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Backpacker Magazine – February 2001

Avoiding Snakes: Nature's Evil Twins

Some species look alike, but guess wrong and you could have a harmful mistake on your hands.

by: Terry Krautwurst

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The snake flashed beneath the weeds and struck me just below the right knee with a whump! that felt like I'd been hit with a rubber hammer. Then just as quickly, it was gone, its patterned body blending into the leaf litter. I stood there, listening to my heart trying to pound its way out of my chest, wondering why I felt no pain. I checked my leg; no bite marks. My pants apparently deflected the fangs, if the snake had any. The reptile I watched glide away resembled a copperhead, but so do several harmless species of snakes that reside in my neck of the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains.

Did I come close to being bitten by a venomous snake? Because I didn't know what to look for back then, I'll never be certain. But I can tell you this: It was a long, careful hike back to the trailhead.

Nature is full of lookalikes, and while there's no great need to be able to distinguish a song sparrow from a chipping sparrow, the smart hiker knows how to tell the dangerous flora and fauna from the similar, safe ones. It can mean the difference between a pleasant trip and one on which your well-being is at risk.

Vipers

The United States harbors only two groups of venomous snakes: the somewhat rare coral snakes and the more common pit vipers, which include rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. Pit vipers are equipped with venom-injecting fangs and are so named for the tiny, heat-sensing pit located on each side of the head, between the eye and nostril. The pit helps them to locate prey.

Of course, if you see a snake with rattles, you know it's venomous. This simplifies matters in the West, where rattlesnakes are the only pit vipers. But in the eastern half of the country, rattleless cottonmouths and copperheads both bear markings akin to many harmless species.

To determine which variety you've encountered, look (at a comfortable distance, using binoculars) for a triangular head and other safe-or-sorry distinctions (see "Deadly Nuances," next page).

Water snakes in particular are easily mistaken for pit vipers. "Cottonmouths can look a lot like some water snakes," says Jeff Beane, curator of herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Body language is a good clue. "Cottonmouths are poor climbers and are likely to form a tight circular coil on a stump or log just above water level. Water snakes usually hang draped over a branch in a tree or bush."


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READERS COMMENTS

Luke
Jul 21, 2011

I come across rattlers way more often than I would like to. The important thing to remember is, these snakes don't want to bite you. They are more scared of you than you are of them. If you see one, first back up slowly (if you are close). You don't want to look like you are attacking. Give the snake it's distance and never corner it. Make sure you watch where you're going. Rattlers like to hide under fallen tree trunks or rocks. When stepping over look and tap your hiking pole before stepping.

James
Jul 21, 2011

A little confusion here. First it says rattlesnakes are the only dangerous snakes in the West, then it talks about the Arizona coral snake.

illinois hiker
Jul 21, 2011

Pictures would be nice

Rick
Jul 21, 2011

Great idea for an article, but in the 2 seconds it takes to get bit, I'm supposed to notice his eyes? What if the lil bugger is wearing sunglasses !?!

Anonymous
Nov 12, 2009

did some one ever got bite besides you

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