Snakes – Silent Stalkers 8 Jun 2016

Hunger drove him as he stalked through the night keeping close to the ground, every sense alert for danger and targets. His cold, lidless eyes were of little help, but by pressing his whole body to the ground vibrations could be sensed.

Like flickers of black lightning, his forked tongue darted in and out, collecting microscopic bits of chemical evidence and inserting them into special sensory organs on his head for identification. A hole loomed ahead and he crawled in, the target odors growing stronger. The tunnel was narrow and long, but he continued to move along, now using special night “vision” equipment to get a three-dimensional heat image in spite of the total darkness.

The tunnel opened up and there it was: a gopher dinner crouched at the far side of the chamber. With barely enough room to move, the snake’s mouth opened, revealing erect, needle-like fangs, and with a movement almost too fast to perceive, he struck, injecting two drops of venom into the target.

Shocked, the gopher trembled and tried to run, stumbling, and strangely dizzy. His heart pounded and his breath came in labored gasps as dizziness overwhelmed his senses and death quickly claimed him. Carefully, the rattlesnake turned his meal around so its nose faced him, unlatched his lower jaw, and with a seesaw motion of its halves began the slow process of swallowing the gopher whole. He would not need to eat again for almost another month.

Sounds terrible, huh? Be glad you’re not a gopher. Actually, snakes are marvelously adapted to their role in the ecosystem. Many are common in the Piney Woods of East Texas, but only coral snakes, copperheads, water moccasins, and rattlesnakes are poisonous.

Coral snakes are small – about 18-24 inches long, with colorful bands of black, red, and yellow. There are other brightly banded but harmless snakes in the area, however, only coral snakes have red and yellow bands touching. Remember “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack.” Even though their neurotoxic venom is as toxic as most cobras, the coral snake seldom bites. They also have very small mouths with fixed teeth and must grip their prey firmly and chew to work the poison in. Very few bites from these snakes occur each year, and they are mostly children who picked up the pretty snake. Their venom causes little or no pain but attacks the nerves that control heartbeat and respiration, so their bites can be very serious, sometimes resulting in death.

Copperheads, water moccasins, and rattlesnakes are called pit vipers because of the heat sensing organs located in pits on each side of their head. In the front part of their upper jaw is a pair of hollow, hypodermic needle-like fangs connected to venom glands and sacs. These special, poison delivering teeth can be folded back against the roof of their mouth or erected when striking. Copperheads generally dine on mice. The water moccasin’s menu includes fish, muskrats, rabbits, water birds, water snakes, copperheads, and other water moccasins.

As venomous snakes go, copperheads and water moccasins are not very dangerous. A patient may be kept under observation in a hospital for two or three days and given pain medication. There will usually be pain, swelling, and discoloration in the affected area, but no permanent problems. Recovery is ordinarily uneventful, and complete. Often, antivenin is not administered.

East Texas is home to the timber rattler, also known as a canebrake rattler, and the western pygmy rattlesnake. Normally, the bite of a rattlesnake is immediately painful and can cause serious tissue damage. However, the East Texas timber rattler has venom that is mostly neurotoxic, so its bite may be painless, causing the victim to assume, mistakenly, that the bite was harmless. Their diet consists of birds, rats, mice, rabbits, and squirrels. The western pygmy rattler, as its name suggests, is very small, seldom longer than 14 inches, and its bite is not terribly serious. Its food consists of small reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

Antivenin may or may not be used in the treatment of rattlesnake bites, depending on the seriousness of the symptoms. Physicians carefully weigh the potential for harm before administering it. Coral snake antivenin is in very short supply, or nonexistent, in some areas due to the manufacturer ceasing production. Most coral snake bites are successfully treated without antivenin.

But don’t be too panicky about snakes. Given a chance, they will try to avoid you. Just watch where you walk, don’t reach into places you can’t see, be cautious around woodpiles, piles of rocks, and building foundations. If you see a poisonous snake, don’t panic. You’re a lot faster than they are, and they can only strike about 1/3 of their body length. In any case, any venomous snakebite victim should always be taken to an emergency facility.

Snakes are generally beneficial and important controls for rats, mice, and other rodents in our fields and forests.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.