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Wildlife Encounters: Pit Vipers - Rattlesnakes, Water Moccasins, Copperheads

The first animal we’re covering in our Wildlife Encounter Series is the pit viper, one of two categories of venomous snakes. August through October is birthing season for rattlesnakes, so now is the time to be more aware of the mothers’ heightened sense of protection and that babies are dangerous as well. Although we’ll talk specifically about pit vipers found in Idaho, we’ll also cover a few species found around the country since pit vipers are the largest group of venomous snakes here. So, curl up…pun intended… and let’s talk about wildlife encounters with pit vipers. 

My instructors at National Outdoor Leadership School gave us two simple rules about snakes.1) Don't touch snakes. 2) If bit, go see a doctor.

While most of us are frightened by seeing a snake, it’s really the venomous ones that are a cause for concern. First off, there is a difference between poisonous and venomous. A poison enters the body by swallowing, absorption into the skin, or inhalation. Venom is injected into the body through a bite or sting. While there are a few poisonous snakes in the world, most are venomous because of their method of delivery.

As stated in a previous journal post, 3 Useful Tips When Encountering Wild Animals, avoidance is the best line of defense. Here are some tips for keeping your adventure snake-free:

  • Walk in clear areas by staying on the path.
  •  Watch where you step or reach.
  •  If climbing rocks, look in the crevices before placing your hand or foot.
  • Step on logs, not over them. Snakes like to nestle alongside logs and fallen trees.
  • Take a walking stick or trekking pole, especially if walking through tall grass.
  • If you do come across a snake, do NOT touch it. Back away slowly if you see or hear a rattler.
  •  Wear high-top boots, snake-proof leggings or long, loose pants when hiking through tall grass and heavily wooded areas with no clear trails.
  • Do your research ahead of time to know which snakes you may encounter and how to recognize them, as well as their habitat.

How to Identify a Pit Viper

Pit vipers come in different sizes and colors, but there are some main characteristics to look for:

  •  A large triangular shaped head and narrow neck
  •  Heat-sensing pits between their eyes and nostrils
  • Slim, black vertical pupils
  • Stocky bodies
  • Long, rotating fangs

General Rattlesnake Characteristics

Rattlesnakes fall into the pit viper category. There are many species of rattlesnakes throughout the United States, ranging in size, color, and scale of how venomous they are. We’ll go into further detail, but first here are some commonalities:

  • They have rattles to warn you when you’re too close.
  • Their main defense is camouflage, so they typically won’t move out of your way.
  • They can leap up to three times their body length.
  • They just want to be left alone, so typically won’t strike if you don’t mess with them.

Rattlesnakes in Idaho

The western rattlesnake, one of the most common rattlesnakes in North America, active between March and November and found throughout Idaho, mainly mountainous areas, woodlands, and grasslands with the exception of high elevations and the northern part of the state. The environment they prefer is dry, rocky areas with meager vegetation. There are three subspecies of the western rattlesnake found in Idaho, the northern pacific, great basin, and prairie. 

  • The northern pacific can be found in west-central Idaho and ranges from dark brown to black with lighter blotches.  They have wide eye stripes.
  • The great basin can be found in the southwestern part of the state and ranges between light gray, tan, and light yellow with darker blotches. 
  • The prairie rattlesnake can only be found in east-central Idaho, mainly in grasslands, forests, open prairies, and semi-desert shrublands and ranges in colors from yellow, olive green, greenish-gray, greenish-brown, and light brown.  They have eye stripes similar to the northern pacific.
  • They all can grow up to 5 feet.

The western rattlesnake eats mostly mice, rabbits and ground squirrels. They hunt mainly in or near tall grass, rocks, and where their prey dig their burrows.  They’re usually active during the day when the temperatures are moderate and in the early and late hours during the hot summer months.

