Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake: An ambush predator
Those of us who enjoy the wilds of Florida are well served by a fundamental knowledge of Florida snakes--specifically the venomous snakes found here.
Not that they're a huge problem. In my experience, I hardly ever run across one. But they ARE here and I DO encounter one from time to time. During my entire lifetime of enjoying Florida's backcountry, however, I've only had a handful of close calls with these creatures.
Nevertheless, if you can recognize a venomous snake when you see one, and if you have some idea of their habits and habitat, you'll be able to enjoy your outdoor adventures that much more.
Misinformation About Florida Snakes
In the northern Everglades region where I grew up, it seemed as if almost everyone had at least one snake story.
Everytime a snake story was re-told, the snake got bigger and meaner than it was the last time the story was told. Before you knew it, we were talking aggressive 9-foot diamondbacks with heads as big as two fists.
A lot of misinformation about snakes, Florida snakes included, has developed over time. Maybe it's the result of tall stories, inordinate fear, or a combination of both. Whatever the reason, snakes have gotten a bad rap. That's not to say the venomous ones don't pose any danger--they do. Be aware of their habitats, and watch where you step when you're in areas they're likely to be.
From the Snake's Point of View
But it's not as if they lie in wait to attack you. Fact is, Florida snakes would just as soon avoid you.
Look at it from the snake's point of view. He's interested mostly in finding something to eat--a mouse, a frog, a lizard, whatever. You're a big two-legged, dangerous predator that shakes the ground when you walk. He's low to the ground and senses the vibrations. He wants nothing to do with you.
Now, if for some reason he's "hurt, mad, cornered, or scared," says my friend and renowned snake expert, Maynard Cox, he'll lash out. Other than that, a snake prefers to lie in stealth while you pass by.
Harmless Florida Snakes Aren't a Concern
Most Florida snakes are harmless. While you could receive an unpleasant, germ-laden bite that might require a tetanus shot, these harmless snakes have no venom, so there's only a minor wound to contend with, unless, of course, you happen to trip over a log or something trying to get away from one. "They won't hurt you, but they can make you hurt yourself," is an old Glades saying.
Venomous Florida Snakes
Since the harmless Florida snakes aren't really a concern, let's focus on the venomous ones.
There are six types of venomous Florida snakes: five are pit vipers, and the sixth, the Eastern coral snake, belongs to the cobra family. If you find the information on this page useful, you'll probably want to read chapter nine of my book,
Surviving the Wilds of Florida.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
The largest and deadliest snake in the United States, the Eastern diamondback normally measures around 3 to 5 feet in length. Sometimes, they reach 6 feet.
If you put much stock in snake stories, a 9-foot diamondback turns up every now and then. Is it possible? I don't know. But I do know this: Snakes--the same with fish--shrink when they get close to a tape measure. :-)
Where Diamondbacks Are Found
You'll find diamondbacks mostly in the pine flatwoods. They sometimes inhabit gopher (tortoise) holes, and in the spring especially, you might see them sunning themselves near the gopher hole's entrance. Whenever I walk past a gopher hole, especially in the springtime, I'm always careful to be on the lookout for a nearby diamondback.
You might also see them in and around stands of palmettos or tall grass.
Diamondbacks even show up in some pretty stange places--like swimming miles offshore in saltwater Florida bay.
Not Aggressive by Nature
Although diamondbacks will defend themselves vigorously when threatened, it's not in their nature to be aggressive.
According to Steve Bennet and Wade Kalinowski of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, diamondbacks are "ambush predators" waiting specifically for prey.
When the diamondback is safely hidden and in ambush position, it usually lies still when a human passes by.
But if it's stretched out and between ambush sites, it probably feels threatened and is more likely to rattle and get confrontive. (Refer back to what Maynard says about snakes when they're "hurt, mad, cornered, or scared.")
It can strike up to two-thirds of its body length, and its bite can be deadly.
When walking the backcountry, you can play it safer by staying on well-defined trails. Also, step on top of logs and then away from them rather than over them. This latter suggestion can help you avoid close contact with a snake stretched out or coiled just on the other side of the log.
