Venomous Snakes

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On average, 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year. However, only 9 - 15 of these victims actually die. More people are struck and killed by lightning each year. Despite this fact, many people are afraid every time they go out in nature that they will meet up with a venomous snake. Snakes tend to be defensive, not aggressive. They will make every attempt to get away from a potential threat before the last resort of striking with the intention of biting. Still, it's wise to have a healthy respect for snakes. Even though most snakes in Ohio are nonvenomous, they are still able to inflict painful bites. There are only three venomous, or poisonous, snakes in Ohio. These are the Eastern timber rattlesnake, northern copperhead, and the massasauga rattlesnake.

Every year people claim to see the dangerous water moccasin, also known as cottonmouth, in Ohio's waters. They are actually encountering the harmless Northern water snake.


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Venomous or Not:

So how do you tell a venomous snake from a non-venomous snake? Most importantly it should be stated that snakes encountered in the wild, like any other form of wildlife, should be admired from a distance. There should be no attempt to disturb them in any way. Before you go into Ohio's outdoors, you should be aware of the general physical characteristics, ranges and habitats of the state's three venomous snakes. If you do, you are better able to avoid them all together. In the event that you come across a snake you can then quickly narrow down the possibilities.

If you are in Ohio, and you think that you are near a venomous snake, there are a few things to look for:

 (NOTE: These guidelines only work in Ohio and other northeastern states.)

    1. There are heat sensitive pits located on the head between the nostrils and eyes (nonvenomous - have nostrils only)
    2. The pupils are oval (nonvenomous - round)
    3. The head is triangular (nonvenomous snakes have a usually oval head)
    4. From the vent (rectum) to the end of the tail, on the underside of the snake, the scales are not divided (nonvenomous - the scales in the same area are divided)
    5. Except for the copperhead, there is a rattle at the end of the tail. (Nonvenomous snakes may vibrate their tail when threatened, but do not have a rattle).
    For many of these points, the rule of thumb is, if you're unsure of the species and you're close enough to see some of these characteristics, YOU'RE TOO CLOSE!

    How Do They Do That?

    Venomous snakes use their venom (modified, toxic saliva) to subdue their prey so that they can kill it. It also helps with digestion. Depending on the snake, its venom affects the prey's nervous system, tissues, blood - or all three. In North America, the venom of most of the venomous snakes is hematoxic, meaning that it destroys the tissues, causing internal bleeding, and is very painful. It is also an anticoagulant, stopping the blood from clotting. All of the venomous snakes in Ohio are members of the pit viper family. This name refers to the very sensitive heat pit which allows them to locate prey at night. Even in total darkness, the snake can find and accurately strike at prey that is only a fraction of a degree warmer than their surroundings. Studies have shown that a blindfolded snake can accurately follow prey up to 6 feet away.

    The fangs on pit vipers are located in the front of the upper jaw. The fangs lay against the roof of the mouth until needed. When they are ready to strike, they will open their mouth, rotating the upper jaw bone, and allowing the fangs to be brought forward. The venom is released from a venom sac in the cheeks and travels through a tube in the fang, coming out of a hole in the tip of the fang. Snakes can control the amount of venom that is released. At times they may actually give a "dry bite", while in others, they may "load up" and bite several times. The "strength" of the venom depends on the species of snake. In Ohio, the bite of the Eastern timber rattlesnake is much more dangerous than the Northern copperhead. Besides prey, the most commonly bitten animals are dogs and horses because of curiosity and getting their noses too close.


    Milking a Snake?

    Medical science has learned a lot about how to treat snake bites by studying venom. Venomous snakes are "milked" of their venom by placing their open mouth over a jar and applying pressure to the venom sac. This venom is used in making serum, the "anti-venom," that is given to snake bite victims to stop the poison's affects. Scientists are also finding a number of beneficial uses for snake venom, including recent research in the treatment of breast cancer and its ability to break up blood clots.

    What To Do If The Worst Happens

    Venomous snakes have been the stars of many Hollywood westerns. Viewers have witnessed hundreds of times the faithful friend who applies a tourniquet to stop blood (and venom) flow and then make an incision to suck the poison out. In all fairness, this was a common practice in the past. However today, it is more advisable to call 9-1-1 as soon as possible for medical help and to keep the bite victim very still and calm giving the venom a chance to localize instead of traveling through the blood system. It has been found that the remedies of the past actually harm the victim more than help.

    See Also