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Snakes in Georgia: The good, the bad…and the TRUTH

You’ve seen the headlines recently, right?

  • Copperhead snake bites on the rise in Georgia (May 18, 2017 Fox News)
  • Snake Bites Began Early in 2017; Copperheads Posing Threat (May 14, 2017 US News)
  • Snakebites in Georgia up 40 to 50 percent this year (May 11, 2017 WSB)

These stories felt like sensational journalism…a common scare tactic. So, I reached out to my friends at Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites who put me in touch with the Wildlife Resources Division, their sister agency in the Department of Natural Resources.

Our hunch was right…

Here’s the real, honest truth…

snakes in georgia

We had a great conversation with John Jensen. He’s a Senior Wildlife Biologist at the DNR, Wildlife Resource Division.


DNR senior wildlife biologist John Jensen with an eastern indigo snake caught and released as part of research involving this federally threatened species in Georgia. Credit: Joe Abene

And to be candid with you, we are so concerned with making sure you are getting accurate facts that we shared this piece with the GaDNR before posting so that they could fact-check it for us!

 

A Copperhead in Jasper County. Photo by John Jensen, DNR

A Copperhead in Jasper County. Photo by John Jensen, DNR

Is the hype real?

According to John, it could very well be that “snake bites are on the rise in 2017” as the news reports…but that shouldn’t surprise you.

Anyone who claims they know exactly why should probably not be trusted, but John was willing to speculate.

His guess?

One factor is probably the warmer winter we had…and the early spring. Snakes emerge from underground shelters and other winter refuges when the weather warms up.

Another factor?

People tend to wander into the woods, enjoying more hiking and other outdoor activity with the milder temps.

It doesn’t mean there are more snakes, Jensen says. In fact, he guesses there might even be a decline in snake populations to coincide with the human influx.

Which brings up another possibility…as our population increases and the metro area expands, humans are encroaching on snakes’ territory.

 

This gorgeous Corn Snake was photographed in Long County by John Jensen, GaDNR

Are snakes really a threat to our livelihood?

Consider this:

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 5 people die annually from bites by venomous snakes in the entire US.
  • I am not knocking Atlanta folks, but… compare this to Atlanta’s homicide numbers. So far this year, there was a homicide in Atlanta every other day!
  • About 3-4 people die on Georgia’s highways each day.

As far as concern about snake bites, it’s FAR FAR more dangerous to get in your car or walk to the museum than it is to take a hike in the mountains (and we’re certainly not pulling back on those activities.)

John indicated that many fatalities are from venomous snakes kept as pets, in situations where the handler got careless. Embarrassment may keep some of these people from seeking medical treatment, or at least delay it.

 

snakes in georgia

A Timber Rattlesnake photo’d by John Jensen (GaDNR) in Baker County.

Ok. Death isn’t an issue. What about a bite from a venomous snake? Isn’t that a risk?

Again, according to John, the large majority of those bitten by venomous snakes (5,000-8,000 annually in the US per the CDC) are actually handling or harassing the snake.

The lesson here? Don’t keep a venomous snake as a pet. If you do, don’t get careless. And certainly don’t mess with a venomous snake if you see one in the wild.

Being bitten by a snake as you are hiking on a trail or playing out in your yard is very rare.

An interesting fact about copperheads (which seem to be the snake of focus lately,) is that they do not have venom potent enough to kill a healthy person.

If you are bitten, it will hurt. You should go to the hospital. Immediately. No questions asked. But really, any deaths by copperheads are generally from other complications…not the venom.

 

Copperheads and their non-venomous look-a-likes

snakes in georgia

Some Georgia nonvenomous snake species are often misidentified as copperheads, the state’s most common venomous species. The two top images in this collage are copperheads. Nonvenomous snakes sometimes confused for copperheads include (left to right, second row) northern watersnake and corn snake; (third row) brown snake and gray rat snake; and, (bottom row) juvenile black racer and juvenile black rat snake. Photo credits: copperhead (top left), northern watersnake and black racer – Dirk J. Stevenson. Juvenile black rat snake – Greg C. Greer. Others: John Jensen/GaDNR

 

snakes in georgia

The common suburban snake, a red-bellied snake, photographed by John Jensen, GaDNR

Should I fear the non-venomous snakes I see?

Not at all. In fact, we should welcome them!

There are six venomous snake species in Georgia, and 39 non-venomous snake species. Most snakes you see will likely be non-venomous. That’s just math.

Both venomous and non-venomous snakes do not see you as prey. They know they can’t eat you…and they just want to get away from you, or at least not be noticed by you. If they bite you it’s because they think they are being attacked…because biting something as big as you is sheer suicide for them.

You’ve probably heard it before, but I want to say it again: Snakes are helpful! They are part of the circle of life.

John tells me that Georgia has about 8-10 snakes that, as full grown adults, never grow bigger than 12 inches. People tend to write him about these regularly, thinking they must be babies of some larger species. Probably not.

