Springtime Snake ID: Part II

 

By Erin Cashion

This is Part II of a two-part blog series! Be sure to check out Part I to learn about Ohio’s most common snake species and snake identification myths.

Snake Bite Statistics

Before I cover Ohio’s three venomous snake species, I want to take some time to discuss the danger of snakebite relative to the other hazards in our lives. While the fear of snakes is not always rational and thus can’t necessarily be extinguished by facts, I still think putting the danger of venomous snakes into perspective can be a useful and interesting exercise.

Based on CDC data collected from 1999 – 2017, an average of 6 people died per year due to complications from snake envenomation, out of about 8,000 reported bites. Out of those 8000 bites:

  • 66% were the result of direct harassment, i.e. the person tried to handle or kill the snake
  • 25% were “dry” bites, in which no envenomation occurred
  • 40% involved alcohol or intoxication
  • 80% of the bitten were men or boys

These 8000 bites and 6 deaths each year include people who work with venomous snakes on a daily basis, such as wildlife professionals and people who collect venom for pharmaceutical research; those who handle venomous snakes as part of their religious faith; private hobby snake keepers; intoxicated people showing off; and Steve Irwin imitators – as well as the average person who kills every snake they find in their yard.

By comparison, the average American is:

  • 3.5 times more likely to die in a plane crash
  • 5.5 times more likely to be killed by a domestic dog
  • 7 times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning
  • 10.5 times more likely to be killed by a rogue lawnmower (“motorized lawn equipment” is a real category in the CDC data!)
  • 70 times more likely to drown in a bathtub

Does the fear surrounding snakes seem a bit misplaced now?

Ohio’s Three Venomous Snake Species

The three venomous snakes in Ohio are the Northern Copperhead, the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, and the Timber Rattlesnake.

Despite what you may have heard or believed you have seen, to date no cottonmouths/ water moccasins have been found in Ohio (although as the climate warms, that is almost certain to change). Photographic or physical evidence of a cottonmouth in Ohio would thus be very important, and of immense scientific value to the wildlife community. If you think you found a cottonmouth, snap some photos and fill out a Wildlife Species Sighting form to submit your observations to ODNR, or you may contact us. I also encourage using the smartphone apps iNaturalist or HerpMapper, where other naturalists can confirm your ID and add your observations to various research projects.

Two of Ohio’s 3 venomous snakes have specific habitat requirements and are very unlikely to be encountered accidentally, and all three can be easily recognized and avoided.

1. Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)

This medium-sized, stout-bodied, beautifully patterned snake is arguably the most feared snake in our part of the country, but this fear is unfounded. Although the copperhead is responsible for most venomous snake bites reported to the CDC each year, their venom is the least toxic of all North American venomous snakes. The death rate from copperhead bites is negligible and seldom even requires antivenin therapy for recovery.

Copperheads feed on a wide variety of prey, from mammals and amphibians, up to and including cicadas and caterpillars. Check out this video of a copperhead stalking and consuming a cicada larva:

Babies can be more grayish or brownish in color, but are easily identified by their bright yellow or green tail tip, which they use to attract prey.
A baby copperhead with its yellow tail tip clearly visible.
Copperhead markings can be variable but are generally hourglass-shaped, with the narrowest part being along the spine. Their markings and brown to orange coloration help them blend in with the forest floor, where they spend the majority of their time. Unlike the watersnakes for which they are frequently mistaken, they have a pale-colored upper lip that is visible from quite a distance away (as seen below), while watersnakes have a barred or dark-colored upper lip.
A beautiful adult copperhead at rest, showing the pale, unmarked upper lip.
When encountered, copperheads tend to remain motionless, relying on their excellent camouflage to escape detection. Because of this, many bites happen when a person unknowingly steps on them or accidentally grabs them while working in the garden – further fuelling the fear of this species, as the bites seem to “come out of nowhere”.

