Venomous Snakes in Florida
Know What to Look For
With an increasing number of new residents with pets and young children living in greater Estero, the ECCL felt it appropriate to remind them and longer-term residents to be on guard when walking with children or dogs, especially in isolated and remote areas.
Four types of venomous snakes exist in the United States: rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths (also known as water moccasins), and coral snakes. Each year, more than 7,000 Americans are bitten by one of these snakes. Many bites result from individuals attempting to handle or kill the snake.
In Florida, only six of 44 snake species are venomous: the eastern coral snake, the southern copperhead, the cottonmouth, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the timber rattlesnake, and the dusky pygmy rattlesnake. However, the timber rattlesnake is only found in northern Florida.
It is essential to distinguish potentially venomous from non-venomous snakes. Here are some tips that may help you determine whether a snake is venomous or non-venomous.
There are three main distinguishing features associated with venomous snakes. These are:
- Broad, flattened, arrow-shaped heads with narrow necks, while the heads of non-venomous snakes are long and slender
- Venomous snakes have oval-shaped eyes like a cat’s eye, while non-venomous snakes’ eyes are round
- Sensory pits located near the nostrils are also unique to venomous snakes
Rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, and coral snakes are all considered pit vipers. These are venomous snakes distinguished by the pits (or holes) on their heads. Each snake has two pits that appear on its snout. These pits allow snakes to detect infrared radiation from prey.
(Photo left is a cottonmouth or water moccasin as it is sometimes called)
Behavior is one component that may help identify snakes. An obvious way of identifying the rattlesnake is its behavior when threatened. They may shake the rattles on their tails to create a loud clicking sound as a warning to potential predators. Cottonmouths live in or near water and tend to be aggressive, not backing away when approached. Copperheads also live in wetland areas near forests and rivers and have a similar trait of not always backing away.
Unfortunately, the coloring of a snake is not a good method for distinguishing between a venomous and a non-venomous snake. When looking at the colorful coral snake, distinguishing it from the king snake is difficult at first glance. Venomous coral snakes and non-venomous scarlet king snakes have a banded pattern of yellow, brown, and black on their scales.
The difference between the two types is that the red bands touch the yellow bands on a coral snake, whereas the red bands touch the black bands on scarlet king snakes! (In the photo on the right, the king snake is on the left (the red band does not touch the yellow band) the coral snake is on the right (the red band touches the yellow band.)
Although differences between the eyes of venomous and non-venomous snakes can help to identify them, it may not be a practical means when walking! However, the difference is that, like a cat’s eye, venomous snake’s pupils are thin, black, vertical pupils surrounded by a yellow-green eyeball, while non-venomous snakes have rounded pupils.
If you encounter a snake, leave the area, and consider calling a wildlife professional who can help you identify the type of snake you have confronted.
The ECCL wishes everyone an enjoyable summer, and hopefully, the information provided will help you to identify snakes that could be harmful. If unsure of what type you encounter, give the snake a wide berth, and do not provoke it!
(Allan Bowditch, ECCL’s Chief Communications Officer)