Venomous Snakes Of Georgia
Although they may not realize it, many people live or play among venomous snakes. It’s important to know the ranges and how to identify Georgia’s dangerous snakes.
Why is it most people, including many avid outdoors men and women, have a fear of snakes?
It is generally thought that this fear is passed along from one generation to the next by mothers, fathers, uncles and grandpas. Then there are the tall tales. Most likely, many of you reading this article have stories of monster rattlesnakes as wide as a two-lane road, or water skiers falling into nests of venomous serpents and receiving so many bites the person was killed instantly. While some of these stories may have a slight bit of factual basis, most of these stories are greatly embellished to make for a more exciting and “life-threatening” adventure. The record rattlesnake, which was an eastern diamondback, was exactly 8 feet, far shorter than the width of any road. The stories of skiers are so far fetched that they are frequently even said to occur in areas where cottonmouths do not even exist… such as Lake Lanier in north-central Georgia. At any rate, these stories along with constant reminders by parents to their children that snakes are dangerous and evil creatures perpetuates the terror of snake encounters.
In Georgia, we are extremely fortunate that the state exhibits an amazing diversity in flora and fauna. This also holds true in regards to reptiles, including the venomous species of snakes. There is at least one species of venomous snake found in each of the 159 counties in Georgia. There are also some counties that fall within the range of as many as six venomous species. What we must always consider, however, is that the number of non-venomous species far out-number the venomous ones. Atlanta and its surrounding areas are a good example, where almost 30 species of snakes can be found but of those only four are venomous. Due to the fewer number of venomous species, it is much easier to learn to recognize the venomous ones, and the following species accounts and photographs will aid in this process.
The venomous snakes in Georgia fall into two categories. The pit vipers are represented by rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths. These snakes have heat-sensing pits located between the eye and the nostril, and these pits provide the snake with a thermal image that is useful in locating warm-blooded prey. Pit vipers also have long fangs which hinge or fold up into the roof of the mouth. The second group, the elapids, only have one representative in the state, and that is the coral snake. This family contains some of the world’s most dangerous snakes, including cobras, kraits and many of Australia’s famous venomous species like the taipan and brown snake.
The following is a list of some basic guidelines in regards to venomous snake species. Everyone, whether they are hunters, anglers, hikers, campers or just people living in an area where venomous snakes may be encountered, needs to be aware of where snakes are likely to be found, the times of year when they are most likely to be encountered and what to do if they encounter one.
The following list is just some basic points, and they are not in any particular order of importance.
• Keep your yard free of lumber, pieces of tin, etc. as these are places where snakes can hide, putting your children and pets at greater risk of snake encounters.
• On warm summer nights, do not go barefoot even in your own yard as numerous snake bites occur on bare feet that step on snakes in the darkness. Many snakes, especially copperheads, cottonmouths and coral snakes, are nocturnal during the hot Georgia summer.
• Always look before you sit on logs, rocks or other landscape features as a snake may be in residence underneath or along side taking advantage of the shade.
• When camping, use your flashlight at night when looking for firewood. The piece of wood you pick up may have a snake hiding underneath. This can prevent scorpion stings as well.
• If a snake is encountered, even if you know it is venomous, do not attempt to catch or kill it. A high percentage of snake bites occur on people trying to kill a snake.
• If a snake-bite envenomation occurs, stay as calm as you can and get to a medical facility as soon as you can. It is not necessary to take the snake with you and if a person is bitten. It is extremely important not to risk multiple bites by trying to kill the snake. Multiple bites may result in a much more serious health threat. Also, it is no longer advised to cut the fang punctures to suck out venom, and do not use a tourniquet as they also are no longer advised as a first-aid measure. The only thing one should do is get to a hospital where medical evaluation can take place and the appropriate treatment can be administered.
Important Note! Of the thousands of people bitten by venomous snakes in the United States every year, there are typically less than a dozen fatalities. Your chance of death as a result of venomous snakebite is very slim. This is NOT to say that snake-bite envenomation is not serious, as it certainly can be life threatening, but today our medical treatments are very good, and most bites result in a full recovery by the patient.
As one last reminder… many bites by non-venomous snakes end up being treated as if it were a life-and-death matter. People have shocked them- selves with car batteries, cut through ligaments and tendons resulting in loss of full motion of fingers, and there are reports of people sticking their bitten hand in ice for two hours or more while en-route to hospital, only to discover they were bitten by a non-venomous species.