In Ohio copperheads are now only found in a few counties of unglaciated southeast Ohio. Fun fact: an enzyme in copperhead venom is being used to shrink breast cancer tumors, and two common blood pressure medications were derived from the venom of a distantly related Bothrops viper.

2. Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus)

This beautiful little rattlesnake rarely exceeds two feet in length, and is extremely rare and declining in Ohio due to habitat loss. This shy species is often the target of illegal collection and poaching in some of our protected nature preserves, the last places in Ohio where it can still be found.
An Eastern Massasauga coiled at rest.
Its name is a Chippewa word that means “great river mouth”, possibly referencing the habitat in which they were once found. Today they are found in poorly drained wetland habitats adjacent to upland prairie – both of which are also rare and declining in Ohio. The conservation of this species is complex, as they depend on several habitat types throughout their life cycle. They spend the winter in crayfish burrows.
A massasauga in a defensive pose in dry leaves.
It is reluctant to rattle, and the sound is a dry, high-pitched buzz that is difficult to distinguish from the grasshoppers with which it shares its habitat. It feeds on almost entirely on small mammals, although they occasionally consume amphibians and other reptiles, particularly as juveniles.

3. Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The timber rattlesnake is the heaviest snake in Ohio, and they can approach 4 feet in length. This stout-bodied rattlesnake can be quite beautiful and has a distinctive pattern of dark-colored chevrons or triangles on a background ranging from dark brown to golden, like the individual below. Some timbers can be almost completely black.
Herpetologist Doug Wynn with a Timber on a study site in southern Ohio.
The typical Timber can be found curled up adjacent to logs on the forest floor during the summer months, waiting for their rodent prey to scurry by. Like the copperhead, it relies on camouflage to escape detection, and may not rattle when encountered. Even when disturbed this very mild-mannered snake will attempt to escape rather than stand its ground. I encountered the lovely individual below on a dirt road in rural Pennsylvania, and it never rattled – even when I moved it off the road with my trekking poles.
This timber was found by the author on a dirt road in Pennsylvania.
In the northern parts of their range, Timbers spend the winter in rocky dens along the high ridges of the Appalachians. Female snakes give live birth in late summer and guard their young from predators for the first two weeks of their life, and may even “babysit” the young of other timbers.
A Timber guards her newborns from predators.
Timbers avoid human settlements and are most often found in wooded habitats of unglaciated Ohio, and populations are declining due to habitat loss and direct persecution by humans.

Closing Thoughts and Other Resources

Snakes are arguably the most maligned vertebrate in Western culture. When was the last time you read a story or watched a film with a snake in it, and the snake was not portrayed as a villain? Check out this list of snake appearances in films. What proportion of these films portray a snake favorably, or even just neutrally? From the Serpent in the Bible, to Kaa of the Jungle Book, to Nagini in Harry Potter, it seems that we love to hate snakes. Why is that?

If you are afraid of snakes or you hate them, take some time to consider why that might be. Perhaps you had a parent, grandparent, or close family friend who insisted on killing snakes on their property. Perhaps your sibling or friend used to catch them and scare you with them. Or perhaps they are just “creepy” to you and you don’t know why.

Whatever the reason, a little education goes a long way in dispelling those fears and creepy feelings. If you’re on Facebook, I urge you to join the Snake Identification group. This group is for the urgent ID of wild (not captive) snakes. Many people have said that joining the group helped them not only learn to ID snakes, but to get over their fear too! For general questions and discussion of wild snake topics, I also recommend the LIVE Snake Education and Discussion group.

Other Useful Infographics and Guides:

The Ohio Department of Wildlife’s Reptiles of Ohio Field Guide
Brittany LeBold’s Mistaken Identity infographic
The Toledo Blade’s Venomous Snakes of Ohio article and low-res infographic
Dr. Zoltan Takacs’s venom research and table of venom-based medicines

Happy Spring!
If you leave a snake alone, it's not dangerous.

Posted April 15, 2020
Topics: Daily LifeNatural History

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