Oklahoma Venomous Snakes

    As mentioned elsewhere on this site, not all snakes are venomous, not all snakes that are venomous produce fatalities when bitten, and most snakes in general are not aggressive. Snakes are a very misunderstood group of critters. For example, snakes are not slimy, as is commonly heard. They have scales and have to shed their skin in order to grow larger. It is also another misconception that all snakes can hurt you and that they will chase you down. This is absolutely not true. As with other animals snakes would rather get as far away from you as possible and have no interest in you at all. People get snake bites because they either didn't see the snake and got to close, tried to handle a venomous snake, or thought a snake was a non-venomous type but was actually venomous and tried to handle it. Once again, education is the key. NEVER handle or touch a snake. The general public is usually unable to determine whether a snake is venomous or not so the best thing to do is to just leave them alone and not take any chances.

        What I've seen in the past and continue to see is a philosophy of kill every snake that is seen. This is not only narrow minded but it also shows the lack of education that exists in the general public. This type of philosophy is also detrimental to the ecosystem. Snakes play a very important role in controlling insect, rodent, and other fast reproducing critter populations. Without snakes we would soon be overrun with all types of critters, some that carry and spread disease or damage crops. As an example, mice produce very rapidly. Gestation in mice is around 20 days. They typically have between 10 to 12 babies in a litter. The babies are weaned at around 3 weeks of age. The female resumes cycling at about 2 to 5 days after weaning the babies. So, what does this all mean ? Mice can potentially have a new litter of 10-12 babies about every 7 weeks. That works out to be around 8 litters per year which equals approximately 96 newborns per year per female mouse! That's a pretty staggering population increase if left unchecked. Snakes are not the only species that feed on mice but they certainly do their part in controlling what could be a runaway population explosion. And not just mice, other critters too.

          Here in Oklahoma we have seven types of venomous snakes. They are : 

  • Copperhead
  • Western Cottonmouth
  • Timber Rattlesnake
  • Prairie Rattlesnake
  • Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
  • Western Massasauga Rattlesnake
  • Western Pygmy Rattlesnake

       Before we go any further let me just say this. If you get bitten by a snake, get medical attention immediately whether you think it's venomous or not.

        On the other hand, many people have what is called Ophidiophobia. This is an undeserved, unwarranted fear of snakes. They fear snakes but have no reason why. This should not be confused with people who legitimately fear the snakes venom....which is understandable. But a lot of people fear snakes "just because". They have no basis for their fear and most have never even seen or encountered a snake in the wild.

     Now, let's discuss them one by one. 

        First the Copperhead - Agkistrodon contortrixCopperheads are a type of snake known as a pit viper, which is a type of snake that has heat-sensing pits on either side of its head. An interesting fact is that experiments have reported that even if they are deprived of their sense of sight and smell, Copperheads can still strike with deadly accuracy at a moving target even when the target is less than 0.2°C (32.36°F) warmer than the background. It is also noteworthy to point out that, under favorable conditions, Copperheads can live upwards of thirty years. It has been reported that Copperhead bites account for the majority of snake bites in the US. Copperhead venom is not as potent, as say, a Rattlesnake and most bites are not fatal. Although, if the bite victim has an allergic reaction to the venom, similar to bee sting reactions, then greater problems can arise. However, Copperhead bites are very painful, cause a lot of scarring, and can cause you to lose the use of your hand or foot or whatever was bitten. Some symptoms can include extreme pain, swelling, weakness, breathing difficulty, hemorrhaging, rapid or weak pulse, nausea and vomiting, gangrene, fever, sweating, headache, unconsciousness or stupor, hypertension, low blood pressure, and ecchymosis. Small animals and pets are subject to fatal wounds just because of their size but humans typically won't die from a Copperhead bite but you might wish you were dead. After a bite, secondary infection is always a possibility also. Copperhead venom is hemotoxic. Hemotoxic venoms affect the circulatory system, destroy blood cells, damage skin tissue, and cause internal hemorrhaging. An antivenin exists but is only used as a last resort because of the risk of an allergic reaction. So basically, if you get bit by a Copperhead you'll probably just have to suck it up and weather the storm. Obviously avoiding getting bit is the best option. This can be achieved by simply leaving the snake alone. It's kind of ironic but a lot of Copperhead bites occur while people are in the midst of trying to kill the snake. If they would have just left it alone it would have went on it's way without any problems. 

       The Western Cottonmouth - Agkistrodon piscivorous leucostoma. The Cottonmouth is also a pit viper and is a distant cousin of the Copperhead. It's venom is also hemotoxic but is more toxic than Copperhead venom. Necrosis (cell death) at the site of the bite is typical and death of the victim is a good possibility if they don't get medical attention quickly. However, Cottonmouths seem to have a reputation of being extremely aggressive and willing to come after you. I have lived in the woods all my life, fished and swam in a thousand backwoods ponds, rivers, and lakes. I have seen many Cottonmouths. I fished a pond once where there was a snake every few feet around the bank and in the water (usually don't see that many snakes in such close proximity very often). Not all of them were Cottonmouths but some were and not one of them acted the least bit interested in biting me. I fished there for a couple of hours and then left because I wasn't catching anything (probably because of the snakes) but I didn't bother the snakes and they didn't bother me. The only way one of them would have tried to bite me would be if I had accidentally stepped on one or provoked one but I paid attention to what I was doing and everything was fine. Cottonmouths will stand their ground though, if you accidentally (or on purpose) scare one, where other snakes might flee. But, if they see you coming they will try to move away or get to safety in the water. I've always heard that Cottonmouths can't bite you under the water. This is completely wrong. Of course they can bite underwater because fish is part of their diet. They will also eat dead animals or fish, frogs, lizards, other snakes, even their own species. This is why you will never see two Cottonmouths at the same place at the same time unless they are mating, giving birth, or one is eating the other. The stories of Cottonmouth mating balls, swarming and biting swimmers, or Cottonmouths coming after people is false and completely unfounded. They might come closer out of curiosity to see what you're doing but they will not chase you and try to bite you. As a matter of fact, the University Of Georgia did specific tests on Cottonmouth aggression and had this to say : "Venomous snakes are often perceived as aggressive antagonists, with the North American cottonmouth having a particularly notorious reputation for such villainy. We designed tests to measure the suite of behavioral responses by free-ranging cottonmouths to encounters with humans. When confronted, 23 (51%) of 45 tested tried to escape, and 28 (78%) of 36 tested used threat displays and other defensive tactics; only 13 of 36 cottonmouths bit an artificial hand used in the tests."  See here. The bottom line is that, once again, if you leave them alone they will leave you alone.