Rattlesnakes and Other Pit Vipers Across the United States

Along with the western rattlesnake, the timber rattler and the diamondback (eastern and western) rattlesnakes top out the most common rattlesnakes in North America. Both the eastern and western diamondbacks can be easily identified by…yes, you guessed it…the diamond patterns on their back.

  • The eastern diamondback is the largest venomous snake in North America with lengths up to 8 feet. 
  • The western diamondback is slightly smaller with lengths up to 7 feet, but is considered the most aggressive. 
  • Both snakes are highly venomous. 
  • The eastern diamondback is found in the lower southeastern United States and prefer coastal, pine forest, dry marsh, and mountain areas. 
  • The western diamondback prefers rocky mountain areas, deserts, and coastal marshes throughout the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

Water moccasins (also known as cottonmouths) and copperheads are also common pit vipers found in the United States. While a strike from either of these snakes is not considered fatal, they can still cause a lot of pain and discomfort as well as a few nights in the hospital. 

  • The water moccasin is slightly more venomous than the copperhead.
  • One positive about the copperhead is that normally with their first strike they don’t release venom. It’s a warning to get back, but the second strike will not be so easy on you. 
  •  Another difference is that the water moccasin prefers wet areas while the copperhead prefers leafy areas.
  •  Baby copperheads have a yellow tail.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are 21 species of venomous snakes in the United States, 14 of which are rattlesnakes.

Birthing Season for Rattlesnakes

Since it is birthing season for rattlesnakes, there are some things you should be aware of in addition to being on alert. Here are some tips to keep you safe during this time:

  • Baby rattlesnakes do not have rattles until their first shed.
  • An adult rattlesnake may not give a rattle warning if she doesn’t want to give away her location.
  • Baby rattlesnakes are small and harder to spot.
  • Despite their size, baby rattlesnakes can still inject enough venom to be harmful to humans.
  • Adults are very active because they are hunting for food and traveling to their den for the winter hibernation.

The best thing to do when you see any snake, whether birthing season or not, is to leave it alone. Walk away slowly and give them space. They will only strike if they feel threatened or trapped.

What to do if Bitten by a Pit Viper

The first thing to do is stay calm. A snake bite is rarely fatal if medical attention is sought quickly. Your main focus should be to get to an emergency room as soon as possible, even if you don’t feel any symptoms. Some dos and don’ts to remember are:

  • Do NOT try to catch the snake, but do get a good description of it to help the doctor determine the best course of treatment. You or a companion can take a picture, if possible, without getting too close. Remember, they can strike up to three times their length.   
  • Do NOT waste your time with a snake bite kit because they are NOT effective.
  • Do NOT cut open the bite.
  • Do NOT take any medications, especially aspirin.
  • Do NOT try to restrict blood flow by using a tourniquet.
  •  Do keep your heart rate as low as possible.  Walk slowly and rest as needed.  
  • Do immobilize the area.
  • If possible, do circle the bite mark with a pen or marker and put in the time.  Repeat every 20 - 30 minutes by marking the area that is swollen, including the time. This will also help the doctor determine the speed of the venom spreading and the best course of treatment.
  • Do remove any jewelry or clothing near the bite because of swelling.
  • Do NOT drink or eat anything.
  • Do NOT put ice on the bite.
  • Do have written instructions in your first aid kit to help you stay focused on what to do.

Professional health care is the best option for you. The hospital can administer antivenom to help with recovery. Being prepared by knowing what to do if bitten is the best course of action you can take.

Signs and Symptoms to Watch for From a Pit Viper Bite

  • Fang marks (keep in mind there may only be one depending on where the snake struck)
  • Swelling and discoloration of the skin
  • Pain
  • Nausea and possibly vomiting
  • Weakness and sweating with chills
  • Numbness

What’s Next

So, I mentioned at the start that there are two categories of venomous snakes.  The second one is elapid snakes.  Be sure to check back for the next journal post for more information about wildlife encounters with elapid snakes.

Stay safe. Stay wild, my friends!

-Andrea
The Untamed Dame
Founder/CEO

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