• Carrie Gardner

Venomous In Florida

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Eastern diamondback taking a swim.

Before we start, let's talk venom. Venom, once injected, can cause swelling, bruising, discoloration, pain, tingling, numbness, and difficulty breathing., nausea, and lightheadedness. This is because the venom inside of you is destroying and breaking down cells , severe internal bleeding paralysis,, and death.

There are three types of venom. Cytotoxins destroys the body's cells, causing necrosis. There are different kinds of cytotoxins: cardiotoxin, which attacks the heart, myotoxin attacks the muscle, and nephrotoxins attack the kidneys. It induces cell lyses, which is breaking down of the cell membrane. Cytotoxins can be observed at the bite site, as the surrounding skin turns black from necrosis. Neurotoxins attacks the nervous system by reducing or blocking neurotransmitters responsible for sending signals back and forth. It causes muscle paralysis that eventually affects the diaphragm and lungs, causing death. Last but not least is hemotoxin. It has cytotoxic affects on red blood cells and damages tissue. The destruction of red blood cells in the body causes a problems with blood clotting, and severe internal bleeding. The accumulation of dead red blood cells can interfere with kidney function. There are hemotoxins that inhibit blood clotting, and others that cause platelets and other blood cells to clump together, blocking blood from passing through that can lead to heart failure.

Florida has six venomous snakes - five of which are pit vipers. Between their nostril and their eye, pit vipers have a deep pit. They pick up on heat signatures so the snake can accurately strike their prey or see any potential danger coming. These pits are 3/1000s of a degree accurate. So accurate, studies show that when their eyes are covered, they can accurately strike and hit their prey as well as when they could see. However, when it’s reversed and the pits are covered, their ability to accurately strike drops significantly.

They have very long fangs that are basically like hypodermic needles. When their mouths are closed, the fangs are folded up against the roofs of their mouths. When they open their mouths, the fangs are extended and become erect. They are attached directly to the venom glands, but the snakes can control how much venom comes out. The snakes can work the fangs independently of each other and together. This allows them to wait until the last minute to strike. In addition to being able to move their fangs, they can also open their mouths about 180°.

They are thick-bodied and tend to be a bit sluggish. Their laziness has turned into the very latest of predation methods. They find a rodent trail and lay by it until a rodent runs by. The snake bites it and lets it run along. A few moments later, the snake decides to move and follows the scent of his or her own venom. Not only does the venom kill prey, but it’s the first step in digestion.

All pit vipers but one (the bushmaster in South America) are ovoviviparous. Their eggs are fertilized and incubated inside the female. Instead of hard shells, they have membranes. When the time arrives, mama pit viper “lays” her eggs. During the birth, the membrane is broken and they are born fully developed with full venom sacs. If you should happen to see a big rattlesnake surrounded by little ones, that is most likely a tired family. Since the babies are fully equipped to take care of themselves, they all go their separate ways.

Despite the common myth, babies can control their venom metering. They are not more venomous than adults. While no rattlesnake bite should be ignored, an adult rattlesnake usually envenomates with a higher venom yield - three times more than a baby. The severity of any venomous snake bite, though, has to do with your health and where you were bit. For the snake, considerations like how old the snake is, geographical location, last time it ate, etc. There are often significant differences in venom composition within a species that is dependent on age. Baby rattlesnakes prey on lizards and amphibians. These animals react more to neurotoxins than the hemotoxins used by adults to bring down mammals. A baby's venom, therefore, is more neurotoxin than an adults. It makes the baby a tiny bit more dangerous than the adults if it weren't for the fact that the adults deliver three times more. Any venomous snake bit is dangerous and if bitten, seeking treatment is of the utmost importance.

North American pit viper venom is mostly a hemotoxin (though, as their prey becomes become immune to their venom, more seem to be producing a neurotoxin as well.) A bite from one will cause intense swelling, pain, and necrosis (death and decay of cells) and also acts as an anticoagulant.There are three North American rattlesnakes that decided to be different and are primarily neurotoxic than hemotoxic. The three outliers are the Mojave rattlesnake, tiger rattlesnake, and speckled rattlesnake. All of these are found out west and not in Florida.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

This beautiful snake is the largest North American rattlesnake. It ranks high on the list of venomous snakes of the world because of the large body size, quantity of venom and tremendous striking speed (they can strike and recoil back to pre-strike condition in ¼ a second, and keep on striking). When disturbed, they will assume a defensive posture with their body coiled upon itself and rattle free and elevated to make noise. They usually go about this noisily, hissing and shaking its rattle. And like a typical defensive snake, it will not take its eye off of you, or maybe I should say pit. From this stance, it can repeatedly strike and return to its original position so fast that it appears only as a blur to our vision. Effective striking distance is one-third the length of their body. Their fangs automatically come out as their mouths open wide. As those two hypodermic needle like fangs enter the victim, the pressure caused will extrude the venom into the wound. The snake does not have to be coiled to strike, it can strike from any position and in any direction. When it is disturbed, it will usually, but not always, sound off a warning rattle. Although this snake does not jump, chase or go out of its way to bite you, you should never tease one or approach more closely than six feet. It does not hesitate to strike anybody within striking range when it feels like it’s being threatened and has no choice. Most eastern diamondback bites are the result of human carelessness.

