By Kyle LoJacono
Each year thousands of Boy Scouts from Hillsborough and Pasco counties come to Camp Brorein in Odessa to camp out, making the risk of snake bits a constant reality.
Being so close to many of Florida’s 45 species of native snakes, six of which are venomous, is something camp ranger Frank Marion has worked to avoid with a simple plan.
“We tell the scouts to leave all snakes alone when they see them,” Marion said. “If you leave them alone they won’t bite you.”
The scouts are taught how to identify those six venomous snakes, which are eastern diamondback, pygmy and canebreak rattlesnakes, coral snakes, cottonmouths and copperheads.
All snakes are more active during the hot summer months, increasing the chance of running into one of those six, according to University of Florida (UF) professor and Cooperative Extension contributor Steve Johnson. Johnson is a herpetologist, a reptile expert, and also works at one of UF’s research stations in Hillsborough County and has the same plan for avoiding snake bites.
“Personally I don’t handle poisonous snakes and I wouldn’t recommend anyone ever touch one,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a foolish thing to do myself because you take a chance of being bitten every time you touch one. The people who handle them on a regular basis almost always end up getting bit at some point.”
Copperheads and canebreaks, or timber rattlers, only live mostly in north Florida, but copperheads have a larger range could be seen as far south as Tampa Bay area. Johnson said the two most common venomous snakes in Pasco and Hillsborough counties are the pygmy rattlesnake in uplands and cottonmouths, or water moccasins, in wetlands.
The two rattlesnakes in the bay area are the easiest to identify as they have the distinctive rattle on their tails. When they are young the rattle is small and may not be easily heard, but the babies are just as venomous as the adults.
Coral snakes have a tri-colored pattern of yellow rings between alternating bands of black and red. They can be confused with the scarlet kingsnake, which is the same color. Coral snakes noses are always black while scarlet kings are always red.
The most difficult to identify is the cottonmouth as it and several other water snakes are darkly colored as adults and act very aggressively. Cottonmouths often open their mouths to display fangs when agitated, which will reveal a cotton-white color inside their mouths.
There is no accurate way to measure which snake’s venom is most toxic to humans as it is only tested on mice. However, Johnson has his own idea of what is the most deadly of these snakes.
“The most dangerous is the one that bites you,” Johnson said. “The coral snake is in a different family than the others, which are all pit vipers. Coral snakes are in the same family as cobras and sea snakes and have mainly a neurotoxin that attacks the nervous system. That means things like heart beat and breathing.
“Pit vipers venom is mostly a hemotoxin that digests tissue and causes a lot of damage to skin and muscle,” Johnson continued. “Most people think of coral snakes as the most dangerous and they are a very deadly animal, but I believe there has been only one death from coral snake bite in a couple of years. Deaths are rare.”
Johnson said people are more likely to see snakes in wooded areas, but added they can survive in more urban areas too.
Some of the ways to avoid being bit are to look before reaching into things like piles of wood or leaves or into other confined areas. Johnson said regular work gloves will do little to prevent bites. He also suggests always wearing closed-toed shoes and long pants when outside.
Johnson said the most important thing to do if someone is bitten by a poisonous snake is call 911 even if you are unsure if it is venomous. He said using a snake bit kit or tourniquet only wastes time. Staying calm also will reduce the heart rate and keep the venom from spreading as fast.
“These days unless someone is very young or old or in bad health, they aren’t going to die if they get treatment,” Johnson said. “The antivenom works and if people get to a hospital they should be fine.”
While venomous snakes can be deadly, Johnson believes fear is not the right response.
“One thing people shouldn’t be is afraid of snakes,” Johnson said. “They should educate themselves because knowledge will dispel a lot of fears. Most snakes can’t do anything but bite and they shouldn’t be killed just because they are snakes. They are important to the natural environment.”
Lack of coral snake antivenom an issue come October
The supply of coral snake antivenom may soon become a problem as no company is currently producing it.
Wyeth, which is owned by Pfizer, is the only company approved to make it by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but stopped in 2003 because it was unprofitable.
Before stopping production, Wyeth worked with the FDA to create a large supply, according to Pfizer spokeswomen Kristen Neese. The antivenom’s will expire Oct. 31. At that time the FDA can test the drug and could decide to extend its shelf life if no other company starts making it.
Coral snakes’ fangs are small and in the back of their mouths, making it harder to inject venom than the pit vipers that have large fangs in the front, according to University of Florida (UF) professor and Cooperative Extension contributor Steve Johnson.
About 25 percent of the bites from coral snakes result in no venom being delivered and there are only about 100 poisonous bites each year in the country.
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