Growing up, we hear about snakes eating rodents. Some do, but more than that they eat something else.

Brown snakes and red-bellied snakes commonly found in suburbia eat slugs and snails. They are a gardener’s best friends.

Crown snakes eat centipedes, a venomous invertebrate, so you want them in your yard for sure.

In addition to eating creepy-crawlies, snakes are also important as prey…for bigger snakes and other species.

 

snakes in georgia

The northern watersnake, pictured here by John Jensen, GaDNR, is often mis-identified as a cottonmouth.

Is it safe to play in the waterfalls this summer?

You know my family. We LOVE to play in the creeks and streams and waterfalls. So my question to John: Does this give you pause?

Not at all, he said!

One of the most commonly confused snake species is the water moccasin, also known as cottonmouths. Why? Probably because there is no uniquely distinctive pattern or markings. Also, people assume any snake in the water is a water moccasin, because that’s the species we hear about most often.

If you’re in the water…especially in the N Ga Mountains… and you see a snake – it’s probably a non-venomous water snake.

Cottonmouths are generally not found in the mountains, except for some occurrences in extreme northwest Georgia. Like cottonmouths, watersnakes also have triangular heads and thick bodies, often causing confusion for the humans that encounter them.

Don’t hesitate to head to the water this summer.

 

snakes in georgia

Common garter snake. John Jensen, GaDNR

It probably won’t happen. But what if I get bit by a snake?

I’ve never been bitten. So I relied on John for this info.

John’s been bitten well over 100 times…because it’s his job to catch snakes in the wild and handle them regularly. But, all of those were from nonvenomous snakes.

The first thing I asked was, “What do I do if I am bitten but I don’t know if it’s venomous or non-venomous?”

John ensures me that you will know. 

A venomous snake will leave the tell-tale mark of a single or double puncture wound from the fangs.

BUT

More than that, John says you will feel the STING like a bee or yellow jacket. You’ll feel the pain of the venom spread. It will light you up!

(For those of you in South Georgia, there is one caveat: coral snakes. Coral snakes are not pit vipers but rather elapids. They do not have a painful bite because their venom is neurotoxic and thus deadens the nerves. This is actually one of the biggest problems with coral snake bites because people assume no venom was injected since it doesn’t hurt and don’t seek immediate treatment.)

A non-venomous snake does not have fangs. It has hundreds of tiny teeth; you’ll feel the prick from that. You might see blood (or the snake might still be holding on to you.) It will be much more scary than painful.

Another interesting thing is that the snake will often release a musk as a defensive move. It’s a mixture of excretion, feces, etc. It’s gross, but harmless.

 

snakes in georgia

A non-venomous snake bite (black rate snake,) by Bill Bumgarner

OK – Back to the question at hand. What do you do?

You’ve probably heard to tourniquet the wound. DON’T DO IT!

That’s old-school advice.

Five of the 6 venomous snake species in Georgia are considered pit vipers. (Again, the coral snake is not a pit viper, but it is found in South Georgia and it is very rare.)

Pit viper venom will destroy tissue, so adding a tourniquet concentrates the venom in one area and leads to a possible loss of limb.

John told me, “The best first aid [for a pit viper bite] is a set of car keys!”

Hopefully, someone else is driving. You want to keep the wound elevated above your heart, if possible.

Also, do not tourniquet or apply compressions or ice. Don’t drink any alcohol. And don’t take any pain killers, because the doctor’s going to need to correctly access your pain points.

 

snakes in georgia

Cottonmouth caught in wait by Dirk J. Stevenson, GaDNR

Bottom Line

Don’t let all the media coverage about copperheads deter you from playing outside. Chances are, you’re not going to see one.

If you do, you still don’t need to be scared. The snake doesn’t want to eat you or even bite you. Leave it alone, and you’ll be fine.

You don’t need to pack anything special in your first-aid kit in the very rare chance you are bitten.

 

Update On Pets and Snakes

Since this post was first published, we’ve received many questions about snakes (particularly copperheads) and pets (particularly dogs.) We went back to John Jensen, and here’s what he had to say.

Reader Comment:

Can you comment further about backyard snakes that bite curious dogs please. Our cul du sac had three dog bites from copperheads last year, and we had one close call. We’ve had all the ivy trimmed, it comes back regardless, and we want our pets to be safe when they are in our fenced yard. Many thanks. Are squirrels and chips incentive for snake visits or just part of nature in the yard?

John’s Answer:

The copperhead is the only venomous snake persisting in the core Atlanta area (cottonmouths can occur in a few surrounding greater metro counties, mostly well outside of 285) and it has a fairly catholic diet for a snake.

They eat small rodents (mostly mice), small birds, other snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, and even some invertebrates, especially cicadas. Squirrels and adult chipmunks are too large for most copperheads to eat, being more vulnerable to common nonvenomous snakes such as rat snakes.

