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Snake season strikes

John Willoughby: Greene Publishing, Inc.

It's the type of species that can make anybody's skin crawl upon the sight of the legless, elongated snake. Since even the beginning of time, snakes are known for a motto of "mess and be messed with;" a standard that has people keeping their distance from any species of this slithering reptile.

With a hot and dry spring, snakes are beginning to slither through the tall weeds of Madison County, searching for their next meal. And because one may be in your yard, it's important to identify which snake is which and how dangerous they can be.

Throughout the state of Florida, of the 44 snake species found, there are six venomous snakes that are in the area that local residents should know about. The University of Florida's Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation provides information about dangerous, and not so dangerous snakes that you could accidentally encounter in the coming months.

The Pygmy Rattlesnake, though it is aggressive and the most commonly encountered venomous snake in the state, is typically the smallest venomous snake in Florida, averaging one to two feet as an adult. With the exception of the Florida Keys, these rattlesnakes inhabit open pinelands, oak scrub and pine flatwoods, as well as palm hammocks and urban areas.

These snakes can be identified by their grey-in-color scales, decorated with dark blotches on their sides and backs. A series of reddish-brown marks can also be seen between the dark blocks on their backs. A dark band lies through each eye to the rear of the jaw and juveniles are similar in appearance, with the exception of a yellow or yellowish-green tail tip.

Florida's largest venomous snake has experts begging residents not to approach it. The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is, on average as an adult, three to six feet in length; the record is eight feet. Though the population of the snake has declined due to habitat loss, commercial hunting and indiscriminate killing by people, the snake can be found all throughout Florida and can strike up to two to three times its body length.

Found in pinelands, scrub, coastal barrier islands and sometimes urban areas, Diamondbacks are easily identified by the obvious rows of diamonds (black with beige-colored borders and brown centers) that run along their keeled-scaled backs. With chunky heads, a dark stripe runs through each eye to the corner of their mouth. The snake's tail ends in rattles that make a loud buzzing sound when the snake feels threatened. Their youth look similar.

Unique to eastern Madison County and parts of the southern Big Bend and Northeastern Florida, the venomous Timber Rattlesnake resembles the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, without the diamond-like features on their backs. Instead, the Timber Rattlesnake has a beige or pinkish-grey body color, broken by a series of dark, chevron-shaped crossbands that run in a series across the body. These features are complemented by a light, rust-colored stripe that runs along the middle of their backs toward their dark brown or black tail that features a large rattle. Their large, thick head features a darkish band from the eye to the rear of their head and their youth are similar in appearance.

The Timber Rattlesnake grows up to three to five feet as an adult. Some are found to be six feet in length, and all snakes of this type are considered dangerous due to their large size. The snake prefers low, fairly-damp bottomlands, river beds, hardwood hammocks, pine flat woods, swamps and cane thickets.

The most aquatic of Florida's venomous snakes is the Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin. Found statewide, the cottonmouth snake averages up to two to four feet, though some can reach up to six feet in length. UF Wildlife experts detail that a Cottonmouth may coil its body and open its mouth wide to reveal the cotton-white interior, hence its name. If not harassed further, the snakes will usually flee from the threat.

UF Wildlife infographics show that young cottonmouths are brightly colored with reddish-brown crossbands and a yellow tail. Adult snakes of this species are typically uniformly dark brown or black, with a faint or distinct crossband patterns. Juveniles, in particular, have a dark stripe that runs from the eye across the face to the back of their head. The Cottonmouth snakes' scales are keeled.

Most water snakes are mistaken as Cottonmouths, and though they may not be venomous, it's important to stay away from all water snakes, as they are usually aggressive and quick to bite.

Though colorful, the Eastern Coral Snake is venomous and grows up to 1.5 to 2.5 feet in length as an adult. Coral Snakes are known for the brightly colored red, yellow and black rings that encircle the entire body; the wide red and black rings are separated by narrow yellow rings, which helps people identify their venomous nature easily. The snout is a blunt black, followed by a band of yellow. The tail is black and yellow, and the snake has smooth scales, giving them a glossy appearance.

Typically, the Eastern Coral Snake inhabits wet hammocks, swamp edges, flatwoods and scrubs, living a secretive life underground or under objects. Though they're not in the viper family, the species is in the cobra family. The Coral Snake can be found throughout Florida, with the exception of the Florida Keys.

Aside from what people see in cartoons, the threat of a snake is much more serious than being wrapped up and squeezed. In fact, the venom of a poisonous snake is so deadly and dangerous, the only acceptable treatment involves the use of antivenin, also known as anti-venom, an antiserum containing antibodies that fight against specific poisons, such as snake venom.

The chance of being bitten by a snake is very low if you know how to deal with or prevent a "snakey" situation. According to the UF’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, tall grass, overgrown shrubs or piles of brush, debris or wood are playgrounds for snakes. Grass should be kept mowed in areas where children and pets play and bushes should be kept trimmed away from a home. Additionally, a fence is an effective way to keep pets and children away from wetland and lake edges, also places where snakes are more commonly found.

Also, making necessary repairs to your home can prevent snakes from slithering their way into your personal space. Snakes may enter through small cracks or open drain pipes in search of rodent prey or a cool hiding spot. Be mindful to seal gaps under doors with door sweeps and garage door threshold weatherstrips and use caulking or expansion foam sealant to seal cracks or gaps in walls. Pet doors should be sealed as well.

Because snakes are only defensive when startled or feel threatened, it is important to give it space. Some non-venomous snakes will rattle their tails, warning whoever they feel threatened by, otherwise, snakes will usually try to escape to the nearest cover. Always keep children and pets away when trying to identify a snake as venomous or non-venomous.

If a non-venomous snake is found inside, the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation states that using a broom to chase the snake into a trashcan can effectively remove the creature from your home. If a snake is found in more tight quarters, there are certain humane glue traps that are available, however, the traps must be checked daily.

If a venomous snake is in your home, you are urged to call a licensed wildlife removal specialist in your area and stay away from the creature. Jamie Willoughby of the Madison County Animal Control, may be reached at (850) 973-6495.

In the case of someone being bitten by a snake, do not attempt to catch or kill the snake. If the snake is dead and venomous, do not handle the dead snake – studies have shown rattlesnake heads are dangerous up to one hour after decapitation.

If you or someone has been bitten by a snake, take the following steps:

• Call 911. Even if the snake is non-venomous, it is important to seek immediate medical help. Always assume the bite was venomous unless you are 100 percent sure of the snake's identity. After 911 has been called, call the Poison Control Center's National Hotline at 1 (800) 222-1222.

• Keep the victim safe. After the bite, back the victim away from the snake. Additionally, keep the victim warm and keep a record of the time of the bite, symptoms of the victim and document any first aid measures administered. Also, notify medical professionals of any allergies or medical conditions the victim may have. Remove any rings or restrictive accessories or clothing in the case of swelling. Also, keep the bitten extremity lower than the victim's heart.

• DO NOT wait to seek medical attention. Waiting to seek medical attention can further put the victim at risk for permanent damage or death.

For more information about the types of snakes that live in North Florida, as well as tips on how to deal with snakes safely, log onto

eastern diamondback rattlesnake - Crotalus adamanteus , poisonous, white background
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