By Steven E. Stillwell
This coiled rattler is shaking its tail as a defense mechanism. Be forewarned that snakes can strike almost half their body length. A 4-foot snake can reach you from 2 feet away. Rattlers account for the majority of bites in the Western States.
-- Since the beginning of recorded time, snakes have been labeled with bad reputations. Some of these ridiculous misconceptions stem from superstitions, others from religious dogmas, but the majority of these opinions are formed out of fear and ignorance of the unknown.
The only way to gain a deeper insight into the truth is to study the facts. Snakes play a very important role in our delicate ecological system, and we owe it to ourselves as dedicated sportsmen to learn more about them.
The annual statistics in the United States for reported snake bites fluctuates between 7,000-10,000 people. The majority of victims are men, and most bites occur below the knee. Approximately 10-15 deaths are attributed to these venomous snake encounters.
Because of warmer climates, snakes in Southern states pose the greatest risk for deer hunters. Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas are among the leaders in snake reported incidents.
Large snakes are the only God-given predators with the keen ability to slither down rat-holes and other hard to reach places, and effectively control vermin such as rats and mice. It takes a snake approximately seven years of growth to reach a suitable size to be able to swallow some of the larger rodents such as these. Unfortunately, many are killed before reaching maturity by people who are oblivious to their environmental value.
This is a coral snake. They are easily identified by the three rings of color located on their body. The easy way to remember the color scheme is to memorize the old saying: Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. The harmless milk snake is often confused with this serpent.
Probably everyone reading this article has heard the cliché, the only good snake, is a dead snake. This is nonsense, and these unmerited phobias have no scientific relevance.
Now that I've built a case for the preservation of snakes, let's get down to the basics of hunter safety and some of the precautions we can take, to keep from being envenomed. Knowledge is a powerful tool and by studying the predictable habits of reptiles, you can avoid making bad decisions.
Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles and when the weather turns cool they seek shelter. When it freezes they go into hibernation. Most snake bites occur between the months of April and October when temperatures are relatively warm. Snakes like to lie up and hide in woodpiles, blow-downs, tall grass, rock crevices and underneath things that provide shelter.
When you're walking through the forest, watch where you step, and be mindful of where you sit. If in doubt, use a solid stick to probe where you're exploring, and pay attention at all times. Always carry a flashlight, and use it at night, because snakes like to hunt after dark.
All pit vipers can be identified by their vertical pupils, and the heat sensing pits located between their eyes and nostrils. These unique serpents are capable of detecting variances in heat from as far away as 30 feet.
The ability to recognize venomous snakes from harmless ones isn't as complicated as many would think. I've included some detailed photos with this article, and by studying them, the average person shouldn't have any trouble distinguishing the difference. All it takes is a little effort. I avoided using the term "poisonous snake" because this is a misnomer. There's a distinct difference between venom and poison.
In the regions of North America where you and I pursue whitetails, there are basically four types of indigenous species to contend with: The rattlesnake family, copperheads, cottonmouths (nicknamed water moccasins) and coral snakes.
The first three serpents are classified as pit vipers and are easily identified by their vertical pupils, and the heat sensing pits located between their eyes and nostrils. These reptiles have the unique ability to sense variances in heat from as far away as 30 feet.
The rattler's territory spans the largest, and various species can be found in almost every state in the union except Alaska, Hawaii and Maine. Some of the southern provinces of Canada are also home to these snakes.
The copperhead is probably responsible for more snake bites in the southeastern U.S. than any other species. Observe the natural camouflage, how it blends in nicely with this rock. These snakes can be very hard to see when they're mixed in with brown leaves and darker foliage.
Coral snakes have round pupils. They inhabit the costal regions of the southern United States, and favor semi-tropical climates. These reptiles can be identified by the three rings of color located on their body: red, yellow, and black. The old saying, red touch yellow, kill a fellow, is an easy way to remember the color sequence. Sometimes the harmless milk snake is confused with this deadly reptile because of a similar color scheme.
