Pit Vipers in McDowell

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When I hike, I’m always looking for snakes that might be using the same space that I want to use.  Most are non-venomous and the venomous kind probably doesn’t want a confrontation.  But there’s always that one who has had a bad day at the pit and is ready for a little action.  Just in case, I stay as far away as possible.  It also helps to know a few facts.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 8,000 people a year receive venomous snake bites in the United States, and only 9 to 15 victims die. In fact more people die from wasp and bee stings than from snake bites.

The venomous snakes you are likely to see in McDowell County and surrounding counties in Western NC are known as pit vipers. Pit vipers are recognizable by their large, triangular or diamond shaped head, a pit between the nostril and the eye, and vertically elliptical "cat's eye" pupils. It’s ok if you’re not close enough to see these details.  The Copperhead, Canebrake rattlesnake, and Timber rattlesnake, all are pit vipers. These snakes have a highly specialized venom apparatus which include two long hollow hinged fangs connected to small venom sacks. These snakes also have a pair of extremely sensitive innervated organs which are located in pits between their eyes and nostrils. These pits are "heat detectors" used for hunting. It enables the snake to locate, aim, and strike at warm-blooded prey (primarily rodents.) This ability is so sensitive that blindfolded snakes have been able to accurately follow rodents from a distance of 6 feet!

Rattlesnakes are equipped for both day and night vision. They give birth to living, venomous young. For some years, researchers have known that juvenile rattlers often have stronger venom than that of their larger, more mature counterparts -- a difference that may have arisen because small snakes inject much less venom than adults and may go after different or faster prey. In some species, young snakes have a higher proportion of neurotoxins in their venom than do older individuals. New research has found that the toxicity of venom varies greatly between individual snakes, both young and old.

Pit vipers generally inject large amounts of venom into hunting bites, but often little or no venom into defensive bites. In fact, up to 25% of pit viper bites in humans are non-venomous "dry bites". A provoked and angered snake, however, might not only "load up" to be quite venomous, but may also strike several times!

Most venomous snakes are peaceful, retiring animals that flee for the underbrush when they encounter humans. Unless they are hunting rodents, rattlesnakes strike only in self-defense. But if you step on one or try to capture it, a rattler will retaliate with a rapid strike that can be debilitating or even lethal.

In 1988 two doctors at the University of Southern California Medical Center analyzed 227 cases of venomous snakebite, covering more than a decade, and found that 44 percent occurred during accidental contact, such as stepping on the animal. More than 55 percent, however, resulted from the victim's grabbing or handling the creatures, and in 28 percent of these cases, the victims were intoxicated. The doctors' conclusion was that the typical snakebite victim is male and under thirty, with a blood-alcohol concentration of more than 0.1 percent at the time he is bitten. Yet only 0.2 percent of all snakebite victims die each year, and most of them receive no medical treatment or first aid.

Living with venomous snakes is really no different than living with hornets, or other minor risks of daily life. If one finds a hornet nest, one does not disturb it. The same caution should be applied if one sees a snake. Injury may result if hornets or snakes are disturbed or harassed. However, in North America human injuries from playing sports or slipping in the bathtub are far more common than are injuries from snakes. Venomous snakes are simply not a significant human health issue inNorth America. The appropriate response to encountering a snake is to simply walk away. Do not attempt to capture or kill it, as 70-80% of bites occur in this manner.

There’s an old song about a lady who, while walking in the snow, found a lifeless snake who was nearly frozen.  She took the snake into her cabin, warmed it in a blanket, and nursed it back to health.  One day when she went to care for the snake, it struck her, releasing all the venom it could muster.  As she lay, dying, she cried out to the snake, “Why have you done this to me after I cared for you?”  The serpent replied, “Hey, you knew I was a snake when you took me in.”

Keep that in mind when you hike.  Respect them and give them room.

Thanks to NC State University – Cooperative Extension for the facts.