Venomous Snakes - FAQ's

Learn the facts about snakes that can kill

How can I tell the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes?

There are only 4 species of poisonous snakes in North America; cottonmouth water moccasin, rattlesnake, copperhead and coral snake. Learn to identify these snakes from photos, and you can safely assume that all other snakes you see in North America are non-poisonous.

What should I do if I’m bitten by a venomous snake?

Most methods of self treatment are now deemed to cause more harm than good. The best thing to do is remain calm and seek professional medical care as soon as possible. Going into shock is probably as dangerous as the actual bite.

How dangerous are bites from poisonous snakes?

Small children are in more danger than adults because the venom is more concentrated in their smaller body mass. It also depends on how much venom is received. Everyone who is injected with venom should receive medical treatment. However, only 10 - 15 people die each year from snake bites in North America; many more people are killed by bees and lightning.

If I’m bitten by a poisonous snake, should I kill it and take it with me to the hospital for identification?

No, once you get to the hospital a simple blood test can determine what kind of venom is in your system. Emergency room staffs rightfully take a very dim view of bringing snakes (alive or dead) into their emergency room.

Do rattlesnakes always rattle to warn us?

They usually do, but not always. The latest thinking is, they rattle when two conditions exist; they are frightened and they think they will be seen. If they are secure in their camouflage, they probably won’t rattle.

Can snakes hear?

Many current zoology tests still report that snakes lack the sense of hearing. However, research begun about 35 years ago, especially the extensive investigations over many years by E.G. Wever and associates at Princeton University, has shown that snakes have a hearing capability comparable to that of lizards. Their sense of hearing is most sensitive to frequencies around 200–300 Hz.
 Like many other animals, snakes have two ways of detecting sounds: earth borne and airborne. While snakes lack external and middle ear structures (including the tympanum, or ear drum), they do have inner ear structures which have been shown experimentally to receive airborne sound waves. Airborne sounds are transmitted to the lung from the skin receptors to the eighth cranial nerve and inner ear. In addition, earth borne vibrations are passed through the belly muscles to special receptors along the spine and thus transmitted to the brain.
 One researcher states that he feels that most snakes can hear a person speaking in a normal tone of voice in a quiet room at a distance of about 10 feet (3 meters). He also claims that two of his snakes respond to him calling their names. Research is continuing.
 In addition, picking up small, minute ground vibrations of other creatures (including us) moving in their immediate area is one way they avoid danger and enemies. They also use this ability to locate prey.

Are snakes really afraid of us?

Absolutely. They live in a world of eat or be eaten. They take one look at us and “think”, “I can’t eat this thing, but it’s big enough to eat me”. Consequently, they are very much afraid of us.

Can poisonous snakes regulate their venom when they bite?

Evidence indicates that mature rattlesnakes can regulate their venom. I haven’t heard or read anything that indicates that the other 3 species of North American poisonous snakes do this. Rattlesnakes use their venom for hunting, and they are reluctant to “waste” perfectly good venom on humans.

Why does a snake flick out its tongue?

A snake’s scent glands are located in its tongue. When it flicks out its tongue, it is “smelling” the air, usually because it is concerned about another creature moving in its immediate vicinity.

Does a snake have to be coiled in order to strike?

No. Coiling is a defensive posture that helps it see better. It probably also makes the snake feel more sure when it is frightened; kind of a “circle the wagons” strategy.

From what distance can snakes strike?

They can strike about 2/3 of their body length. In other words, a snake that is 3 feet long can strike from a distance of about 2 feet. However, I usually give all poisonous snakes a wide berth; at least 15 feet.

How fast can a snake strike?

About as fast as you can move your arm.

Will non-poisonous snakes bite?

Yes, they will bite if they are threatened or cornered. Though their bites are not normally considered life threatening, they can be extremely painful and may cause bleeding, infection and scarring.

Are snakes aggressive?

Snakes are individuals, just like people. Some are more aggressive than others. Concerning aggressiveness according to species, I’ve never seen a non-poisonous snake do anything other than try to get away unless it was cornered or attacked. Concerning the poisonous species, I’d rate the cottonmouth moccasin the most aggressive, followed by the rattlesnake, then the copperhead. The coral snake is not considered to be aggressive at all.

What are “pit vipers”?

Pit vipers (Viperids) have a small heat sensor (or “pit”) on each side of the head between the eye and nostril. This pit is used to locate warm-blooded prey. It acts like an infrared heat detector. However, it cant accurately tell them the size of their prey. Unfortunately, snakes don’t see well at night, and as a result we could be mistaken for prey at night. Three of the four North American poisonous snake species are pit vipers; cottonmouth, rattlesnake and copperhead.

Can the age of a rattlesnake be determined by the number of its rattles?

Not really; a new rattle is added each time a rattlesnake loses its skin, which could be anywhere from 2 to 4 times per year.

Can we eat snakes?

All snakes are edible; even the poisonous ones (the venom sacs are located directly behind the head, removing the head removes the venom sacs). The meat is fairly good but very bony, and yes they do taste a bit like chicken. Our forefathers probably ate more snakes than we care to think about.

Can a "dead" snake bite?

From our perspective, it can take an awfully long time for a snake to die, even after it receives an obviously fatal injury (like having its head severed from its body). I once shot and killed a large rattlesnake. I removed the head with a large knife and buried it. Several minutes later when I walked past the headless body of the snake, it tried to strike at my leg. If I hadn't seen this with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it (Brawny also witnessed its repeated, headless "strikes"). The snake didn't stop moving completely for over an hour. I also heard of an incident where a man killed a snake, removed its head and threw the head away. However, 2 children retrieved it a few minutes later and started throwing it back and forth between them. One of the children was bitten on the hand (with venom injected) and had to be hospitalized. Give all "dead" snakes a wide berth, they may not be quite as dead as they first appear.

How do snakes reproduce?

When the female is fertile, she leaves a scent on the ground as she moves around. The male uses this scent trail to locate the female. The snakes intertwine, and fertilization occurs internally.

Do snakes lay eggs, or bear their young alive?

Some snakes lay eggs; others bear their young alive, it depends on the species. Most pit vipers bear their young alive. There is no such thing as a “mother” snake. After the eggs are deposited (usually in a rotting log) or the baby snakes are born, the female’s responsibility ends.

Can snakes bite while they are underwater?

Yes, they can open their mouths and bite while underwater just like we can. Incidentally, rattlesnakes are excellent swimmers.

Do snakes go blind when they shed their skin?

They don’t go blind, but their vision becomes cloudy and impaired just before they shed their skin. During this time, they are more dependent on their other senses.

Can snakes regulate their body temperature?

No, they can’t; they are “cold blooded”. It’s why they are not seen during cold weather (they hibernate underground), and why they must find shade on a hot day. Extreme temperatures can kill them.

What do snakes eat?

Snakes eat worms, insects, lizards, small mammals, birds, eggs, frogs, fish and other snakes. They swallow their food whole. All snakes are carnivores.

Are snakes beneficial?

They are good at controlling rodents. Farmers know this, and generally like to have non-poisonous species around. If you’ve ever had a good night’s sleep in a trail shelter and weren't’t plagued by mice, it is probably because snakes are nearby.

Should poisonous snakes be killed when they are seen?

Snakes are part of the natural scheme of things, and have their part in the environment. All snakes, even the poisonous ones, have the right to be left alone in the wild.