Once, on a jungle trail in the Amazon Basin, I asked my Tirio Indian guide what to do if I was bitten by a snake. It has been more than a decade, but I still remember his response as if the conversation happened yesterday.
"Don't," he said.
I had heard about a local villain called the bushmaster (lachesis muta muta), the largest pit viper in the world. This tropical serpent, similar in appearance to the diamondback rattlesnake, could grow to lengths of 8 feet or more, and it had a reputation as a man killer. Since we were hundreds of miles from the nearest medical clinic, I was concerned about what would happen if I wound up on the wrong end of the bushmaster's venomous fangs, so I repeated my question.
My guide, a hunter named Koita, gave the same one-word answer: "Don't."
Most folks don't think much about rattlesnakes. Then again, most folks don't spend as much time in the woods as I do.
But just in case you were wondering, 328 people were bitten by venomous snakes in Florida last year, according to the Florida Poison Information Center. None died. With prompt medical attention, the vast majority of snakebite victims survive.
Still, when it comes to snakes, I try to follow Koita's advice.
Florida has 44 species of snakes, and of the four venomous ones found in the Tampa Bay area, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest and most dangerous. Its venom is haemotoxic, meaning it destroys tissue and blood cells.
Diamondbacks live in just about every habitat in Florida, from salt marshes to scrub lands, and can grow to nearly 8 feet and strike objects two-thirds the length of their bodies away.
The easiest way to identify these snakes is by the tail rattle (hence the name) and a distinctive pattern of yellow-ringed, diamond-shaped markings that help camouflage the snake.
Despite the snake's nasty reputation, diamondbacks kill mostly rodents, and the species plays an important role in nature's balance. But with spring here, and the weather getting warmer, snakes are on the move and more likely to cross the paths of humans.
Know your snakes
The diamondback rattler isn't the only snake that can hurt you. Its smaller cousin, the pygmy rattlesnake, also called a ground rattler, has a small rattle that sounds like the buzz of an insect. This species feeds on small reptiles and mammals, but its bite can also pack a powerful wallop.
The cottonmouth, or water moccasin, prefers stream banks, swampy shores and tree limbs hanging low over the water. It is usually dark brown or black in color, so it is often confused with many harmless water snakes.
The country's most venomous reptile, the Eastern coral snake, measures less than 2 feet but packs a punch more powerful than an 8-foot rattlesnake. The coral snake is closely related to the cobra and has a neurotoxin venom that attacks the victim's nervous system.
Because of its bright yellow, red and black bands, the coral snake is often confused with the scarlet king, a snake with similar markings. Forget the rhyme, "Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, good for Jack." If you are bitten by a coral snake, chances are, you'll be too preoccupied with the pain to remember the rhyme. It's much easier to look at the face: The coral snake's is black; the king snake's is red.
Play it safe, leave it be
Nine out of 10 snake bites occur after the victim has tried to pick up, harass or kill the coral snake. So a good rule to follow is: don't play with snakes.
If you suffer a bite wound, stay calm. The doctor will need to know what species bit you. A coral snake's bite is treated with a different antivenin than a rattlesnake's bite. Then get to the hospital immediately.
Until you get additional help, the Mayo Clinic, suggests applying a splint to reduce movement of the affected area, but make sure it is loose enough so that it won't restrict blood flow. Don't use a tourniquet or apply ice, and don't cut the wound or attempt to remove the venom.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8808.