Up and down the eastern seaboard, poisonous snakes are biting more people this year.
In Georgia, snake bites -- mostly from Copperheads -- are up 40 to 50 percent. In Maryland, reports of snake bites are up 26 percent so far this year. A girl in Chesterfield County, Virginia, was hospitalized in late July after sustaining a bite from a Northern Copperhead. Researchers have a few hypotheses for why more citizens are encountering more snakes.
The four unique species of poisonous snakes native to Virginia are Northern Copperheads, Eastern Cottonmouths, Timber Rattlesnakes, and Canebrake Rattlesnakes. All four are "pit vipers," meaning that they have a pit organ on head, located between their eyes and their nostrils, that enables them to sense heat signatures put out by animals around them.
The Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen)
gets its name from the distinct copper-colored head and body. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries warns that copperheads are the only venomous snakes that can be found in every single county in Virginia. Because they can be found across the state, and even into parts of Maryland, Copperhead bites make up the majority of Virginia's 75-yearly snake bites. While they are extremely venomous, they are also incredibly placid and will typically only bite if they are stepped on or seriously threatened.
Eastern Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus
), also referred to colloquially as water moccasins, get their name from how they warn humans and other predators of their presence. When threatened, Cottonmouths open their mouths and show off their white gums and fangs. Eastern Cottonmouths are only found in southeast Virginia.
The third poisonous snake in Virginia is the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).
Crotalus comes from the Latin word crotalum, which means "to rattle." Horridus stems from the Latin word for "dreadful." The Timber Rattlesnake's scientific name literally means "Dreadful Rattle." This snake can be found throughout the Appalachian range that cuts through western Virginia. Unlike the Cottonmouth, which is routinely found swimming in water, Timber Rattlesnakes call the forest their home.
A fourth venomous snake closely related to the Timber is the Canebrake Rattlesnake (also Crotalus horridus)
. This snake is found exclusively in the Great Dismal Swamp, near Norfolk. The Canebrake is an endangered species. However, in recent years, people have reported more and more Canebrake sightings. In 2013, a man in South Hampton Roads was bitten by a Canebrake, though experts contend that the snake is more interested in hunting rodents and squirrels than attacking humans.
Late summer/early autumn is the mating season for Copperheads and Canebrake Rattlesnakes, meaning that snake bites will likely be on the rise this month.
The Virginia Poison Center is urging Virginians to be on the lookout for poisonous snakes. Most, if not all, snake bites in Virginia are preventable because none of these species consider humans to be prey. If you are moving through snake habitat, be careful where you step or place your hand. During daylight hours, snakes tend to hide under rocks or brush. If you find a venomous snake, remember that it is more afraid of you than you are of it.
If you or someone else has been bitten by a poisonous snake, there are a few potentially life-saving steps you can take. Be sure to keep the bite victim as calm as possible. The faster the victim's heart rate, the faster the poison spreads throughout the body. Keep the extremity at or slightly above heart level to reduce the flow of blood to and from the bite. Do NOT apply ice, lance the wound, or try to suck the poison out.
The best antidote for a snake bite is a set of car keys. The faster you get to an emergency room, the faster you can be administered anti-venom.