Your best means of ensuring a snakebite has a good outcome is to call the local Georgia Poison Control Center, the local fire and rescue or a hospital to get advice and to inform them of an approximate time you will arrive for treatment. Your car keys are your best first aid, and this combined with a cell phone should result in a happy ending to snakebite envenomation.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
Size: Adults average 4 to 5 feet in length. Large adults may be 6 feet or longer, and the record is 8 feet.
Reproduction: Live bearer with young that are 12 to 15 inches at birth. Range: The southern and eastern portion of the state, from Screven County on the Savannah River to Laurens County over to Macon County. The eastern diamondback is a sandhill community species and is also found on many of the Barrier Islands along the coast.
Food: Mainly rodents, including native rat species, rabbits and occasionally birds.
Venom: Due to its large size, the eastern diamondback is an extremely dangerous snake. Large amounts of venom plus long fang length allow for deep penetration which may result in a very serious envenomation.
The eastern diamondback is one of the world’s most impressive snakes. The sight of a large diamondback, coiled and rattling is a most incredibly stimulating experience. Unfortunately, this often results in the snake being killed and this along with habitat destruction has placed this species in jeopardy. Their numbers are greatly reduced in many areas of the Deep South. Eastern diamondbacks give birth to “live young,” and the young snakes are born fully equipped with fangs and venom and can deliver a venomous bite. These snakes favor sandy soil habitats and are often found in the burrows of gopher tortoises, where they find refuge as well as escape the cold during the winter. Diamondbacks vary considerably in temperament, and some snakes refuse to rattle and continually crawl away from intruders while others may rattle vigorously at the approach of a person and strike repeatedly. Striking range is greatly exaggerated by most people telling stories of encounters with this species, and a 6-foot snake is only capable of striking a little more than 2 feet.
Canebrake or Timber Rattlesnake
Size: The timber rattlesnake averages 3 to 4 1/2 feet with large individuals reaching 5 feet in length. The record is just over 6 feet in length.
Reproduction: Live bearer, young about 8 to 12 inches in length.
Range: Statewide but appears to be absent in the southwestern counties of Decatur and Seminole.
Food: Small rodents, including rats, mice, chipmunks and squirrels.
Venom: Very potent venom, and the bite by a large timber/canebrake rattlesnake can be very serious.
The canebrake is at home in the bottomland swamps of the South and derives its name from the river cane which grows along the margins of rivers and swamps. Canebrakes are the lowland form of the timber rattlesnake, and today these snakes are considered the same species. Canebrakes are extremely adapted to their preferred habitats, and their cryptic coloration provides them with incredible camouflage. Even large adults are difficult to see on the forest floor. Canebrakes frequently remain silent upon approach and seem to rely more on their concealment than they do their rattle to warn intruders of their presence. Due to this, when walking in canebrake habitat, it is extremely important that hikers, hunters and campers watch where they walk. Canebrakes vary in coloration, but most have dark chevrons on a tan to pinkish background color. Many also have an almost orange vertebral strip. Also, the canebrake’s dark strip extending from their eye to the angle of their jaw is characteristic for this lowland form of timber rattlesnake. The high- land form typically has a clear face and also can be found in a melanistic (black) form. These are only known to be found in the extreme northern counties of Rabun, Towns and Union counties as well as Walker County in northwest Georgia.
Pigmy Rattlesnake (Carolina and dusky pigmy rattlesnakes are found in Georgia)
Size: 15 to 22 inches. The record Carolina pigmy is 25 inches; the record dusky pigmy is just over 31 inches; and the record western pigmy is just over 25 inches.
Reproduction: Live bearer, young are very tiny — 6 to 7 inches in length. Range: All but the extreme northern counties. However, even within their range there are large gaps in documented county records. The eastern and southern counties are the range of the dusky pigmy rattlesnake while the northern range is occupied by the Carolina pigmy.
Food: Frogs, lizards and small rodents.
Venom: The venom of the pigmy rattlesnake, although quite virulent, is in small quantities. Bites, although potentially serious, are typically not life threatening to adults. However, all venomous snakes should be treated with caution, including the diminutive pigmy rattlesnakes, as their bites can result in severe envenomation, especially to people who may have extreme adverse reaction to the venom. People experiencing hyper-sensitivity to venom occurs in a small percentage of the population.