There are two types of venoms and both of these pose different threats. Pit vipers have retractable fangs similar to hinges and their bites are hemotoxic, affecting the circulatory systems of their victims. Their venom has digestive enzymes, which immediately begin breaking down tissue and blood, in and around the effected areas. Because of these necrotic effects, the wounded areas often turn black after a few days.
The coral snake's venom is neurotoxic, and can affect breathing and other central nervous system functions. These serpents have small mouths with fixed fangs, making it harder for one of these reptiles to inflict its bite. They have to chew on their prey to envenom them.
This harmless black snake is one of the most effective rodent predators on earth. Observe the round pupils. It's a shame to see one these beneficial serpents mistaken for a venomous snake and killed by a misguided person who doesn't recognize its environmental value.
Something I'd like to bring to everyone's attention that might stir some controversy among experts like herpetologists, is information pertaining to the Mojave rattler. Recent snake bite cases in the western United States have indicated that some of these snakes are developing both hemotoxins and neurotoxins, making their bites extremely dangerous. This anomaly has baffled some of the researchers, and I thought it necessary to mention this in this article.
First aid recommendations have drastically changed over the course of time, because of good medical research. Some of the old survival manuals and hunting guides, which recommended cutting yourself and applying tourniquets, are now obsolete. These methods have been proven to cause more tissue damage and can make matters worse.
Statistically, you stand a greater chance of being struck by lightning while on a hunting trip, than you do of being bitten by a venomous snake.
All pit vipers have retractable hinged fangs, which can grow up to 2 inches in length. Be aware, that approximately 20 percent of bites are dry, meaning that the snake failed to inject its venom.
If you're one of the unfortunate ones who happen to be envenomed, the authorities on the subject advise staying calm and seeking medical attention immediately. If you have a snakebite kit, the venom extractor should be applied within the first few minutes to be beneficial. Be aware that dry bites do occur in approximately 20 percent of snake strikes. A dry bite is categorized as failure to inject venom. When this happens, it's still wise to go to the hospital and let someone qualified examine your wound.
Another word of advice, when you reach your hunting vehicle or deer camp, avoid placing ice directly on your bite. Doing this can cause more localized damage, because it impedes the venom from dissipating. A small loose constricting band placed above the bite is the final thing recommended while en-route to the hospital. Make sure that you can easily slip your fingers through whatever you use, and do not tighten it.
I know five men who have been bitten by pit vipers and all of them are still alive to tell their tales. One of these gentlemen is in his 80s, and after recovering, he's back to work in his garden. I've never met anyone who's been struck by lightning.
Currently, there are two antivenins available in the United States. Crotalidae is the older serum, and this treatment produced allergic reactions in approximately 20 percent of patients it was administered to. The newer and more advanced antivenin, CroFabz, uses venom from every species of venomous snakes found in the U.S., and has proven to be very effective. Less than one percent have allergic reactions. The only problem with CroFab is availability, because it's relatively new, some hospitals might not have any on hand.
This is a young cottonmouth (water moccasin). These snakes are notorious for showing you the whites of their mouths when they assume a defensive posture.
Be forewarned that a pit viper with a decapitated head can inflict a deadly bite. A tough snake's nervous system can still function for up to 30 minutes, and some of them are still capable of perceiving and responding to stimuli. If you're ever forced to terminate a snake's life, then be careful, treat it with respect, and don't make any foolish mistakes.
Maintaining a healthy snake population is just as important as maintaining and regulating a proportional deer herd. Nature does have a balance, and as good stewards we need to ensure that our children, and the generations to come can enjoy the things that we've all been blessed with.
In closing, I'd like to thank herpetologist Kelly Irwin, and wildlife rehabilitation specialist and ornithologist Tommy Young for their helpful assistance and guidance. Without their advice, some of the important details included in this article wouldn't have been possible.
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