        The Timber Rattlesnake - Crotalus horridus. Another pit viper, the Timber Rattlesnake is considered one of Oklahoma's most dangerous snakes due to its long fangs and high venom output. But, they are relatively shy and have a fairly gentle disposition and can live to be around 20 years old. When frightened or threatened they start their tail rattle in plenty of time to be avoided. They would prefer to avoid confrontation rather than bite if they have a choice. It is reported that the Timber Rattlesnake can have varied venom toxicity depending on it's geographic location. Apparently there are four types of toxicity, [A], [B], [AB], and [C]. [A] is neurotoxic (attacks nerves and nerve cells) in a lot of its southern ranges. [B] is hemorrhagic (causes bleeding) as well as proteolytic (destroys cells, blood, and muscles with digestive fluids) in the north and southeast. [AB] is in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana where ranges overlap and is sort of a combination of A and B. [C] venom is not like any of the other types and is relatively weak. As mentioned earlier, Timber Rattlesnakes are relatively calm as compared to other similar species. They would rather try to hide or lay completely still hoping they won't be discovered rather than stand and fight. Yes, it is true, it's a rattlesnake and should be respected and absolutely should NEVER be handled for any reason but, once again, they will not chase you or even come near you. So, please just let them be. Honestly, the only way I can imagine anyone being bitten by a Timber Rattlesnake is if you actually step on it or are tormenting it in some way....like trying to kill it, or trying to catch it. People just never seem to understand these concepts. Try to think of it this way, what would YOU do if you were just minding your own business, maybe sunbathing, and some lunatic runs up to you and starts beating you with a stick and stomping you for no other reason except that you were out in the open ? Would that be alright with you ? Would you allow this to happen without fighting back or trying to defend yourself ? You weren't bothering anybody or hurting anybody or not even paying attention to anybody but still this lunatic is beating you half to death. Why ? I don't know. It's the very same scenario with snakes.

        The Prairie Rattlesnake - Crotalus viridis. Pit viper. The Prairie Rattlesnake is noted to have a more irritable disposition than most other rattlesnakes. When provoked, frightened, or threatened its response is characterized as being vigorous, if not vicious. As with most snakes the Prairie Rattlesnake would rather not waste venom on you. It would rather use it for subduing prey. But, if you persist the Prairie Rattlesnake WILL fight and it doesn't take a lot of provocation. An odd behavior that has been reported is that when confronted and the usual threat display has failed the Prairie Rattlesnake will tuck its head between two of it's body coils, probably for protection of it's head. But, while in this position it can, and will, deliver a very deliberate and deadly strike and then return it's head back between the coils and will do this repeatedly as long as the threat remains. So, obviously if you see a Prairie Rattlesnake with it's head tucked between it's coils don't be fooled into thinking that it's being submissive. It has also been noted that Prairie Rattlesnakes will stare directly at a potential threat and watch very intently until the threat goes away. They are very alert and are not to be messed with.

       The Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake - Crotalus atrox. Pit viper. The Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake is the largest of the western rattlesnakes. In this species the males are larger than females once they reach sexual maturity. They can live to be around 20 years old. They are essentially solitary except during mating season. They are one of the more aggressive species because they seldom ever back down from a fight or confrontation. The venom is not really any more toxic than any other, it's just that because of the snakes size it is able to deliver more venom than a smaller snake. The majority of the venom is proteolytic (destroys cells, blood, and muscles with digestive fluids). There is a myth that a smaller or juvenile snake can produce a more toxic concentration of venom but there is no scientific evidence to support this theory. They are also very alert and definitely not to be messed with.

       The Western Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus tergeminus. Pit Viper. Its venom contains specialized digestive enzymes that disrupt blood flow and prevent blood clotting. Severe internal bleeding causes the death of small animals that this snake eats. The Western Massasauga Rattlesnake is fairly shy and will avoid confrontation when possible. But, as with any other snake, if provoked, frightened, or threatened they will do what is necessary to protect themselves.

       The Western Pygmy Rattlesnake - Sistrurus miliarius streckeri. Pit viper. The Western Pygmy Rattlesnake is by far the smallest of the Oklahoma rattlesnakes. They only grow to around 15 to 24 inches long and can give birth from 2 to 30 babies. The rattle is very small, relative to other rattlesnake species, and often can't be heard unless at close range. They are not aggressive like the Diamondback. They will use camouflage first to try to hide from a potential threat or predator. However, if caught out in the open, it will rattle and strike repeatedly as a defense. It is also known to raise up and/or "puff up" to make itself look bigger and maybe frighten off a threat or predator. Even though they are smaller than other rattlesnakes, make no mistake....it's still a rattlesnake, and should be treated with the same respect that would be given to a Diamondback.