The pigmy rattlesnake can be very abundant at certain times of the year, but it is very localized in its distribution. While the dusky pigmy is commonly found in some areas of south Georgia, the Carolina pigmy is relatively rare throughout much of north-central Georgia and only appears to be common in areas along the Savannah River. The rattle of these little snakes sounds more like the faint sound of an insect and can only be heard at close ranges. Pigmy rattlesnakes are very pugnacious, and numerous bites occur each year. These bites occur when people walking barefoot accidentally step on unseen pigmies or on persons gardening and placing their hands within the reach of a hidden pigmy rattlesnake. In addition, the speed of the strike of a pigmy rattlesnake is an awesome thing to see as it is lightning fast. The fortunate thing is that the striking distance is short. These snakes are small, and their striking range is dictated by the snake’s size. An average size adult pigmy can only strike about 5 or 6 inches, but if you are within reach, you will be bitten so quickly you will not have the reaction time to avoid the strike.
Cottonmouth or Water Mocassin
Size: Adults are 3 to 4 feet on aver- age. Large adults reach 5 feet in length, and the record is near 6 feet. Cottonmouths attain a very heavy body when food is plentiful.
Reproduction: Live bearer, young are 8 to 12 inches in length. Young have a sulfur-yellow tail tip which is used as a lure to attract small frogs and lizards, on which the young snakes feed.
Range: The southern two-thirds of the state, from Lincoln and Wilkes counties along the Savannah River to Jasper County, Fayette County and a small population in extreme southern Fulton County, Douglas County and along the western counties bordering Alabama up to Floyd County. This snake is not found in the Chattahoochee drainage north of Atlanta.
Food: Fish, frogs, tadpoles, turtles, other snakes as well as anything else that can be overpowered. Cottonmouths are also known to scavenge on road kills.
Venom: The bite from a large cottonmouth has the potential of being extremely serious. Necrosis (gangrene) is a prevalent occurrence in bites from this species.
The cottonmouth is a large-bodied, semi-aquatic snake found along rivers and canals, and it is also a well- known denizen of swamps throughout the South. Its name is derived by its habit of opening its mouth when surprised at close quarters. The cotton- mouth will throw back its head and open its mouth very wide, exposing the white interior of the mouth. Even though these snakes have a reputation of being aggressive, I have found that even at night, while wading in the swamps, I have to frequently pursue cottonmouths to catch them. Some do stand their ground, but I have never experienced a cottonmouth to chase or pursue me in more than 35 years of working with snakes. Young cottonmouths are considerably more patterned than adults, and typically large adults become very dark with an obscure pattern that may only be seen when the snake is wet.
Size: Adults average 2 to 3 feet in length. Large adults reach 4 feet with the record being 4 feet, 4 inches.
Reproduction: Live bearer, with young that are 7 to 10 inches at birth, and like the cottonmouth the young have a yellow tail which is used as a lure.
Range: Much of Georgia with the exception of the southeastern counties surrounding the Okefenokee Swamp. Copperheads can be common even within the major cities of Atlanta and Macon.
Food: Small rodents, frogs and insects.
Venom: Copperheads tend to be very pugnacious snakes, and they are responsible for a large number of envenomations each year. Their bites, while serious, typically are not life threatening to a healthy adult.
The copperhead is an abundant snake throughout much of the state. It can be especially abundant at certain times of the year, and in August 2007, I found 22 copperheads in a few nights of snake hunting in north-central Georgia. Copperheads may be quite abundant in urban and developed areas. People need to take precautions walking barefooted after dark during warm summer nights as stepping on a copperhead in the darkness frequently results in an envenomation. In addition, removing firewood from the woodpile after dark on the first cool evenings of the fall can be risky, as a copperhead may have selected your woodpile as a place to spend the winter. Bare hands may be the target for a strike from one of these beautiful little pit vipers.
Size: Adults are 20 to 30 inches with large adults reaching 3 feet in length. The record is near 4 feet in length.
Reproduction: Egg layer, with young about 8 inches at hatching.
Range: The eastern and southern one-third of the state. Also extends well up the Flint River to the counties of Pike and Meriwether.
Food: Lizards and small snakes.
Venom: Coral snakes are elapids, which mean they are relatives of cobras. Their fangs are fixed, meaning they are not hinged such as the fangs of pit vipers and although they are fairly short, they are very effective in providing a means of injecting venom into prey or into the hands of people foolish enough to pick one up. Bites by coral snakes are very uncommon as these snakes do not strike like the other venomous species in Georgia. Bites typically occur when snakes are picked up or stepped on by bare feet.
Visit the website www.reptileeducation.com for more information on Georgia snakes and also photos to help you identify them.
Other Articles You Might Enjoy