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  1. Outdoors

A little hissssstory on Florida's poisonous snakes

George L. Heinrich of Heinrich Ecological Services exams an eastern corn snake during fieldwork at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. [Photo by Gary Scott]
George L. Heinrich of Heinrich Ecological Services exams an eastern corn snake during fieldwork at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. [Photo by Gary Scott]
Published Jul. 17, 2015

My big sister warned me about the copperhead snake in the garden. "It was a big one, too," she said. Many folks might take this as a cue to stay inside and watch tennis on TV. But me? I waited until she wasn't looking, then I sneaked outside and started scanning the shrubs for the venomous reptile. Most people don't like snakes. Some even hate them. But there are a few of us who look forward to any chance encounter with these secretive creatures. Snakes, and other reptiles, are more active during the warmer months. So your chances of seeing one increase with these dog days of summer. Florida has 46 species of snakes, and four of the venomous ones can be found here in the Tampa Bay area. Of those four, the Eastern diamondback is the largest and most dangerous. Its venom destroys tissue and blood cells, but your chances of being bitten are pretty slim since these creatures tend to shy away from humans.

You will find rattlesnakes in just about every habitat in Florida, from salt marshes to scrub lands, and they can grow to nearly 8 feet and strike objects that are two-thirds the length of their bodies away. They are surprisingly good swimmers and travel between barrier islands in search of game.

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 with camouflage. Despite their nasty reputation, diamondbacks kill mostly rodents, and the species plays an important role in nature's balance.

The diamondback isn't the only rattler that packs a wallop. 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 primarily on small mammals and other reptiles, but its bite can be problematic for people.

If you are paddling Florida's rivers and creeks in coming weeks, you might come across the cottonmouth (or water moccasin). This venomous snake 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 water moccasin will usually leave you alone. But if you mess with it, then all bets are off. That's why big, dumb dogs often get bit.

Another local snake has the dubious distinction of being 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.

Coral snakes also keep away from people. If someone gets bitten, it is usually because they handled the snake. Because of its bright yellow, red and black bands, the coral snake is often confused with the scarlet king, a snake with similar markings. You can try to remember the rhyme, "Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, good for Jack," or you could do the smart thing and just let it be.

In case you are wondering, Florida's other venous snakes are the canebrake (or timber rattlesnake) and the copperhead, which I never did find. In fact, snake populations are in decline, not just here in Florida, but all over. One of the main reasons is people. Many Floridians think the only good snake is a dead snake.

But remember, these creatures play an important role in the ecosystem, as both predators and prey. If you do happen to get bitten, your chances of survival are high, thanks to readily available, high-quality medical care. The United States averages fewer than six fatal snakebites a year. The average person is nine times more likely to suffer a fatal lightning strike.