An eastern diamondback, as all other rattlesnake species, is born with a button...that's the beginning of their rattle. At each subsequent shed (usually 3-5 times a year), a new segment is added to the rattle. This isn’t a reliable way to determine the age, though. Rattles can break off and snakes all have different shed patterns. Neonates shed more than adult rattlesnakes because they’re rapidly growing. Once they become adults, shedding usually slows down.

Statistics: They are usually around five feet long, but it is extremely rare to see one over seven feet. Prey: Mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, shrews and occasionally birds. In fact, they serve an economic service to farmers by preying on crop-destroying rodents. Problems hindering them: skin and meat are commercially valuable, harvested for venom milking, exhibition purposes - usually for “rattlesnake roundups” where they are gassed out of their dens, kept in barrels with hundreds of other rattlesnakes without water or food until the roundup. They then have their mouths sewn shut and dumped out into a snake pit where they are tortured until they are decapitated with a machete.

The eastern diamondback is found throughout the state, and many of the offshore islands. It can be found in any habitat but is most likely to be found in palmetto flatlands, pine woods, abandoned fields, and bushy and grassy areas, where it can use its camouflage to the full extent.

Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin

As adults, cottonmouths are dark snakes and got one of their names from their defensive posture of opening their mouths, which is white inside. Juveniles actually look like copperheads. Since copperheads are only found roughly in Liberty and Gadsen Counties, if you live elsewhere in the state and think you see a copperhead, it is most likely a juvenile cottonmouth.

When disturbed, the cottonmouth draws itself into a loose coil, cocks its head upwards and opens its mouth, showing the cottony white interior. They may also show their fangs and vibrate their tails like a rattlesnake. From this loose coil stance, they can lunge out in a fast strike, embed its fangs into a victim/prey item. It does not have to be coiled to strike and can be in any position and strike anywhere. And yes, it can even bite underwater, though it’s not as powerful as an on land bite due to water resistance. If grabbed or stepped on in the water, it may bite, but otherwise tends to avoid dangerous areas or areas where there is a lot of activity in the water.

Though usually found in water, along stream banks, in swamps, margins of lakes and in tree bordered marshes, you can also this guy anywhere in pine woods or other dry habitats. When in the water, it will swim with its head well out of the water, unlike other water snakes. A nocturnal animal, it spends its days resting near water in grassy patches, piles of debris, in bushy areas or in low trees that hang over the water. And no, it does not fall out of trees on purpose to land in your boat. If you have a cottonmouth do this, then you probably startled it and it lost its balance!

Statistics: It can exceed five feet, but usually the average is three feet. Common in every county in Florida and many coastal islands. For food, it likes to munch on fish, frogs, other snakes, lizards and small animals. Gives "birth" to 6-12 young...again, with fully operational fangs and venom sacs.

Note on its personality: They have a reputation for being especially aggressive to the point of chasing people. Technically speaking, they aren’t acting aggressively but defensively, and they certainly don’t chase people. They aren’t any more aggressive/defensive than any other of the pit vipers, or nonvenomous snake, for that matter. Naturally, each animal has their own personality. IF you come across one, it could be a Grumpy Gus or a Positive Polly. Or a Friendly Fred.

Since harmless snakes are often mistaken for cottonmouths, I have included a couple of links to help with identification:

Photograph Comparisons of Water Snakes and Cottonmouths

Diagram Comparisons of Water Snakes and Cottonmouths

They are found throughout the state of Florida.

Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake (or Ground Rattler)

These beautifully marked tiny rattlesnakes are known for their aggressive attitudes. Part of that may be because it is the most commonly found rattlesnake, and sometimes it isn’t heard. More frequent interactions where the snake feels threatened might be a reason for their disposition. They are quick to strike at anything and multiple bite multiple times. It may not look like it, but these snakes do have rattles...they're very small, like the rest of this small bodied rattlesnake (suffers from a Napoleon Complex perhaps?). Their rattles are barely audible until you come close to one, and then it sounds like an insect buzzing around.

Stout-bodied for being so small, they measure around 18 inches in

length. They feed on small frogs, lizards, mice and other snakes. They can be found in palmetto flatwoods, or in any area with wire grass. In fact, they can be encountered in almost any locality where there are lakes, ponds or marshes. There is no data on how many young they produce, but because of their relative size, it isn't many.

Although their bite can be potentially lethal in certain circumstances and very potent, it is delivered in small doses. I’ve heard that it is painful, and that there can be more bleeding at the bite site. So far, there have been no casualties associated with this species. HOWEVER THAT DOES NOT MEAN IF YOU ARE BIT BY A PYGMY RATTLESNAKE YOU SHOULD NOT SEEK MEDICAL TREATMENT.

