East Texas has the dubious honor of being home to all four types of venomous snakes found in the United States. Rattlesnakes (pygmy and timber), copperheads, water moccasins, and coral snakes all prosper here.
Rattlesnakes, water moccasins and copperheads are pit vipers with sensors on each side of their head providing their owner a three-dimensional infrared picture of their prey, even in total darkness.
Pit viper venom contains three potent enzymes: proteolytic, which destroys tissue such as muscles, hemolytic that destroys blood cells and sometimes, neurotoxic which attacks nerves, including those that control breathing and heartbeat.
In the United States, pit vipers usually have mostly proteolytic and hemolytic venom with only a very small amount of neurotoxic venom. However, the East Texas timber rattlesnake, Mojave rattlesnake and Southern California rattlesnake, have a significant amount neurotoxin in their venom. Because of this, their bites may not cause pain and a victim could assume, wrongly, that there is no problem. Bite victims of these snakes should be immediately rushed to a hospital.
Copperheads and water moccasins have venom that attacks body tissue and blood cells. Their bite causes immediate pain and swelling. Like rattlesnakes, they have large, hollow, retractable fangs in the front part of their upper jaw. In striking, they open their mouth nearly 180 degrees, extend their two hypodermic-needle-like fangs and slap them into the victim, usually, but not always, injecting a few drops of venom. About fifty percent of snakebites are “dry.” No venom is injected.
Coral snakes are not pit vipers and have venom that is mostly neurotoxic, causing little or no pain or swelling. Their bite is extremely dangerous because the venom attacks nerves that control breathing and heartbeat. However, because Coral snakes have very small mouths, it is difficult for them to bite anything large. They have short, fixed fangs requiring them to get a firm grip and chew to get through the skin. Venom runs down the surface of their fangs and is worked into the wound by the chewing action. Most coral snake bites occur when children, attracted by their bright red, yellow and black bands, pick them up.
Above all, remember there are no snakes (anywhere in the world) that are so poisonous that their bite cannot be successfully treated if medical aid is reasonably close. The so called “3-step snake” with a bite so deadly that three steps later the victim is dead, is a common misconception.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.