If you've spent much time in Florida's backcountry, you've probably walked by more diamondbacks than you'd care to know about. The stealthy little critters chose simply to lie still to avoid confronting you. You're not food, so why should they waste their venom and energy tangling with something big enough to eat THEM.
Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake
This Florida snake bites more people than any other venomous snake in the state. It's feisty, aggressive and can be found just about anywhere on the peninsula.
In fact, it's Florida's most common venomous snake.
It usually doesn't get much longer than a foot or two, and the sound produced by its vibrating tail sounds more like an insect's buzz than a snake's rattle. Its bite is seldom fatal, not because the venom isn't potent, but due to its small size and relatively low venom yield. A small child would be at greater risk of death than would a healthy adult.
A Dusky Pygmy Story
One cold, early spring night while we were on a canoe trip on the northern Withlacoochee river, my wife slept atop a pygmy rattlesnake.
We found him in the morning as were taking down our tent. It seems he had crawled under our tent's flooring during the night, probably attracted by the warmth of her body.
Fortunately, for her, he was too cold to move very fast and didn't seem interested in striking or biting at all. We headed downriver that day thankful she had survived her encounter unscathed.
Also called "timber rattlers," these Florida snakes are found only in north Florida, usually in the northeastern part of the state, and usually no more than about 75 miles from the Georgia line.
Large Florida Snake
These large reptiles are second in size to diamondbacks. They are usually some shade of gray, brown, maybe pink, with dark crossbands. Their average length is about three to five feet.
Canebrakes live in cane thickets, along river bottomlands and other low-lying areas.
A canebrake's bite is deadly serious. The venom is potent, often a hemotoxic and neurotoxic cocktail that causes all sorts of problems.
Watch Your Step
Watch where you step. Step on top of logs, not over them.
A Canebrake Story
A forester friend of mine related a story regarding a canebrake. He was squatted down picking blackberries, and had his bucket between his legs. He had been picking berries in the same spot for a while when suddenly, only a couple of feet or so in front of him, two well-camouflaged eyes came into view. Closer insepection showed that those eyes were attached to the head of a larged coiled canebrake rattlesnake.
My friend said that with lightning reflexes, he jumped back out of the snake's range. He was amazed that he had worked around the snake for so long, and that the snake never struck at him. Maybe, we speculated, as with a diamondback, the canebrake felt securely hidden and simply chose to avoid an encounter.
As my friend got back into his truck, his wife said to him, "Well, aren't you going to kill it?" He replied, "No, he didn't bother me, and I'm not going to bother him."
Cottonmouth Water Moccasin (sometimes called "Cottonmouth" or "Water Moccasin")
In my experience, these are the Florida snakes you have to watch for most.
They live mostly in and around water. You may see them on logs or ledges next to the water, or draped over limbs and branches hanging low over the water.
Fat, Stocky Snakes with an Attitude
They are fat, stocky snakes--averaging three to four feet in length--that when agitated open their mouth wide to reveal a cottony-white interior, hence the name.
They seem to be saying, "Hey, you see these fangs, they ain't just for looks, so BACK OFF."
Water moccasins are brownish-black in color.
The younger ones look similar to copperheads, but they tend to darken as they age, and the big ones can be almost all black.
They resemble some non-venomous water snakes, and unless you're experienced, it can be hard to distinguish between the two.
Some distinguishing features:
The Cottonmouth has elliptical, cat-like pupils while non-venomous water snakes have round pupils. However, when a Cottonmouth's pupils are dilated, they're almost round, so be aware of that.
Cottonmouths have a dark stripe that runs behind the eye alongside the head, whereas harmless water snakes have other head patterns.
Cottonmouths tend (not always, but tend to) to swim high in the water, appearing somewhat overly buoyant. The harmless water snakes tend to swim mostly submerged.
Cottonmouths tend to retreat slowly, while water snakes tend to zip out of the way whenever possible. I know, however, that some harmless water snakes will stand their ground and act aggressive when disturbed.
On a dead specimen, check the belly scales below the vent. Cottonmouths have a single row of scales down to the tail's tip, while water snakes have a double row. Note: Snakes maintain some degree of reflexive muscular activity up to a few hours after death. Dead snakes can bite just as sure as live ones can. Be careful handling any dead snake. Carefully remove and dispose of the head.
