sits between the eye and nose of venomous snakes. Getting too close to a snake to look for this pit is not a good idea. This sensor is mostly seen on vipers.
- It has a colorful pattern: Generally, most solid colored snakes are harmless. The more colorful and patterned a snake, the more careful around it you should be. Although there are always exceptions to these rules such as the Black Mamba that lives in southern and eastern Africa.
- It behaves a certain way: Snakes act differently from one another. For example, Cottonmouths (or Water Moccasins) and harmless water snakes act differently from one another when they swim. A harmless water snake will swim through the water with just its head poking above the surface. A venomous snake, however, will let its entire buoyant body float along the water. Studying up on different snake behaviors can help you identify a harmless and a harmful snake from a distance.
Photo Courtesy of ModernSurvivalBlog.comThe Rattlesnake is the most widely recognized venomous snake in the country. You can easily identify a rattlesnake by the rattling sound it makes as it shakes the rings at the end of its tail. Rattlesnakes can strike out to 2/3 their body length to reach their prey and deliver a venomous bite. A rattlesnake’s hemotoxic venom (which causes blood poisoning) travels through the bloodstream, destroying tissue and degenerating organs while causing swelling, blood clots, internal bleeding, and intense pain. Typically, Rattlesnakes will only bite if they feel threatened. If a rattlesnake bite is treated immediately and the venom is removed, you are more likely to survive the attack. Editor's Note: There is a mini, "horned" relative of the rattlesnake that is important to watch out for, too--the North American sidewinder. Typically living in the deserts of North America, these snakes aren't lethal to humans (due to their small size), but are definitely still venomous. They hide in animal burrows or bury themselves in the sand and primarily come out to hunt at night. You can recognize a sidewinder by the "horns" that sit above it's eyes. These "horns" are actually thought to be an adaptation to protect the snakes eyes from the desert sands. If bitten by a sidewinder, seek medical attention immediately. For more information about sidewinders, visit Desert Animals. Copperhead:
Photo Courtesy of ModernSurvivalBlog.comThe Copperhead is one of the most common venomous snakes in the eastern United States. These snakes are a type of pit viper (fast, quick-tempered, and usually nocturnal) whose bites cause severe pain which can last anywhere from 2-4 weeks. Although a pit viper, the Copperhead is the least toxic and rarely fatal. Copperheads are generally nocturnal creatures, but are excellent at camouflage during the day. If a Copperhead is caught off guard, instead of fleeing (as most snakes do) it will freeze in place. So keep an eye out so you don’t accidentally step on one. Copperheads can produce enough venom to kill a human if they see one as prey; but usually they’ll just give a warning bite if they feel threatened and inject little venom. Cottonmouth:
Photo Courtesy of ModernSurvivalBlog.comThe Cottonmouth (also known as a Water Moccasin) is a more dangerous version of the Copperhead. Unlike the Copperhead, who freezes to camouflage itself when caught off guard, the Cottonmouth will stand its ground—and its bite is more serious than the Copperhead’s. Cottonmouths produce a cytotoxic poison, which prohibits the blood from clotting while it destroys tissue and leads to hemorrhaging. A Cottonmouth’s bite can easily be fatal. Coral Snake:
Photo Courtesy of ModernSurvivalBlog.comThe coral snake breaks all the rules—with a unique appearance from the other venomous snakes commonly found in the US. Unlike average venomous snakes, coral snakes don’t have triangular heads, heat sensors, or elliptical pupils, but its color gives it away: Black and red stripes separated by yellow lines. There are other “copycat” snakes that look similar to a coral snake with these same three colors. To help you remember, try learning this mneumonic device: “red next to yellow is a dangerous fellow; red on black, safe from attack.” This snake is the most toxic species found in the U.S. The coral snake has powerful neurotoxin venom meaning it can shut down your nervous system, make your heart stop beating, and ultimately lead to your death. Coral snakes are typically isolated creatures that inhabit unpopulated areas. Only biting as a last resort, these snakes will first and foremost attempt to flee. Their fangs, although deadly, are short and have a difficult time penetrating through thicker materials such as leather. Any penetration to the skin, however, needs immediate medical attention.
TreatmentIf you are attacked by a venomous snake, seek medical attention immediately. Some snake bites, such as the Coral snake, require large doses of antivenom to prevent death. Without medical attention, the venom will paralyze the victim’s respiratory muscles and breating failure can happen in a matter of hours. If a snake does bite you, the Mayo Clinic recommends the following tips:
- Remain calm.
- Immobilize the bitten arm or leg, and stay as still as possible to keep the poison from spreading through your body.
- Remove jewelry before you start to swell.
- Position yourself, if possible, so that the bite is at or below the level of your heart.
- Cleanse the wound, but don’t flush it with water, and cover it with a clean, dry dressing.
- Apply a splint to reduce movement of the affected area, but keep it loose enough so as not to restrict blood flow.
- Don’t use a tourniquet or apply ice.
- Don’t cut the wound or attempt to remove the venom
- Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol.
- Don’t try to capture the snake, but try to remember its color and shape so you can describe it, which will help in your treatment.
- Call 911 or seek immediate medical attention (especially if the area changes color, begins to swell, or is painful).
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