Local experts share knowledge about native venomous snakes, bites

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

People should keep eyes open for 3 dangerous snakes this summer

As local residents are out enjoying the summer on hiking trails, four-wheeling in the woods, or swimming and canoeing the rivers, they are bound to see a snake or two.

Missouri is home to 47 species of snakes, most of which are harmless, but three snakes native to southwest Missouri, and Barry County, are dangerous.

To prevent bites this summer, the Missouri Department of Conservation shared facts about the three venomous snakes found in our neck of the Ozarks woods.

"We have three types of venomous snakes here," said Dan VanDerhoef, DOC agent based in Barry County. "The most common is the copperhead. They have a pattern that looks like what I call the shape of a Hershey's kiss. The main body is a light copper, and the shapes are a darker copper."

Copperheads are usually found around wood piles and brushy areas, and are usually docile, unless cornered, VanDerhoef said.

"If you get them cornered or agitate them, they can be aggressive," he said. "When a snake stops and gets coiled up, that's their defensive posture so they can strike."

Found near or in water ways, cottonmouths, or water moccasins, are typically black but have a pattern, however the snake's color changes and darkens with age and by season. Their name comes from the cotton-white lining of its mouth, which it opens and shows when alarmed.

"As the weather and water warms up, more people are going to see cottonmouths, or what they think to be," VanDerhoef said. "When they're young, they'll have a pattern, but as they get older, they look more black. During the summer, when they get in the sun, they turn a darker color. The northern water snake and cottonmouth have similar patterns, but the cottonmouth is a more fuller-bodied snake, and gets darker than the northern water snake."

VanDerhoef said cottonmouths are also more aggressive.

"If you're canoeing and a snake is coming toward you in the water, they typically think you're a log and are coming to crawl up on it. If it's a northern water snake and you bat at it with your paddle, it may go away, but a cotton mouth may still have a tendency to keep coming at you."

Missouri's largest venomous snake, the timber rattlesnake is a yellowish-tan color with dark brown bands along its body and a rust-colored stripe along its back, and is usually found in wooded areas.

While outdoors this summer, VanDerhoef advises residents to watch where they're stepping, and if a snake is encountered, avoid it.

"I get reports of timber rattlers from people riding on four-wheelers, hiking, or riding their horses in local national forests," VanDerhoef said. "At Roaring River, we have lots of hiking trails, and especially this time of year, those snakes are going to be out moving around more. They're uniquely identified by their pattern. Our trails are fairly well-maintained, but anytime you're walking in a wooded area, you want to be cautious where you're stepping. Always look over a log before you step over it, because a snake could be laying on the other side. They blend in really well."

VanDerhoef said the snake's main line of defense is to rattle its tail, a sign it's on the alert and may strike.

"When you hear that noise, figure out where it is and move around it or go back," he warned. "A lot of other snakes will rattle their tail [if alarmed], especially black snakes. They don't have a rattle, but if it's sitting in a pile of leaves, it's going to sound like a rattler."

The rule of thumb to tell if a snake is venomous, VanDerhoef said, is by its eyes, not the shape of its head, because some harmless snakes have diamond-shaped heads, also.

"All of our venomous snakes are going to have cat-like eyes, and non-venomous snakes, a round eye," he said.

Bites are rare and deaths, even more rare, but if bitten, VanDerhoef advised getting a picture of the snake to identify it.

"If someone says they got bit by a copperhead and it ends up being a northern water snake, they don't need an anti-venom," he said.

Dr. Duane Cox, emergency physician at Mercy Hospital Cassville, said he sees many false bites from non-venomous snakes, so anti-venom, which can have side effects, may not be needed.

"There's a corn snake that looks almost identical to a copperhead," he said. "And cottonmouths' color changes throughout the season. They'll get darker, almost black."

But over the summer months, he definitely sees the number of patients with snake bites increase.

"We see more bites during the summer, and usually it's copperheads," he said. "Copperheads typically aren't deadly. But if you have an older person with health issues or a weakened heart, it can be. Hikers are more likely to see rattlers, and swimmers cottonmouths, but homeowners and farmers usually see copperheads because they like to hide under logs, fence posts, rocks and wood piles."

Cox said the hospital uses an anti-venom that works for copperheads, rattlers and cottonmouths.

The most important thing to do if bitten, Cox said, is to stay calm.

"You don't want to get excited because your heart will beat faster and will circulate the venom faster," he said. "You don't want the wound to be above heart level. You also want to remove restrictive clothing because it's going to swell, and don't use a tourniquet. Don't cut the wound, and don't try to suck out the venom. Use a cold compress to help restrict the toxin flow, and get to a hospital."

Symptoms of a snake bite may include swelling, nausea and pain.

"Typically, you'll have excruciating pain that radiates from the bite and spreads," Cox said.

Snakes are beneficial, VanDerhoef said, because they eat rats, mice, frogs and creatures people don't want around their homes.

"If farmers have feed or hay, mice like to get into that, and snakes are really good to have around to take care of those varmints."

"Probably the most calls I get are about black snakes being in someone's yard," VanDerhoef said.

"If you find a snake around your house, you can avoid it, catch them and move them to a safer place, or, if you feel endangered, you can eliminate them."

Sometimes, he gets calls about snakes inside a house.

"When someone gets a snake in the house and they don't know where it is, I tell them to make a lot of noise," he said. "Snakes react to vibrations, and will try to get back out. Turn on your TV, stereo, and stomp around."

To discourage snakes from taking up residence, keep property clear of debris and brushy areas, VanDerhoef advised.

For more information about venomous snakes including pictures to help identify them, people may visit www.mdc.mo.gov, or call the local DOC office at 417-847-5949 to speak to a conservation agent.

"The nature center at Roaring River usually has venomous snakes for people to see what they look like, too," VanDerhoef said.

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