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Title: Poisonous Snakes of Texas and First Aid Treatment of Their Bites - Bulletin No. 31
Author: Werler, John E.
Language: English
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                       POISONOUS SNAKES OF TEXAS
                        AND FIRST AID TREATMENT
                             OF THEIR BITES

                            BULLETIN NO. 31

                         Revised February 1952
                           Reprinted May 1960
                      Revised July 1963; May 1964
                          Reprinted Jan. 1967
                          Reprinted Jan. 1969
                         Reprinted August 1970

                             JOHN E. WERLER
                  Director, Houston Zoological Gardens

    [Illustration: Texas State Seal]

            Published by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
                             Austin, Texas

                           TABLE OF CONTENTS

  INTRODUCTION                                                          4
  PRECAUTIONS AT HOME                                                   5
  PROTECTION IN THE FIELD                                               7
  RECOGNIZING THE POISONOUS KINDS                                       8
  THE PIT VIPERS                                                       12
  THE COPPERHEADS                                                      13
      Southern                                                         14
      Northern                                                         16
      Broadbanded                                                      18
      Trans-Pecos                                                      20
  THE COTTONMOUTH                                                      22
      Western Cottonmouth                                              22
  THE RATTLESNAKES                                                     25
      Western Massasauga                                               26
      Western Pigmy                                                    28
      Western Diamondback                                              30
      Timber                                                           34
      Canebrake                                                        36
      Banded Rock                                                      38
      Mottled Rock                                                     40
      Blacktailed                                                      42
      Mojave                                                           44
      Prairie                                                          46
  THE ELAPID SNAKES                                                    48
      Texas Coral                                                      48
  VENOMS                                                               52
  DIAGNOSING THE BITE                                                  53
  SEVERITY OF THE BITE                                                 54
  FIRST AID TREATMENT                                                  55
  SUGGESTIONS TO PHYSICIANS                                            57
  BIBLIOGRAPHY                                                         61
  FILMS                                                                62


This Bulletin has been prepared in response to many requests from
hunters, ranchers, telephone construction personnel, Boy Scouts and
others who spend much time outdoors, for a concise and illustrated guide
to the poisonous snakes of Texas. The information presented is merely an
outline of the poisonous snakes found within the state and is not
intended to replace the several excellent snake books now on the market.

Sixteen species and subspecies of poisonous snakes, belonging to four
general groups, are found in Texas. The most characteristic features of
each are described. A photograph accompanies each description and a map
indicating the snake’s known range by counties is included. With this
information, the reader should have little difficulty recognizing the
poisonous snakes found in his region and, should he be required to
render first aid for snake bite, the text and photos covering this
subject will help him to do the job successfully.

A number of persons have extended help during the current revision of
this booklet. I am most indebted to Alvin Flury, information and
education officer for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who not
only did much of the necessary legwork for the project, but who also
provided the impetus that saw it to completion. Thanks are due also to
the following persons for county records of poisonous snakes in Texas:
Ralph W. Axtell, Richard J. Baldauf, Edward W. Bonn, Bryce C. Brown,
James R. Dixon, Alvin Flury, John W. Forsyth, W. C. Glazener, W.
Grainger Hunt, L. M. Klauber, Verlin Nethery, Floyd Potter, Kirk
Preston, Stephen Preston, Gerald G. Raun, Michael Sabath, Joe T.
Stevens, Ernest C. Tanzer, Donald W. Tinkle, Clay Touchstone and John
Wooters. Live specimens for making photographs used here were provided
by Russell J. Long, Rusty Martin, Ernest C. Tanzer, Clay Touchstone and
Lawrence Curtis. Finally, I wish to thank Robert L. Carlisle, Joseph F.
Gennaro, Richard MacAllister, Don W. Micks, J. Fred Mullins, A. C.
Stimson and John H. Werler for other information and assistance.

                                                          JOHN E. WERLER

                       POISONOUS SNAKES OF TEXAS
                        AND FIRST AID TREATMENT
                             OF THEIR BITES

It is widely known among snake bite authorities that more persons die
from snake bite in Texas than in any other state of the nation. This
startling fact should encourage every Texan to obtain a thorough working
knowledge of the correct first aid treatment for snake bite so he will
be prepared to act promptly in the event of an emergency. In addition,
and perhaps just as important, he should learn how to prevent a bite
before it can happen. This means knowing where to expect poisonous
snakes, how to avoid them, and how to identify on sight the venomous
kinds found in the region where he lives.

