Snake Bites: Should You Be Concerned?
by Susannah Wollman
“I hate snakes because they have no feet. You could say I’m… lacktoes intolerant.” @Fro_Vo (Twitter)
Okay, all kidding aside, how common are snakebites in and around the Houston area? How do you know if a snake is venomous? How do you keep from getting bitten?
Snakebites aren’t really a laughing matter. According to Texas Parks and Recreation, on average, 1 – 2 people die from a snake bite each year. However, even in rural areas, most snake bites are from non-venomous snakes. So although you are unlikely to die if a snake bites you, damage to the area surrounding the puncture can be worse than venom entering your bloodstream.
Aren’t all snakes dangerous?
That’s the thing. Although all snakes may send shivers up your spine and cause your heart to race, not all snakes are dangerous. In fact, most snakes in Texas aren’t harmful to humans and are beneficial to the area in which they are found. If not for snakes, we would have a lot more rodents and insects. The majority of snakes found in the Houston area are clever, all-natural pest control. It’s best to just leave them alone to do their job—don’t run to grab a shovel or hoe to chop its head off. You go your way and the snake will go his.
There are, however, snakes that are venomous, which means their bites if untreated can cause severe injury or even death.
Learning to distinguish between venomous and nonvenomous snakes will help you stay safe when you encounter a snake. Knowing how to identify snakes is also important because several nonvenomous species and one venomous species are protected by state law, meaning it is illegal to harm them.
Venomous Snakes in South Texas
There are 77 different species of snakes in Texas, with 11 of them being venomous. Of those, 32 non-venomous species and 7 venomous species live in the Houston area.
The most venomous snake in Texas is the coral snake. This beautifully colored snake has alternating bands of red and black separated by narrower yellow bands. Although potently venomous, this smallish snake (2-2.5 feet long) is very shy and prefers to flee from you rather than bite. They’re good for the environment as they eat mostly other snakes and small lizards and for the most part stay underground.
Remember the rhyme that will tell you if the snake you encountered is an actual coral snake or a close imposter. The rhyme goes, ‘red touching black, safe for Jack. Red touching yellow, kill a fellow’.
Another venomous snake common to the southeast area of Texas is the copperhead pit viper. This coppery-colored snake has a stocky body of light copper with dark brown crossbands that look like hourglasses when viewed from above, but appearing triangular (or Hershey’s Kisses shaped) from the side. These crossbands are dark on the edges, fading to a lighter brown in the center. Its broad head has an angular shape with a ridge above the eyes, sitting on a narrow neck and its yellow eyes have vertical slit pupils, like a cat. Mostly found in wooded areas, it camouflages well in leaf litter. Although it is among the least dangerous of the venomous snakes and is not usually aggressive, its venom is hemolytic, meaning it destroys red blood cells. Although its bite may not be immediately life-threatening, it causes extreme pain and swelling as well as tissue death, including death of muscle and bone around the bite area. They eat a varied diet of rodents, frogs, fish, lizards, birds, and large insects.
Like the copperhead, the aquatic cottonmouth is a pit viper, meaning it has heat-sensing pits located between the eye and the nostril on each side of the head. It is a strongly venomous snake and has a reputation for being more aggressive than many species. Recent scientific study has shown that their reputation may be overblown, however. Their frightening display of hissing, cavernous mouths with fangs and the occasional habit of fleeing toward the person who has cornered them may make them seem more likely to bite than they actually are. Cottonmouth snakes will nearly always be found in or near water. They are strong swimmers and bear from ten up to twenty live babies near their water habitat. They mostly eat fish and frogs but are among the few snakes that will scavenge dead animals, as well.
While most rattlesnakes won’t be found in Houston, the urban areas around are home to at least two different varieties. Both of these rattlesnakes need little introduction because almost everybody has seen pictures of the distinct snake species. Adult rattlers have wide heads, narrow necks, wide bodies, rough scales that form a ridge down the length of the back, and its most identifying feature, a tail rattle. Baby rattlesnakes just have a button on the tail and the narrow neck and wide body aren’t really evident. Most rattlesnake bites are not fatal, but because their venom causes severe swelling unless treated promptly, amputation of a bitten limb may be necessary. These snakes are good for the environment as they spread seeds. As do copperheads, rattlesnakes bear live young.