They are found throughout the state of Florida.

Southern Copperhead

This is a stunning snake. They are found in Northern Florida, primarily in Liberty and Gadsen Counties. They inhabit wet or dry areas in logs and wood piles (perfect camouflage for their coloring!) These animals aren't all that common, and there have been few reported bites with zero fatalities (but should you happen to encounter one, and meet its fangs, please seek medical assistance).

Statistics: Length is 30 inches long. I couldn’t find any data for number of young at birth. Like the cottonmouth, the copperhead doesn't have a rattle, but will vibrate its tail when disturbed. They like to chow down on large quantities of frogs (especially in the Spring). Their bite is painful and will cause swelling. Like all other pit vipers, their venom is primarily a hemotoxin, which breaks down and kills tissue.

There is a difference between juvenile cottonmouths and copperheads. Copperheads have two black spots on the back of their heads...sort of in the middle where the last two large scales end. However, if you are in copperhead and/or cottonmouth territory, I don't recommend getting close enough to see if they have these dots!

Canebrake Rattlesnake

This is a southern subspecies of the Timber Rattlesnake found in other portions of the country. The name “canebrake” for its tendency to hang out at old Sugar Plantations to catch mammals with a sweet tooth. They are found in the northern portion of the state, as far south as Alachua County. They favor flatwoods, river bottoms, hammocks, abandoned fields and hanging around farms. During hot weather, many will seek out low swampy ground. These animals are very well camouflaged. Their favorite habitat seems to be slopes leading to creeks running through hardwood forests.

They have a reputation for being mild-mannered, and may not rattle. However, the venom is strong and can cause serious damage.

Eastern Coral Snake

These seldom seen burrowers are the oddball venomous snakes. They are the only venomous snake that aren't in the pit viper family and there are only three species in the United States.

They are also related to some of the deadliest venomous snakes in the world, such as the mamba, cobras and the sea krait. Their venom is a neurotoxin, which attacks the nervous system of the victim, causing paralysis. This venom is the MOST POTENT of any North American snake. Luckily for us, this is a timid and non-aggressive snake, not biting unless startled, tormented or hurt. They can envenomate in one bite, but to get more venom in, they have to chew. They are small and can usually only manage to bite fingers, toes, and skin between them.

Signs that you've been envenomated are muscle weakness, difficulty breathing and swallowing, unable to move eyelids, blurred vision, tongue twitching tongue, decreased blood oxygenation, paralysis, and respiratory arrest. If you think you got bit, go to the hospital, even if you're not showing any signs. Sometimes it can take a few hours for the venom to do anything, and it would be safer to be at a hospital with those signs up above.

Seldom seen, their habitats tend to be pine woods, pond and lake borders and the jungle-like growths of the Florida hammock forests where they burrow in places like rotting logs, piles of decaying vegetation, heavy fallen leaf cover and old brush piles. To find food, they nose around decaying vegetation and humus to catch and feed on other snakes, lizards, frogs and other small animals.

Statistics: A small-sized slender-bodied snake with a narrow head and round eyed pupils characteristic of non-venomous snakes. They can grow to 47 inches, but usually are less than 24 inches. They lay six or less eggs that hatch in 60-90 days and are patterned after their parents.

Due to their non-aggressive disposition, they have been picked up without biting. However, usually if they are bothered, restrained or picked up they will usually thrash around and try to bite. If they find a fold of skin or finger, they will hold on tenaciously. My advice...don't pick them up!!

The most vulnerable part of the human body to get bitten by a coral snake, because of their small mouths, are fingers, toes and the skin in between (however, a larger coral snake can obviously bite through more). A bite can cause paralysis and suffocation. Antivenin is available and harmful effects do not begin for an hour, however, do not wait that long to get help!

COMMON MISCONCEPTION: Coral snakes are rear-fanged. FALSE!! They have small fixed front-fangs, and it can deliver a full dose in one bite. They don't have to chew to envenomate

COLOR PATTERN: Coral snakes have two other species that are "copycats" in hopes that they will be mistaken for a coral snake and left alone. These snakes are the scarlet king snake and the scarlet snake. So how to tell the difference? I'm sure you've all heard the rhyme: "Red and Black, friend of Jack, Red and Yellow, Kill a Fellow"...or something to that effect. Here's any easier way to tell a coral snake from its copiers. Think of a stoplight in the United States. Green is on the bottom, yellow is in the middle, red is on top. A coral snake's pattern is black, yellow and red bands with the yellow and red bands always together. YELLOW: CAUTION!; RED: STOP! A coral snake's bands also go ALL the way around their bodies, unlike most snakes, where their bellies are a lighter color, their heads are also black. The copycats are proud redheads.

Here is a link that shows the differences between the coral snake, the scarlet snake, and the scarlet kingsnake:

The Coral Snake and Its Mimics

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