Bill Starr: Learn differences in snakes

Published 1:10 pm Saturday, September 1, 2018

It seems lately every time I turn around I have seen a snake. The other night I was walking my dogs much later than I normally do and I forgot a flashlight. I could tell in the darkness that there was something lying in the road on my way home. Initially, I thought it might have been a stick until it started to move. Seems it was a rattlesnake after carefully trying to shine the light from my cell phone on it.

I am not afraid of snakes but I do have a healthy respect for them.

I have a question for you: how many poisonous snakes do we have in Georgia? 4, 5, 20 anybody care to guess? Well, actually, that was a trick question because the answer is actually 0; that’s right zero. Now before you start calling me names, let me explain. If I ask you how many venomous snakes we have Georgia the answer might be different, more like 6.

Now just hold on a minute; what’s the difference between a poisonous snake and a venomous snake? There is a difference between organisms that are venomous and those that are poisonous, two commonly confused terms applied to plant and animal life. Venomous refers to animals that deliver (often, inject) venom into their prey when hunting or as a defense mechanism. Poisonous, on the other hand, describes plants or animals that are harmful when consumed or touched (like poison ivy or poison dart frogs).

Snakes are not poisonous and frogs are not venomous. Venom is a toxic substance that is injected. Certain species of snakes, scorpions and spiders are venomous, not poisonous. Venom glands typically form the toxic substance and the venom is stored until it is needed. The venomous animal will then bite or sting another creature, whether as intended prey or in defense, and the venom will be injected. Depending on the amount injected, the susceptibility of the animal injected and the size of the animal, various degrees of illness, including death, can occur.

If you call a snake poisonous, you are actually implying that the snake has a toxic substance on his body and poisoning will occur if the snake is handled. This does not occur. Venom is used primarily to immobilize prey and is rarely used as a defense mechanism. The venomous animal will bite in an attack but injecting venom is usually reserved for prey items. A poison is a substance that is absorbed through the skin or ingested, resulting in toxicity. Certain amphibians, fish and insects secrete a substance that is poisonous. The poisonous animal does not inject the substance into another creature. The substance is either absorbed through the skin or ingested when the poisonous animal is placed in the mouth or swallowed. Poison is typically used as a defense mechanism and is rarely used to incapacitate prey.

Don’t worry I sometimes call snakes poisonous as well. Depending on the literature read there are approximately 41 species of snakes in Georgia and only 6 species are venomous: Copperhead, Cottonmouth, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Timber Rattler/Canebrake, Pygmy Rattlesnake and the Coral Snake. Out of the 6 species that are venomous, 5 of them are pit vipers. Pit vipers have a heat sensitive pit below each eye that allows them the capability to detect infrared radiation which helps them locate warm blooded prey. Venomous snakes pose little threat to people who learn to observe them but otherwise leave them alone.

Most snakes in Georgia are harmless and will usually only bite in defense. I believe the risk of snakebite is sometimes greatly exaggerated and most snakebites could be easily avoided with some common sense and basic safety. Statistics indicate that more people are struck by lightning each year, than die from snake bites each year.

Venomous snakes use their venom to primarily kill prey. Many people that are bitten are bitten because the victims were handling the snake, or attempting to kill, capture, or harass the snake. Or they failed to move a safe distance, which would be more than 6 feet away. None of these will you have to worry about me doing. Most snakebites could easily be avoided by exercising good judgment. I will admit there are certain things that might increase one’s chance of being bitten. Logs, tall vegetation, rocks, and other materials provide shelter to snakes and the food they eat. Be cautious when moving such materials and avoid placing your hands or feet where a snake could be hiding.

Snakes, even the venomous kind, are beneficial to the ecosystem because they feed on rodents and insects. Snakes do not hunt humans; we are far too large for any U.S. species to eat. This doesn’t apply if you are from Burma or parts of South America.

Most snake bites could easily be avoided by practicing common sense and by being alert to your surroundings. And please remember to be alert! And let’s not forget that there is a difference between poisonous and venomous.

Bill Starr is Sumter County Extension coordinator/ANR agent, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at 229-924-4476.