FAQ's About Venomous Snakes
How can I tell the difference
between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes?
There are only 4 species of poisonous snakes in
North America; cottonmouth water moccasin, rattlesnake,
copperhead and coral snake. Learn to identify these
snakes from photos, and you can safely assume that all
other snakes you see in North America are non-poisonous.
What should I do if I’m bitten by
a poisonous snake?
Most methods of self treatment are now deemed to cause
more harm than good. The best thing to do is remain calm
and seek professional medical care as soon as possible.
Going into shock is probably as dangerous as the actual
How dangerous are bites from
Small children are in more danger than adults because
the venom is more concentrated in their smaller body
mass. It also depends on how much venom is received.
Everyone who is injected with venom should receive
medical treatment. However, only 10 - 15 people die each
year from snake bites in North America; many more people
are killed by bees and lightning.
If I’m bitten by a poisonous
snake, should I kill it and take it with me to the
hospital for identification?
No, once you get to the hospital a simple blood test can
determine what kind of venom is in your system.
Emergency room staffs rightfully take a very dim view of
bringing snakes (alive or dead) into their emergency
Do rattlesnakes always rattle to
They usually do, but not always. The latest thinking is,
they rattle when two conditions exist; they are
frightened and they think they will be seen. If they are
secure in their camouflage, they probably won’t rattle.
Can snakes hear?
Many current zoology texts still report that snakes lack
the sense of hearing. However, research begun about 35
years ago, especially the extensive investigations over
many years by E.G. Wever and associates at Princeton
University, has shown that snakes have a hearing
capability comparable to that of lizards. Their sense of
hearing is most sensitive to frequencies around 200–300
Like many other animals, snakes have two ways of
detecting sounds: earthborne and airborne. While snakes
lack external and middle ear structures (including the
tympanum, or ear drum), they do have inner ear
structures which have been shown experimentally to
receive airborne sound waves. Airborne sounds are
transmitted to the lung from the skin receptors to the
eighth cranial nerve and inner ear. In addition,
earthborne vibrations are passed through the belly
muscles to special receptors along the spine and thus
transmitted to the brain.
One researcher states that he feels that most snakes can
hear a person speaking in a normal tone of voice in a
quiet room at a distance of about 10 feet (3 meters). He
also claims that two of his snakes respond to him
calling their names. Research is continuing.
In addition, picking up small, minute ground vibrations
of other creatures (including us) moving in their
immediate area is one way they avoid danger and enemies.
They also use this ability to locate prey.
Are snakes really afraid of us?
Absolutely. They live in a world of eat or be eaten.
They take one look at us and “think”, “I can’t eat this
thing, but it’s big enough to eat me”. Consequently,
they are very much afraid of us.
Can poisonous snakes regulate
their venom when they bite?
Evidence indicates that mature rattlesnakes can regulate
their venom. I haven’t heard or read anything that
indicates that the other 3 species of North American
poisonous snakes do this. Rattlesnakes use their venom
for hunting, and they are reluctant to “waste” perfectly
good venom on humans.
Why does a snake flick out its
A snake’s scent glands are located in its tongue. When
it flicks out its tongue, it is “smelling” the air,
usually because it is concerned about another creature
moving in its immediate vicinity.
Does a snake have to be coiled in
order to strike?
No. Coiling is a defensive posture that helps it see
better. It probably also makes the snake feel more sure
when it is frightened; kind of a “circle the wagons”
From what distance can snakes
They can strike about 2/3 of their body length. In other
words, a snake that is 3 feet long can strike from a
distance of about 2 feet. However, I usually give all
poisonous snakes a wide berth; at least 15 feet.
How fast can a snake strike?
About as fast as you can move your arm.
Will non-poisonous snakes bite?
Yes, they will bite if they are threatened or cornered.
Though their bites are not normally considered life
threatening, they can be extremely painful and may cause
bleeding, infection and scarring.
Are snakes aggressive?
Snakes are individuals, just like people. Some are more
aggressive than others. Concerning aggressiveness
according to species, I’ve never seen a non-poisonous
snake do anything other than try to get away unless it
was cornered or attacked. Concerning the poisonous
species, I’d rate the cottonmouth moccasin the most
aggressive, followed by the rattlesnake, then the
copperhead. The coral snake is not considered to be
aggressive at all.
What are “pit vipers”?
Pit vipers (Viperids) have a small heat sensor (or
“pit”) on each side of the head between the eye and
nostril. This pit is used to locate warm-blooded prey.
It acts like an infrared heat detector. However, the pit
doesn’t accurately tell them the size of their prey.
Unfortunately, snakes don’t see well at night, and as a
result we could be mistaken for prey at night. Three of
the four North American poisonous snake species are pit
vipers; cottonmouth, rattlesnake and copperhead.
Can the age of a rattlesnake be
determined by the number of its rattles?
Not really; a new rattle is added each time a
rattlesnake loses its skin, which could be anywhere from
2 to 4 times per year.
Can we eat snakes?
All snakes are edible; even the poisonous ones (the
venom sacs are located directly behind the head,
removing the head removes the venom sacs). The meat is
fairly good but very bony, and yes they do taste
a bit like chicken. Our forefathers probably ate more
snakes than we care to think about.
Can a "dead" snake bite?
From our perspective, it can take an awfully long time
for a snake to die, even after it receives an obviously
fatal injury (like having its head severed from its
body). I once shot and killed a large rattlesnake. I
removed the head with a large knife and buried it.
Several minutes later when I walked past the headless
body of the snake, it tried to strike at my leg. If I
hadn't seen this with my own eyes, I wouldn't have
believed it (Brawny also witnessed its repeated,
headless "strikes"). The snake didn't stop moving
completely for over an hour. I also heard of an incident
where a man killed a snake, removed its head and threw
the head away. However, 2 children retrieved it a few
minutes later and started throwing it back and forth
between them. One of the children was bitten on the hand
(with venom injected) and had to be hospitalized. Give
all "dead" snakes a wide berth, they may not be quite as
dead as they first appear.
How do snakes reproduce?
When the female is fertile, she leaves a scent on the
ground as she moves around. The male uses this scent
trail to locate the female. The snakes intertwine, and
fertilization occurs internally.
Do snakes lay eggs, or bear their
Some snakes lay eggs; others bear their young alive, it
depends on the species. Most pit vipers bear their young
alive. There is no such thing as a “mother” snake. After
the eggs are deposited (usually in a rotting log) or the
baby snakes are born, the female’s responsibility ends.
Can snakes bite while they are
Yes, they can open their mouths and bite while
underwater just like we can. Incidentally, rattlesnakes
are excellent swimmers.
Do snakes go blind when they shed
They don’t go blind, but their vision becomes cloudy and
impaired just before they shed their skin. During this
time, they are more dependent on their other senses.
Can snakes regulate their body
No, they can’t; they are “cold blooded”. It’s why they
aren’t seen during cold weather (they hibernate
underground), and why they must find shade on a hot day.
Extreme temperatures can kill them.
What do snakes eat?
Snakes eat worms, insects, lizards, small mammals,
birds, eggs, frogs, fish and other snakes. They swallow
their food whole. All snakes are carnivores.
Are snakes beneficial?
They are good at controlling rodents. Farmers know this,
and generally like to have non-poisonous species around.
If you’ve ever had a good night’s sleep in a trail
shelter and weren’t plagued by mice, it is probably
because snakes are nearby.
Should poisonous snakes be killed
when they are seen?
Snakes are part of the natural scheme of things, and
have their part in the environment. All snakes, even the
poisonous ones, have the right to be left alone in the