Getting to Know Our Local Venomous Snakes, From a Safe Distance
Hiking is one of my very favorite ways to spend my leisure time. Between the Ocala National Forest, the Seminole State Forest, several State parks, an abundance of wildlife management areas, and a beautiful variety of local parks, I am fairly certain I could spend every weekend in the woods and still not discover all that Central Florida has to offer. My Australian Shepherd, Annabelle, is my trusty hiking partner and provides equal parts entertainment and companionship on these weekend adventures. This past spring Annabelle and I were exploring a wildlife management area near the St. John’s River when we had a close encounter of the slithery kind. I, being a somewhat oblivious human, would have had a far closer encounter had it not been for Annabelle’s barking which alerted me to the presence of a well camouflaged Pygmy Rattlesnake mere inches from my hiking boot!
Pygmy Rattlesnakes are one of six species of venomous snakes native to Florida. As a side note, snakes are venomous, not poisonous. (An easy way to remember the difference is that if it bites you and you die it’s venomous. If you bite it and you die it’s poisonous. The author does not recommend biting venomous snakes.) In addition to the Pygmy Rattlesnake, Florida’s other venomous snakes include the Water Moccasin (also known as the Cottonmouth for the cotton-white interior of its mouth, which she does not suggest you get close enough to see), the Copperhead, the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Timber Rattlesnake, and the Coral Snake. Comparatively, there are roughly fifty nonvenomous species of snakes native to our great state.
The Copperhead and Timber Rattlesnake are not found in Central Florida, so for purposes of brevity, this blog post will not focus on these two species. Should you spend time in the woods of northeast Florida you may want to learn to identify the Timber, likewise, you may want to learn more about the Copperhead if you frequent some parts of the panhandle (the distribution of this snake is rather limited, even within the panhandle).
The Pygmy Rattlesnake is found throughout the state of Florida, including Central Florida, and on occasion, within a short distance of this author’s hiking boot. As the name implies it is the smallest of Florida’s venomous snakes with adults rarely exceeding 20 inches in length. They are one of the most frequently encountered venomous snakes and despite possessing, and using, a rattle it is rarely heard as the size of said rattle is too tiny to make much noise.
One rattle you are not likely to miss belongs to the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the largest of Florida’s venomous snakes. Easily identified by both their loud rattle and the bold diamond-shaped markings that give the snake its name, adults may exceed six feet in length when mature. Eastern Diamondbacks are found throughout the state in a variety of dry habitats ranging from scrub forests to golf courses.
The Cottonmouth is an aquatic snake who prefers the margins of lakes, rivers, and wetlands over dry land. While adults are darker-colored juveniles can be a bright reddish-brown with a yellow-green colored tail. Cottonmouths have a distinctive “Zorro” like facial mask, “bullseye” body markings (more easily seen on lighter colored individuals), and will often hold their heads up at an angle. Several species of harmless aquatic snakes are often mistaken for Water Moccasins, but not every snake you see swimming is a Cottonmouth. Case in point, I was out paddleboarding with a friend last winter when we came upon some fellow water enthusiasts who were crowing over a “moccasin” they had dispatched. Upon examination, I identified the poor former snake as a Brown Watersnake, a completely harmless species that had been needlessly killed.
The final venomous snake you might encounter in Central Florida is the strikingly gorgeous Coral Snake. These brightly colored beauties are rarely seen because they are quite shy by nature and spend much of their time hiding under lead litter. Identified by their black nose and alternating bands of red, yellow, and black, Coral Snakes are often confused with the non-venomous Scarlet Snake and Scarlet Kingsnake. When I was a little girl, I learned the rhyme “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, OK for Jack” in order to tell the difference between a Coral Snake and its non-venomous look-alikes. An easier mnemonic device is “yellow, red, STOP”. Whichever you choose, you just need to remember that with Coral Snakes the red and yellow bands are next to one another, and with the non-venomous snakes the red bands touch only the black bands.
Chances are you’ll go your entire life without a negative encounter with a venomous snake. That said, if you spend a good deal of time outdoors you should know how to handle snakebites ahead of time. UF has an online emergency snakebite action plan, geared towards schools, that can be adapted to fit your situation https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw226. The best way to avoid a negative encounter with a venomous snake is to not harass or attempt to harm the snake. If you happen upon a snake, give it space, don’t block it’s escape route, and don’t get within striking distance.
Snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, are an important part of Florida’s ecosystem and have just as much of a right to be here as we do. An awareness of our surroundings, respect for their space, and appreciation for their nature can help us coexist in such a way that minimizes negative interactions. If you do see a venomous snake when you are out and about enjoying our wonderful wild spaces keep your distance and make good use of your zoom lens!
This blog post was adapted from Recognizing Florida’s Venomous Snakes by Steve Johnson and Martin Main. The full text is available online at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw229
Additional research-based information on co-existing with snakes and preventing negative encounters can be found at the following links:
Managing Conflicts with Wildlife: Living with Snakes https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw395
Dealing with Snakes in Florida’s Residential Areas – Preventing Encounters https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw260