Saturday, August 1, 2015

Is That Snake Venomous?

Many people have a fear of snakes.  Some people will even go so far as to kill any snake they encounter. 

Even though they may look slithery and creepy, snakes are very beneficial to have around.  They are an important part of our ecosystems, and they even keep pests such as rodents under control.  In fact, snakes are so important that they are protected by law!  In the state of Missouri, The Wildlife Code of Missouri treats snakes as a protected non-game species. This means that there is no open season to hunt snakes, and it is against the law to kill them.

Pictured is a harmless ring-necked snake, a beautifully marked native in Missouri. (photo: Paige Davis)

Even though snakes spark fear in many people, they are much more afraid of you than you are of them!  Snakebites are not common, and most snakes would rather slither away then confront you.  Bites tend to occur when people accidentally make contact with a snake such as stepping on one.  If you are mindful of snakes and give them their space and respect, you will be able to appreciate these creatures safely.

Whether you are afraid of snakes or you love them, it is important to recognize which snakes are venomous and which are harmless.  All venomous snakes in Missouri are members of the pit viper family, and they share some recognizable characteristics.  These include:
1. A pit between the eye and nose on each side
2. Vertically shaped cat-like pupils
3. A single row of scales along the underside of the tail

A copperhead, Missouri’s most common venomous snake—note the pit below the eye and the vertical pupil (photo: Paige Davis)

By comparison, non-venomous snakes lack pits, have a circular pupil, and have a zipper-like pattern of scales along the tail. 

Venomous snakes in the state of Missouri include: the copperhead, cottonmouth, Western pygmy rattlesnake, Massasauga rattlesnake, and timber rattlesnake. The copperhead is Missouri’s most common venomous snake.  It is often confused for harmless water snakes such as the northern water snake.  Many harmless snakes are killed because they are thought to be dangerous.

This non-venomous water snake is harmless, but is often mistaken for a copperhead—notice the lack of a pit below the eye and the round pupil (photo: Paige Davis)

Snakes can be beautiful to observe in the wild.  But, if you are unsure of what species a snake is, never attempt to handle it.  Just leave it alone.  It is better to be safe than sorry when enjoying these fascinating creatures.

To learn more about snakes be sure to visit the World Bird Sanctuary Nature Center where we have several non-venomous snakes on display.  Our Naturalists will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Submitted by Paige Davis, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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