NC
Cooperative Extension Service


HOW DANGEROUS ARE COPPERHEAD SNAKES?

copperhead snake

Picture provided by Gordon Rutzen, Wake County. This snake was transported to a non-habited area and released without harm to either the snake or the humans.

A Copperhead snake bite needs medical attention, is extremely painful, and may cause extensive scarring and loss of use. Many people are bitten while trying to kill or handle the snake. Don't take chances -- avoid these snakes.

"Copperhead bites are typically not fatal," says Dr. Peter Bromley, N. C. Cooperative Extension Specialist in Zoology. Small animals, like small dogs, may receive a fatal bite from a copperhead. The venom causes local tissue destruction and secondary infection often sets in. If you or your pet are bitten by any snake that you suspect is venomous, get medial attention immediately. For the most part, if you let snakes alone, they'll leave you alone.

North Carolina has the dubious distinction of the most venomous snake bites of any state in the U.S. Many of these bites could be prevented by avoiding the snake instead of trying to kill it or pick it up. Avoid Copperhead snakes! Allow it to go on its way undisturbed. Copperheads bite more people in most years than any other U.S. species, but they also have the mildest venom. University of Georgia Professor Dr. Whit Gibbons is conducting research to learn why copperheads inflict the most bites.

All the snake species tested have had the same initial response to human presence. If given the opportunity, they escape--down a hole, under a ledge, or in the case of cottonmouths, into the water. Escape is even the standard behavior of enormous diamondback rattlesnakes, which will immediately disappear if they have enough warning before they think a person can reach them.

But often escape is not possible, so most snakes hold their ground, ready to defend themselves. A difference between copperheads and the other species appears in the next phase, when they are approached. Most rattlesnakes vibrate their tails and most cottonmouths sit with mouth open when a human comes near. Even some non-venomous snakes vibrate their tails. These displays are merely warnings not to tread on them. They are not aggressive attack measures. The snakes just want us to leave them alone.

So far, the dozens of cottonmouths Dr. Gibbons stood beside have made threat displays but have not bitten the researcher's boot. The same has been true for canebrake rattlesnakes although too few have been tested to declare that they are as passive as cottonmouths. The exciting news (at least for the researchers) is that the copperhead is different from the others. Most copperheads tested have struck out immediately when they felt threatened.

This behavior explains why more people receive legitimate snakebites from copperheads than from any other species of venomous snake in North America. Still to be investigated is another aspect of copperhead bites: many are not serious enough to require more than minor medical treatment. This may be so not only because the venom of a copperhead is significantly less potent than that of rattlesnakes or cottonmouths, but also because they seldom inject much venom.

The copperhead's initial threat display is to strike. It lashes out at an enemy as a warning. If the enemy is close enough, the fangs may penetrate the skin. However, because this is a threat display, not an attempt to kill, the snake injects little venom. A copperhead has no intention of wasting valuable venom if it can scare away the menace with a minor bite.

Keep in mind, however, that even a non-fatal bite needs medical attention, is extremely painful, and may cause extensive scarring and loss of use. Don't take chances-- avoid these snakes.

Whit Gibbons is the Senior Professor of Ecology at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina.

http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/gaston/

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