HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The Hattiesburg Zoo is sharing snake safety tips and urging Mississippians to be careful as they participate in outdoor activities.
"It's breeding season," Hattiesburg zookeeper Stephanie Buckley said. "They're out looking around for one another. It's warmed up, so they're kind of stretching their 'legs' after basically brumating, which is kind of like hibernating, all winter. So they're going to be more active and coming out around now."
Buckley said there are 40 kinds kinds of snakes in Mississippi, but only six are venomous.
"The chances of running into a venomous snake are very slim," she said. "I get people all the time (saying) 'Oh it had a triangle shaped head. It's venomous.' Nope. That's actually a myth, so don't look at that. A lot of non-venomous snakes can flatten out their heads to look venomous. Most of the venomous snakes here are in the pit viper family, so what you're really going to look for is the shape of the pupil. non-venomous snakes around here, most of them, will have a very round pupil, and the pit vipers will not only have pits along the side of their face, but also have like a cat-shaped pupil. But at that point, you're getting really close to a snake, so it's better to just leave them alone. Just let them be."
Buckley said coloring is another key way to determine if a snake is venomous.
"Red on yellow, deadly fellow. Red on black, OK Jack," she said. "So if you see the red on black, it's a milk snake or scarlet king snake. Non-venomous. They're just kind of looking tough, trying to pretend, but the red on yellow, you need to seek medical attention immediately."
She said that immediate medical attention is needed because coral snakes are related to cobras.
"Much more dangerous (than pit viper snakes) if you're bitten," Buckley said. "Pit vipers will bite you and run away. Coral snakes will actually chew on you when they bite you. Their venom is different. It's more deadly, so if you're bitten by a coral snake, you need to run."
Here are the descriptions of the six venomous snakes from the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science:
- Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
- Our largest rattlesnake. Average length is 4 to 4 1/2 feet; recorded to nearly 8 feet. Massive in build. Medium brown or tan with dark diamond-shaped markings. Each diamond is bordered by a single row of light colored scales. General coloration fading to a lighter hue toward the tail. Each side of the head has a wide dark stripe bordered with lighter scales. Rattle on Tail
- Canebrake or Timber Rattlesnake
- Average length is 3 to 4 1/2 feet. Gray to tan ground color, often with a distinct pinkish wash. Wavy black bands crossing the body. Overall coloration growing darker toward the tail. Tall velvet-black. A single dark stripe runs back from each eye. A narrow rusty red line follows the spine down the length of the snake. Rattle on tail.
- Pigmy or “ground” Rattlesnake
- Average length is 18 to 20 inches. Dark spots run down the back of the snake, with two alternating rows down each side. Overall snake make be quite dark, especially in specimens from the southern counties. Pigmy rattlers have nine large symmetrically arranged scales on the crown of the head. (Our other larger rattlers have tiny, randomly arranged scales on the head.) Rattles on tail but tiny in size. Often the rattle is temporarily missing but grows back subsequent moltings.
- Average length is 2 to 3 feet. Autumn colors. Light gray or beige ground colors. Light gray or beige ground color with darker brown hourglass-shaped crossbands, often with a pinkish or organish wash. The distinctive crossband are often incomplete or broken at mid-body. A thin dark line runs back from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Newborn copperheads have sulfur-yellow tails. Contrary to the popular name, copperheads in the South rarely have copper-red heads
- Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin
- Average length is 2 1/2 to 4 feet. Very heavy bodied. Adults are brown to black with indistinct wavy darker, crossbands. Populations from the Delta and immediate Gulf Coast are often extremely dark. Over much of the state adults are more brownish or yellowish-brown. Baby cottonmouths are beautifully marked with reddish crossbands on a pink or rusty ground color. These may resemble their close relatives the copperhead but have a wide dark band on the side of the face rather than a narrow line. Baby cottonmouths also have yellow-green tails. Cottonmouths of all ages gape the mouth wide-open when threatened
- Coral Snake
- Average length is 2 to 3 feet. Slender, cylindrical body with a small head and tiny black eyes. Brightly ringed with wide black and wide red bands, separated by narrow yellow bands. The yellow and red bans are always side-by-side. Think of the red and yellow colors of a traffic light always being together. The scarlet kingsnake is a “mimic” which is harmless but derives some protection from attackers by resembling the deadly coral snake. In the harmless mimic however, the two warning colors are never in contact.
Buckley said snakes typically found in tall grasses or under things like logs.
"They're usually hiding," she said.
Buckley said if you are bitten by a snake, the most important thing to do is stay calm.
"That's the number one thing to do," she said. "If you raise your blood pressure, the venom is going to course through your body faster. So number one thing, stay calm. Do not do the myths that everybody hears, you know, (like) putting a tourniquet on it. That's one of the worst things you can actually do is put a tourniquet on it. It can actual kill the muscles and skin faster, and you might lose a limb. So do not put a tourniquet on it. Do not try to suck the venom out. That doesn't do anything. Do not cut it. I've heard cutting it. That's awful. Do not put ice on it. Anything like that, just don't do it. Remain calm. You can actually let it bleed for a little bit, and letting it bleed can actually get out some of that venom that's hanging out in there."
Buckley said the second thing best to do if bitten is to seek medical attention. She also suggests trying to remember what the snake looked like. She said different snakes have different anti-venoms, so a description of the snake will help doctors determine the best treatment.
"Try to identify the snake if possible, so you can tell the doctors when you go to the hospital," she said. "But don't go chasing after it. You're risking getting bit again. You're wasting time. If you just got bitten by a snake, you know, time is of the essence. Try to take a picture of it from far away. I know everybody has their phones. Take a picture of it. Do not try to catch it or kill it to bring it with you. You're just going to put yourself at more risk."
Buckley said your physical reactions should be based on where the snake bites.
"Try not to move, if you can, especially if it's on your leg or ankle," she said. "If it's on your arm, don't raise it above your head. Keep it down heart-level or lower."
Buckley said 60 percent of snake bites in the U.S. are on the hands and fingers.
"So that kind of tells you most people are picking them up," she said.
She said 70 percent of snake bites involve alcohol, and 98 percent of people bitten by snakes are male.
"Seventy-five percent are people between the ages of 19 and 30," Buckley said. "So it's young males, getting drunk and going and picking up snakes."
The good news, Buckley said not all bites from venomous snakes actually inject venom.
"Twenty-five percent of pit viper bites are dry," she said. "There's no venom. It's just a warning bite, and 50 percent of coral snake bites are dry. So there's, you know, a one in four chance they bit you and nothing happened. But still, you need to go get checked out anyway."