                          PRECAUTIONS AT HOME

Statistics show that a large percentage of all bites takes place near
the home and more than a few of these are inflicted upon small children
playing in their yards. Therefore, let us consider first the possible
presence of poisonous snakes around the home and some precautions that
can be taken to keep them away.

Each year Texas zoos receive calls from distressed home owners within
city limits who have discovered rattlesnakes or copperheads under their
houses or beneath trash piles on their property. These people ask for
assistance in the removal of the snakes or for advice which may prevent
similar future invasions. The trespassing snake often can be disposed of
quickly, but the removal of one snake does not always solve the problem.
Something must be done to discourage other snakes from taking residence
on the grounds.

The steps to be taken are simple; chief among them is the removal of all
rubbish. Rock piles, trash piles, stacked lumber, tree stumps and other
forms of debris near or under houses often harbor rats and mice which
form the principal food of most snakes. In addition, this trash
furnishes cover for the reptiles and offers them protection from enemies
and bad weather. Therefore, if all rubbish is removed from the premises,
the food and shelter which attract snakes are largely eliminated and the
snakes are forced to seek a more suitable environment. Dense, low
growing plants may also supply cover for snakes.

Finally, the removal of rubbish and dense vegetation enables the
homeowner to easily see and destroy poisonous snakes that may be
present. In settled areas, however, where poisonous snakes are
particularly abundant and present a serious problem, it may be necessary
to take further protective measures.

Dr. C. M. Bogert of the American Museum of Natural History has suggested
the use of a quarter-inch mesh wire fence to keep snakes off residential
property. This yard-high, snake-proof fence is placed around the house
in much the same manner as an ordinary picket fence, except that the
bottom must be set about six inches into the ground to prevent snakes
forcing their way beneath it. In addition, all gates must be provided
with close-fitting sills on the bottoms and sides to insure a completely
tight enclosure.

Experiments with fences of this kind were made to determine their
effectiveness and to seek possible improvements in their construction,
with the result that one important change was made. Copperheads and
small rattlesnakes could not get over the vertically-straight fence, but
a six-foot rattlesnake used in the experiment was able to climb over it.
When the same fence was tilted outward at a 30-degree angle, not even
the largest snake was able to reach the top. Although such fences are
expensive and difficult to keep in good repair, they may be desirable
under some circumstances.

A less costly method of keeping snakes away from residential property
has been proposed by the manufacturers of a new chemical that allegedly
repels and kills snakes. The product, a granular material with a civet
musk odor, is reported by its distributors to kill a snake less than two
feet in length if it is exposed longer than 20 seconds. Preliminary
tests made at the Houston Zoo indicate that, in spite of claims to the
contrary, the material had little effect on the snakes used. Each of
more than a dozen different specimens, including examples of all the
local poisonous kinds, unhesitatingly crawled through a wide barrier of
the repellent that was poured on the ground. In some instances, the
snake’s tongue contacted the granules, but none of the test reptiles
showed any ill effects from exposure to the chemical. While these crude
tests are certainly not conclusive, it would seem advisable to use
commercial repellents with some reservations until they can be proved
effective. Meanwhile, we can still prevent most snake bites by observing
a few simple safe practices.

                        PROTECTION IN THE FIELD

In the field, where poisonous snakes are more common, they present a
greater hazard to human life; consequently, campers, crop farmers and
others who spend a great deal of time outdoors should necessarily take
more care in avoiding snake bites. Because almost all snake bites are
inflicted on the arms or legs of the victim, these limbs require special
protection. The use of a little caution, when placing hands or feet
where snakes may be partially or completely hidden from view, is the
best protection you can give them. This is particularly true when
climbing hand-over-hand on rocky ledges, where your hands reach the
level of the ledge before your eyes do. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are
partial to such rocky hillsides and here, especially during the warm
days of early spring, they prefer to coil and sun themselves.

