Two years ago, the Independent Herald sat down with Dustin Burke, an Oneida police officer and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency boating officer who knows as much as anyone about the snakes that can be found in the northern Cumberland Plateau region. Burke informed readers at the time that there are only two species of venomous snakes that can be found in our neck of the woods, and that most of the snakes found here are harmless.
With the arrival of warmer weather, snakes are once again turning up in places they share with humans. Residents who are startled to find a snake in their driveway, on their lawn or, worst of all, in their garage, often take to Facebook to enlist friends’ help in identifying the snake. So, with that in mind, we thought it might be time for a light refresher course.
Within the confines of this page, it is impossible to describe every type of snake that you might encounter in Scott County. After all, there are nearly two dozen different species of snakes that inhabit the northern plateau region. But the most important question, in most people’s mind, is simply this: Are they poisonous? That can be surprisingly easy to ascertain.
What poisonous snakes live here?
Many people are surprised to learn that only two types of venomous snakes can be found along the northern plateau: copperheads and timber rattlesnakes. There are no eastern diamondbacks to be found on the plateau or anywhere else in East Tennessee, nor are there water moccasins or cottonmouths. While you may encounter cottonmouths and even pygmy rattlesnakes as you venture into parts of Middle Tennessee, those two species do not inhabit areas this far east.
If I'm bitten, will I die?
Of the two species of venomous snakes that are found on the northern plateau, both are on the lower end of the spectrum as far as level of toxicity. While bites from either can make their victim seriously ill, and even be deadly, fatal bites from either copperheads or timber rattlers are rare.
In fact, fatal snake bites are rare even when they involve the more venomous snakes not found in Scott County. It is estimated that as many as 8,000 people in the U.S. are bitten by a venomous snake annually, and only about five of those people die. Most venomous snake bites are the culprit of copperheads, due to the snake’s sheer numbers in the continental U.S., but it rarely kills its victims, because its bite is the least toxic of any venomous snake found in North America.
There are exceptions, of course. In 2014, a 52-year-old Missouri man died after attempting to pick up a copperhead to show it to his son while they were on a camping trip. He was the third American to die from a copperhead bite in the 2010s. A 50-year-old man died of a heart attack one day after being bitten by a copperhead in Missouri in 2011, and a 26-year-old Chattanooga man died of a copperhead bite in January 2011.
On the other hand, timber rattlers are quite toxic, and among North America’s deadliest snakes. The danger of their bite is offset by their mild disposition. Timber rattlers tend to rattle well in advance of striking. In fact, some experts say that neither timber rattlers or copperheads are likely to strike unless physical contact is made.
What do I do if I'm bitten?
In case of snake-bite, old-timers recommended making a cut around the bite area and attempting to suck out the venom. Until recent years, Walmart sold snake-bite kits, which included a small scalpel and suction device. But experts now recommend against the old-school method. The Mayo Clinic recommends calling 911 immediately. Delays in treatment can make your condition worse and increase the risk of death. In the meantime, it is recommended that you remain calm, since anxiety and increased heart rate can speed the rate at which your body absorbs the venom. Remove jewelry and tight clothing, since swelling is likely to occur, and position the bite area so that it is at or above the heart. The Mayo Clinic recommends against applying a tourniquet or applying ice, cutting the wound, or drinking caffeine or alcohol.
How do I determine if a snake is poisonous?
The best approach is to treat every snake as though it’s venomous, which means maintaining a comfortable distance and allowing it to continue on its way. But there are ways to determine whether a snake is venomous or harmless. Both species of venomous snakes found in Scott County are like every other venomous snake in the U.S., with the exception of coral snakes: they are pit vipers, with slit eyes. If a snake has round eyes, it is not poisonous. Often, copper-bellied water snakes or eastern hognose snakes are confused with copperheads, but they do not have round eyes. A less effective way of determining whether a snake is venomous is by the shape of its head. Both copperheads and timber rattlers have diamond-shaped heads, but some non-venomous species can have heads that mimic those shapes. In fact, a common defense mechanism of some species of non-venomous snakes is to flatten their heads so that they appear larger.
Do non-poisonous snakes bite?
Yes, non-venomous snakes that feel threatened will often bite. In fact, some species of non-venomous snakes found on the northern plateau are much more aggressive than either copperheads or timber rattlers. And while their bites may not inject venom, their tiny teeth can cause wounds that can become infected from bacteria in the snake’s mouth. Rat snakes and garter snakes, for example, produce toxins that help them kill their prey, although that toxin is considered clinically insignificant to humans. The best advice? If you see a snake, leave it alone.
What purpose do snakes serve?
All snakes serve a useful purpose, even venomous snakes. Primarily, snakes feed on mice, rats and other small mammals that invade our homes and damage our crops. Without snakes, rodent populations would be much higher. Voles, for example, can be especially damaging to your garden, while moles can virtually destroy your lawn. Most gardeners know the importance of keeping a cat or two around, but a rat snake that decides to hang out on the edge of your property could be a welcome “pet.” It is a myth that rat snakes — or black snakes — keep venomous snakes away; rat snakes have actually been known to hibernate with copperheads and rattlesnakes. But having rat snakes around creates competition for food, making it less likely that a copperhead or timber rattler will take up residence on your property. Meanwhile, researchers have discovered in recent years that snake venom may contain certain toxins that hold the key to curing chronic illnesses, such as cancer and diabetes.
Is it really illegal to kill a poisonous snake in Tennessee? It is, but that is only part of the answer. A common misconception is that it’s illegal to kill venomous snakes on public land, such as the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. But, technically, it’s illegal to kill any snake, anywhere. Does that mean it’s against the law to kill a copperhead in your front yard? Technically, yes. Obviously, you aren’t likely to see a wildlife officer turn up at your doorstep if you post a photo of a dead snake on Facebook. But a park ranger or wildlife officer might not be as forgiving if you stop to kill a snake — regardless of whether it’s venomous — on the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Agency or in the Big South Fork.
Are you sure there are no cottonmouths around here?
It's a hard myth to dispel, but the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says cottomouths — or water moccasins — are found west of the Tennessee River, with the exception of a handful of counties (like Perry and Williamson) just east of the river. If you think you saw a cottonmouth in East Tennessee, experts say, you most likely saw a northern watersnake.