If you've spent much time in the woods, chances are you've walked by a snake and never knew it. The thought may send chills down your spine, because snakes, especially those that carry venom, are among the most loathed creatures in the animal kingdom.
"They get a bad rap," said Greg Howe, a naturalist with Moccasin Lake Nature Park in Clearwater. "It all goes back to Genesis and the serpent that crawls on its belly and intices Eve to eat the apple."
And since those days of Eden, snakes have been a universal symbol of evil and routinely have been killed out of fear and ignorance.
"I think people have mistrusted snakes for so long because they've known nothing about them," said Walt Timmerman, a biologist with the State Department of Natural Resources. "But when you look at the facts, more people are killed by lightning strikes or bee stings than by snakes."
The odds of being bitten by a venomous snake in the wild are slim, but the possibility does exist. As the weather cools, more people will head into snake country to hunt, fish and camp. In order to assure that any encounter with a venomous snake will be a pleasant one, it's good to learn about these misunderstood reptiles.
"We have 65 species of snakes in Florida," Howe said. "But of these, only six are venomous."
Two of those species, the timber rattlesnake (formerly called the canebrake rattlesnake) and the southern copperhead, are found primarily in north and northwestern Florida.
Of the four venomous species found in this area, the eastern diamondback is the largest and most dangerous. Its venom is haemotoxic, meaning it destroys blood cells and body tissue.
"Diamondback rattlesnakes live in just about every habitat in Florida, all the way from salt marshes to scrub lands," said Timmerman, one of the state's leading rattlesnake biologists. "They'll even swim out to barrier islands fishermen have seen them out at sea."
Diamondbacks are distinguished by a tail rattle and a distinctive pattern of yellow-ringed, diamond-shaped markings that help camouflage the snake in the bush.
"Rattlesnakes love palmetto fronds and they are often hard to spot," Timmerman said. "Even when I was tracking them by radio, I would come within a few feet of them and still couldn't see them."
This snake can grow to 8 feet and strike up to two-thirds the length of its body. But despite the snake's nasty reputation, it kills mostly rodents, and as a result, plays an important role in maintaining nature's balance.
The pygmy rattlesnake, sometimes called a ground rattler, has a small rattle that sounds like the buzz of an insect. The pygmy feeds primarily on small reptiles and mammals, and there are no human deaths associated with its bite. The pygmy rarely grows longer than 2 feet, but it still has a quick and painful bite.
The cottonmouth, or water moccasin, prefers stream banks, swampy shores and tree limbs hanging low over the water. Its color is usually dark brown or black, so it is often confused with many harmless water snakes.
The country's most venomous reptile, the Eastern coral snake, also lives in Florida. It usually measures less than 2 feet, but packs a punch more potent than an 8-foot rattlesnake. The coral snake is closely related to the cobra and has a neurotoxic 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 old rhyme "red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, good for jack." It's much easier to look at the face: The coral snake's is black; the king snake's is red.
Snakes generally have poor eyesight, and when they are shedding their skin, they are nearly blind and may strike at shadows. They have no outer ears, so they "hear" through vibrations they feel in the ground. If they sense a big creature stomping through the woods, chances are they'll move out of the way.
So if you are in venomous snake territory, which in Florida could be anywhere that isn't covered with asphalt, it's best to walk "heavy" so the snakes know you're coming.
"Whenever possible stay to a clearly marked trail," Howe said. "Don't wander off to where it is real dense and you can't see your feet."
If you do get bitten by a venomous snake, don't panic. Don't do what you see in the cowboy movies, and try to suck the venom out with your mouth. Leave the wound alone and get to a doctor as soon as possible.
"If you see one, stand back and watch them for what they are, a beautiful and fascinating creature," Timmerman said. "Then let them go on their way."
For more information on venomous snakes, contact your local Florida Game & Fresh Water Fish Commission office and ask for a copy of the free pamphlet Florida's Venomous Snakes. For more detailed reading, consult Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida, The Snakes, by Ray E. Ashton, Jr. and Patricia Sawyer Ashton.
Moccasin Lake Nature Park will be hosting a lecture on venomous snakes and alligators on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. The cost is a $1 for Clearwater residents and $1.50 for non-residents. For more information call 462-6024.
_ A complete outdoors page appears in Friday's newspaper.