Non-Venomous Snakes in the Houston Area
There are many more non-venomous snakes in the Houston area than venomous ones. If you come across any snake that doesn’t fit the descriptions above, consider it non-venomous. There are three categories that you may come across. They are listed here.
What to do if you see a snake
Although a non-venomous snake can’t kill you, they are not harmless. Any snakebite can lead to infections. Rattlesnake expert Mary Ann Connell has this advice upon seeing a snake. “I always assume I’m dealing with an athletically gifted snake, so I give them three to four feet. I always want to err on the side of caution.”
The best thing to do if you encounter any snake is back away and wait for it to move away. Some common snakes resemble venomous snakes and may even hiss and shake, mimicking the threatening actions of rattlers. Don’t ask for its credentials—just back up slowly and yield to the snake.
Even if the snake is not venomous, call on trained wild animal technicians with professional knowledge and experience to safely remove the snake from the premises. Only a snake control and trapping professional is qualified to remove venomous and non-venomous snakes in the greater Houston TX area.
Here is a list of qualified companies who can remove snakes (or any wild animal) from your premises.
What good are snakes, anyway?
If you are among the one in three adults who have an intense fear of snakes, you may have ophidiophobia, meaning an intense fear of serpents. For some people, even the mention of a snake, or a picture in a book or on TV is enough to elicit an intense panic response. For the other two-thirds of adults, snakes may be fascinating or simply creepy.
Whichever camp you fall into, it’s good to remember that snakes are positive co-inhabitants of our lives here in Houston. Here are ten good reasons to have them around.
- Most snakes are harmless. The majority of them have anthropophobia, the fear of people, and will quickly escape if they are able to.
- Snakes are beneficial even in the city. Snakes help control the population of mice, rats, chipmunks, and other small rodents. Even small snakes help control insects and worms.
- Most snakes only look scary, but all snakes seem to stare at you. Instead of moveable eyelids, snakes’ eyes are protected by transparent scales which means they always seem to be open and staring
- Snakes have individual personalities. Just like any other living creature, snakes have characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make each one unique.
- Snakes helped us become smarter. Since venomous desert snakes, jungle snakes, and constrictors were a threat to existence, the fear of predatory snakes helped humans develop intellectual processes and keen eyesight that modern humans enjoy today.
- They are charming performers. Although snake charming is illegal most everywhere today, the mystery of why snakes seem to be charmed by music has been solved. Since snakes don’t have ears, they detect movement and respond to that. Notice that it’s not just the snake that weaves to the sound of the fakir’s flute!
- Snakes experience the world in interesting ways. For instance, they “smell” with their tongues! Some sea snakes breathe partially through their skins! Although Houston doesn’t have any sea snakes, knowing interesting facts about snakes makes them—if not captivating—at least fascinating.
- Snakes are instrumental in stopping diseases. Many varieties love to eat ticks. Their presence in Houston’s wooded areas might help stop Lyme disease from spreading. Swallowing a mouse that is infected with Lyme disease means the messenger (the tick), the message-sender (the mouse), and the message itself (the bacteria) are all digested, which prevents that tick from spreading the disease.*
- Snakes are wonderful groundskeepers. Not only do they help keep pests down, their guano is a great additive for a fertile garden.
- Scaleless snakes (non-venomous) are popular pets. However, purchasing a snake bred by a local breeder is much better than trying to trap one. Traps as often as not catch the wrong kind of snake for a pet. Also, it can be downright dangerous to capture a snake born in the wild.
*Snakes are opportunistic hunters, which means they eat when food is available. They can slow their metabolism by 70% if food is scarce. Actually, snakes can get by with as few a 6 meals a year and still be healthy and keep growing. At most, they only need to eat once every 2 weeks or so.