North America is a diverse array of ecosystems and climates, replete with desert terrain, rainforests, mountain ranges, and low-lying swamps, all of which are home to a stunning variety of animal life. Snakes are an ever-present part of most ecosystems, providing a valuable service by keeping rodent and other pest populations at bay. Whether or not you are afraid of snakes, it is important to cultivate a healthy respect for them, as a single encounter with some can have disastrous consequences. Approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people receive venomous bites per year in the United States; however, very few people die from a venomous bite if they receive prompt medical attention. Although North America probably can’t hold a candle to other countries’ dangerous snake populations, there are a few types it pays to look out for!
The Crotalus genus, more commonly known as rattlesnakes, includes more than 27 individual species, and is arguably the most notorious snake in North America. The rattlesnake is a pit viper, which refers to the pit or hole between their nostrils and eyes. This pit is heat sensitive and allows the snake to find warm blooded prey in thick darkness. Rattlesnakes range in size from 18 inches to 84 inches or more, the largest of which is the Eastern Diamondback. The rattlesnake has evolved a keen way to keep predators and accidental victims away: its rattle. This rattle is comprised of scales that once covered the tip of the tail and have now grown to form interlocking hollow shells that rattle when the snake is agitated. The sound is so distinctive that you should have no trouble removing yourself from anywhere you hear it!
The Agkistrodon genus can be identified by its broad head and short fangs, and is found primarily in the southeastern United States, as far west as Missouri and Texas. Known widely as the cottonmouth, copperhead, and water moccasin, this semi-aquatic species is highly venomous and aggressive. Their preferred habitat is swampy areas, rivers, lakes, ditches and small streams, but some species choose habitats that are substantial distances from any kind of permanent bodies of water. One bite can result in severe pain, dizziness, weakness, swelling of the affected area, difficulty breathing, gangrene, and rarely, death. To its credit, however, the venom of Agkistrodon species is being used in research as possible treatments for cancer and other chronic illnesses.
More commonly known as coral snakes, this small genus of snakes is recognized by its distinctive pattern: wide red and black segments separated by yellow bands. They are found primarily in the southeastern portion of the US, as well as parts of northern Mexico. The coral snake prefers habitats comprised of dry terrain, including high pines as well as sandy creek beds and ridges. Although it does carry a powerful venom, the coral snake is not typically aggressive, and will try to avoid confrontation. Because it is often confused with the harmless scarlet kingsnake, a mnemonic was composed to differentiate the two, in reference to the similar color patterns: “Red on black, friend of Jack, red on yellow kills a fellow.”
Top image via Life Lenses