The copperhead’s varied diet of common prey items is likely available to them anywhere that isn’t predominantly concrete and asphalt, so I doubt that is influencing copperhead abundance in most areas.

Rather, because copperheads can occupy very small home ranges and thus not have to cross busy roads as frequently as other snakes, they likely increase because of lessened competition from other, more wide ranging, snake species (and other competing predator types) that eventually perish in such areas.

Removing thick beds of ivy is definitely helpful (I recommend herbicide; trimming is very short-term), but the hard truth is that copperheads are just an abundant snake in the Atlanta area and I really don’t think there is much anyone can reasonably do to significantly change that.

As for how to reduce interactions with copperheads by dogs, aversion training may be helpful.

Many quail plantations, for example, do this for their cherished and expensive bird dogs. One training service that I know of can be found at http://www.snakesareus.com/snake_aversion_training .

This is not an endorsement for this particular enterprise, but rather it’s just the only one I know of in the Atlanta area (there may be others, maybe better ones – I just don’t know).

I have heard mostly negative reviews on the Red Rock snake vaccine that is available from most vets. I just spoke to a vet friend and colleague of mine in the Atlanta area, Dr. Justin Oguni, and he does not recommend it for dogs that are in areas where copperheads are the only venomous snake.

The vaccine was developed and tested for rattlesnakes and may not be as effective for copperheads.

Dr. Oguni told me that a vaccinated dog bitten by any venomous snake still requires an emergency vet clinic visit, so he also worries about the complacency of such pet owners that mistakenly believe the vaccine is a cure.

He said that it MIGHT make the severity of a copperhead bite somewhat lessened, but not enough to prevent the need for medical care.

Also, my understanding is that copperhead bites rarely cause fatality or even lasting injury to dogs, and when I asked Dr. Oguni about this he changed my statement of “rarely” to “extremely rarely.”

He said that unless a dog gets envenomated in a way that the swelling causes airways to be blocked before veterinary treatment, most dogs recovery well with just swelling and pain meds.

I have a friend in my town, Monticello, whose tiny toy Chihuahua got tagged by a copperhead last week and is nearly recovered with only Benadryl and rest.

 

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7 Comments on "Snakes in Georgia: The good, the bad…and the TRUTH"

  1. Hey you, we met at the Atlanta blogging lunch in a couple of months ago in Woodstock. I’m the one who has 7 kids and was sitting right across from you… Two weeks ago my four-year-old was bitten by a snake and her grandmother’s front yard. No one saw snake and she said that a thorn pricked her so we didn’t react right away. My mom was babysitting and I wasn’t there so my mom cleaned her wound and put her in bed for a nap and my daughter woke up 2 hours later with her legs swollen and screaming in pain. We took her to the emergency room and it took them a day-and-a-half to diagnose it as a snakebite based on the fact that she had no fever or lymphatic activity, a puncture wound, bizarre-looking bruising pain and swelling. It was kind of a trip! Thankfully she’s fine and just had to take antibiotics for 5 days for the cellulitis.

  2. Could you mention the name of each of the 6 poisonous species you refer to in the article. I was only aware of 4 poisonous species existing in North America, e.g. coral snakes, copperheads, water moccasins a.k.a. cottonmouths, and rattle snakes.
    I know there are different types of rattle snakes, but they are of the same species; right? So, what are the other 2 poisonous species included in the six?

    Excellent article! The picture of eight snakes, 2 copperheads at the top and 4 snakes similar to copperheads was very useful for comparison purposes. I think, even though it seems obvious, mentioning the “hourglass” markings common to the copperhead would be useful for helping that positive identification characteristic stick in peoples minds who have never heard it before. We don’t always grasp the obvious even when it is sometimes staring us in the face.

    Many people are also quick to kill any snake they see. That was quite excellent pointing out their usefulness. An article on laws about killing snakes would be interesting also. I heard a story once of a man who killed a rattlesnake in a national forest. He was all proud of his self and showing it off till the game warden came along and ticketed him $300.00 for killing the snake.

    Thanks for taking the time to write and share this article. Education through articles like this is one of the best means to help people get over their irrational fear of snakes.

  3. Interesting article. Been saying most of this for decades, wiht the exception of the first aid since techniques have changed over time. Yes, I was trained with the tourniquet/cut technique, suction and then ice. That aside, I’m only familiar with four venomous snake species in our area not “six.” Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, Cottonmouth and the Coral Snake. What are the other two?

  4. Can you comment further about backyard snakes that bite curious dogs please. Our cul du sac had three dog bites from copperheads last year, and we had one close call. We’ve had all the ivy trimmed, it comes back regardless, and we want our pets to be safe when they are in our fenced yard. Many thanks. Are squirrels and chips incentive for snake visits or just part of nature in the yard?

    • Lesli Peterson | 05/30/2017 at 3:37 pm | Reply

      Hi Kathie – great question. I went back to the DNR with it, and our post is now updated with their response! Please check it out (and thank you!!)

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