ECOVIEWS: Snakes and questions arrive in the spring, part I

  • Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2014 12:01 a.m.

Some people consider robins a harbinger of spring; others look upon hyacinths or daffodils as a sure sign that winter has lost its grip. I use a different indicator: in springtime the number of questions I get asked about snakes increases dramatically. The most common is “what kind of snake is this?” Since most people today carry a camera in the form of a cellphone, I receive easily identifiable photos.

But I also get other questions about snakes, including what to do in a given situation. Following are a few of the snake questions I have received within the last month. Some of them I have heard almost every year at about this time for decades.

Q. Is it true that snakes are able to strike one-third to one-half of their body length?

A. That is certainly about as close as anyone should get to a rattlesnake or copperhead. Personally, I would make it the full length of the snake or more. Being 3 feet away from a 6-foot diamondback that is as big around as a softball doesn't seem far enough to me.

Q. Can a snake bite a person more than once?

A. Absolutely. The amount of venom delivered will vary from strike to strike and can even be more on a second or third bite than on the first one.

Q. If someone is bitten by a poisonous snake, what is the best thing to do? I have read that it is best not to run because venom can get into the bloodstream faster, but I can't imagine not running away as fast as possible.

A. Limiting physical exertion of anyone who's been bitten by a venomous snake is important. The recommendation Mike Dorcas and I make in the book “Snakes of the Southeast' is to get the victim to a hospital or emergency treatment facility as quickly as possible. If you can, call ahead and try to get a physician who has treated snakebite.

Q. At what distance does a snake feel threatened? How close do you have to be before one strikes?

A. I have seen small copperheads strike from more than 10 feet away, which is clearly too far for it to be effective. I have also seen large cottonmouths and rattlesnakes rapidly crawl into underground retreats when I have been more than 30 feet away. All those snakes clearly felt threatened.

Q. Do pit vipers always inject as much venom into a person as they can when they bite? I know they are just trying to protect themselves, but do they try to do as much damage as possible?

A. No. Ironically, venomous snakes would just as soon not use any venom when they strike a person in self-defense. Venom is a complex protein that varies biochemically from species to species but is presumably a very costly commodity for a snake to produce. Therefore, if a threat, such as a person, can be warded off without injecting any venom, that is a preferable to using up venom–sort of like a firing a cannon to convince the enemy to retreat but not using cannonballs. A relatively high proportion of venomous snakes in the country, and probably everywhere, do not inject any venom when they bite in self-defense, or they inject only a small amount.

Q. Would a gas leaf blower or loud power tool cause snakes to move to a quieter location? Could I drive snakes away from my house this way?

A. Snakes do not hear airborne sounds effectively but they can feel vibrations on the ground's surface. Loud machine noises probably would not drive snakes away unless the motor was causing ground vibrations they might respond to. A snake would likely discern a person walking nearby. Depending on the circumstances it might immediately crawl away. If it thought it was well concealed and not threatened, it might stay put.

Next week–more questions people ask about snakes.

Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com.

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