Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Have You Ever Been Bitten By A Snake?

Harmless Mud Snake
    Upon revealing to others that I research the biology and conservation of snakes, turtles, and similar animals, I can typically expect one of two reactions. The first of which is disgust and amazement that money could be allotted to such pursuits. Nice to meet you too. The second reaction, which is considerably more welcome, tends to be an expression of interest in and enthusiasm about wildlife, followed by amazement that money could be allotted to such pursuits.

    I’m often posed the same questions by different people about my career, so I imagine there are other individuals lurking out there curious about the same subjects. I include three of the questions I’m asked most frequently, in order of times asked. If you were to ask me a question about my work, would it relate to snake bites? I bet so.

1. Have you ever been bitten by a snake?

    If you mean today, there’s a strong chance I’ve been bitten by a snake. If you’re referring to over the course of my life, I’ll conservatively estimate I’ve been bitten over 100 times. I’ve only been bitten by harmless, non-venomous snakes so there is no cause for alarm here. This reliably segues to question two.

2. Have you ever been bitten by a venomous snake?

    No, and I don’t plan to be. Although I may have a cavalier attitude regarding non-venomous snakes, I am extremely cautious regarding the pit vipers and coral snake in our area. I only handle these animals when it’s a necessary component of my job and never when it is not. Don’t be fooled by television shows which serve to entertain as much if not more than to educate; I never handle a venomous snake with my bare hands. Capturing one of these animals entails a slow process of persuading the snake into a customized bucket using specially made snake tongs or hooks (similar to a golf club) Once the animal is inside the bucket, a screw-top lid is carefully placed on top and securely fastened. When processing the animals back in the lab, they are nudged (again with a snake hook) into a clear but sturdy plastic tube. Once half their body is within the tube, they are picked up where the tube ends, firmly grasping both the snake and the tube to eliminate the possibility the snake can break free.

Timber Rattlesnake

    I’m sorry to say, it can be boring to watch if you’re expecting an extended face-off with an ornery rattlesnake hell-bent on destroying me as I taunt it and wave my hands around. On the other hand, I’ll be around to bore you for many years as long as I stick to my tried and true techniques.

3. Does it hurt when you’re bitten by a (non-venomous) snake?

    For many smaller snakes, a bite doesn’t even break the skin. Imagine a sewing needle pressed against your skin (without penetrating it) and you’ve just imagined what it feels like to be bitten by the majority of snakes. For larger species, a bite can indeed break the skin but it’s hardly an emergency. Again, imagine the sewing needle just breaking the skin on your finger (perhaps as a home blood sugar test would). Snakes typically have backward facing teeth, so if there’s a snake on your finger I wouldn’t advise tearing it away. In addition to making your (tiny) wound worse, you risk pulling out the snake’s teeth. As much as it may pain you to imagine, I recommend placing the snake (and your attached hand) on the ground. When the snake is comfortable, it will try to escape as soon as it can.

    My vote for the most sensational looking snake bites go to the water snakes. In addition to being large animals they have a chemical in their saliva that acts as an anti-coagulant. So, water snake bites tend to bleed a lot more than other snake bites, but this is only a cosmetic issue rather than a health concern.

    I wash my hands after a snake bite if it’s convenient and I remember to do so, however this is often impossible when in the middle of a swamp. I haven’t yet experienced any health problems due to a snake bite, but they are known to produce some good stories.


swamp4me said...

Very nicely done. The question I get asked the most, usually while I am handling the snake in question, is... Is it "poisonous"? That one always makes me smile and shake my head.

David Steen said...

I've made a serious blunder in overlooking that question! My automatic response is, "No, I wouldn't be holding it if that were the case." I often tend to stay away from discussing with the general public the poisonous vs. venomous dichotomy for fear of losing their attention.

I think the question stems from the omnipresent 'nature' shows on television and their careless and irresponsible snake handling. As if that's how we treat venomous animals.

Charles said...

I imagine that people who don't know much about snakes would ask if a snake is venomous or not. I get that a lot about my tarantulas.

Yeah, I would not want to get bit by a water snake. Around here, we have the northern water snake. I've had one peaceful encounter and then I had an encounter with a baby northern and he was bitey fellow. No I didn't get anywhere near me.