Be watchful around water. Don't be overly nervous, but do be mindfully watchful for water moccasins. When surprised, they may strike viciously several times before attempting to retreat.
If you have left an overturned watercraft by the water, use caution in righting it. Canoeists have been bitten when they carelessly stuck their hands or feet under their overturned canoe.
Fish on a stringer attract cottonmouths. Fishermen are sometimes bitten when they reach their hands over their boat's gunwhale to pull in the day's catch.
And cottonmouths CAN bite underwater, so be mindful of that. I've swum in dark Florida waters all my life and have never been bitten, but it could happen. In my estimation, if I'm daring enough to drive on I-75 or I-95, I'm certainly daring enough to swim mindfully cautious in Florida waters.
Copperheads in Florida exist only in a small part of the state--about a 50- or 60-mile-wide-area just west of Tallahassee. To delineate this area, draw a line extending southeast from the Georgia border through Marianna and dipping below the latitude of Tallahassee but stopping short of the Gulf shore. Then, continue this line back northward through Quincy and to the Georgia border.
When people in other parts of the state claim to have seen a Copperhead, it's likely what they saw was a young Cottonmouth Water Moccasin, which resembles a Copperhead in that they have
similar markings. A Copperhead is sometimes called an "upland moccasin," a fitting name, since like the Water Moccasin, a Copperhead is also pit viper. Their coloring is dark brown to pale orange or coppery, allowing them to blend in almost perfectly with fallen autumn leaves. In the spring and the fall, Copperheads are active mostly by the day. In summer's heat, however, they are active mostly at night. Average Copperhead length is 2 to 3 feet. Be somewhat wary
walking through fallen leaves. The Copperhead's bite is definitely dangerous. It's venom, however, is not considered as potent as that of other pit vipers.
Eastern Coral Snake
Unlike all other venomous Florida snakes, the Eastern Coral Snake is not a pit viper. In fact, it's a member of the cobra family.
Coral Snake Coloration
Its bright and attractive colors serve as nature's warning that this little guy is dangerous. Red, yellow, and black bands encircle almost the entire body. In some rare cases, however, coral snakes can be very dark, even all black. This is called a "melanistic" phase. In other rare cases, in an albino coral snake, the normally black rings can be all white.
Secretive and Mild-Mannered
Coral snakes are secretive, mild-mannered reptiles, which burrow under leaves and other debris, remaining hidden from most human contact.
Relatively Small Size
Generally, they are about 20 to 35 inches long, with a record size of 51 inches.
Two species of harmless snakes closely resemble the coral snake: the scarlet king snake and the scarlet snake.
These are distinguished from a coral snake in that, in Florida, a coral snake has a black nose, and red and yellow touching bands.
Remember this old saying: "Red and yellow kill a fellow; red and black, good for Jack." When the snake is slithering, it's not easy to tell which bands touch--the red and the yellow, or the red and the black. In such cases, look for the coral snake's black nose as your first clue to identifcation. If you have any doubt as to identity, treat the animal as if it were a coral snake.
While pit viper venom is primarily hemotoxic, meaning it attacks the blood, coral snake venom is primarily neurotoxic, meaning it attacks the central nervous system. They say the bite isn't particularly painful, but without medical help the victim could die of respiratory distress.
A Coral Snake Story
A paramedic related to me the story of a maintenance man bitten by a coral snake.
He was outside a building working on some plumbing when he laid his pipe wrench in the grass next to him. When he went to pick up the pipe wrench, he also picked up a coral snake that just happened to be lying in the spot where he laid his wrench.
The coral snake bit him on one of his fingers. His supervisor insisted on calling 9-1-1, but the maintenance worker said there was no need. He said he was fine. The bite didn't hurt. No problem.
Nevertheless, the supervisor called 9-1-1 and Emergency Medical Services came to help the victim. As they loaded him into the ambulance, the maintenance worker still protested there was no need for all this.
On the ride to the hospital, however, his arm started getting numb and he started to experience wierd sensations, and finally agreed it was a good thing he came with them. He was taken to the hospital where he was admitted, treated, and later released. Without the intervention of medical care, it's likely he would have died.
For more on Florida snakes, see this page showing several informative snake videos.