    [Illustration: Thoughtless reach]

Armadillo and pack rat burrows also make excellent shelters for
rattlesnakes, and only a reckless person would find an excuse to reach
into one of these holes. Yet one year, in South Texas alone, at least
two snake bites occurred when the victims, each in search of small game,
reached into armadillo holes and were bitten by rattlesnakes coiled

Another way to invite snake bite is to thoughtlessly turn over a log
with bare hands or to step over one without first looking to see whether
a snake is coiled on the other side. Many snakes, particularly the
copperhead and coral snake, are fond of hiding beneath or within
decaying logs, as any snake collector will testify, and such a log is at
all times to be considered a potential snake den. If a log must be
moved, use a long stick as a pry-bar. Stepping over a log will be less
risky if boots or high-top shoes are worn, but even then it is safer to
see first what is on the other side.

Several types of footwear offer good protection against the bites of
most snakes. Especially effective are high-top leather shoes, riding
boots, rubber boots or a combination of army “paratrooper shoes” and
heavy leather puttees. Probably the best of these is a snakeproof boot
made of extra heavy bullhide leather, sold by the Gokey Company, 94 East
4th Street, St. Paul, Minnesota. For protection of the legs above the
knees, snakeproof pants that weigh little more than ordinary duck
trousers are available. They consist of three thicknesses of duck
material and one layer of fine wire mesh, flexible enough to allow easy
knee movement. Snakeproof leggings of similar material can be purchased
for safeguarding just the lower legs. Recently marketed aluminum
leggings furnish good protection in many cases, but some brands tested
were too thin and easily damaged; others were too uncomfortable.

If a poisonous snake is discovered close by, the best protection is to
remain as still as possible until the snake has moved away. It should be
remembered that a snake is quick to strike at a moving object, so to
quickly step away at such a moment may be disastrous. If a rattlesnake
is heard nearby but cannot be located, do not begin a wild dash for
safety. Location of the snake may be misjudged and by taking a step you
are likely to walk into, rather than away from, it. Again, remain still
until the snake is sighted and, when it is certain the snake is at least
five or six feet away and no others are nearby, slowly back away. If you
must move away, do so as slowly as possible.

Because our native poisonous snakes are mostly nocturnal in their
activities, remaining hidden during the day and emerging at night in
search of food, a flashlight should be used by persons who find it
necessary to travel through snake country after dark. During the cool
days of spring and autumn, however, nocturnal habits are often reversed.
During the day snakes search for warm spots in which to sun themselves;
by nightfall they are again under cover.

None of our poisonous Texas snakes ordinarily can strike more than
three-quarters of its body length, unless it has a firm backing or is
striking downward from an incline. Certainly none has the ability to
jump at an enemy, a feat often attributed to the rattlesnake. A snake on
the defensive is coiled with the forward part of its body in a loose S
position. When striking, this coil is straightened out and the head is
thrust forward. It is not necessary for a snake to strike from a coil in
order to bite. If picked up near the head, it may simply turn, open its
mouth and bite the hand.

It is dangerous to believe, as many do, that a water moccasin cannot
bite under water, and woe to the person who dares to seize a submerged


Suppose, in spite of attention to the precautions and protective
measures just outlined, someone is bitten by an unidentified snake.
Certainly the victim would not wish to delay treatment if the snake were
poisonous, because every minute wasted would make recovery more
difficult. On the other hand, he would not care to undergo either the
pain associated with snake bite treatment or the anxiety following a
bite if a harmless snake were the cause of the accident. Yet time and
again people have been bitten by harmless snakes and have been
needlessly given first aid and hospital treatment because the offending
snake was incorrectly classified as poisonous. Still others have been
bitten by harmless snakes and died from nothing more than fright.

When recognition of the snake is doubtful, it should, if possible, be
killed and taken to a hospital or doctor’s office for correct
identification. Always keep in mind, however, that a recently killed
poisonous snake may still be potentially dangerous. Even after its head
is cut from the body, a reptile is capable of marked reflex activity;
merely touching the head may cause it to bite. To be on the safe side,
use a stick to lift or carry a dead snake.

It is evident that the ability to distinguish between harmless and
poisonous snakes goes hand in hand with a knowledge of proper first aid
treatment. Ability to recognize a poisonous snake on sight can best be
achieved by a study of live poisonous kinds and a comparison of them
with harmless species. At many zoos, where both kinds are on display in
glass-fronted cages, they may be examined safely. If a zoo is not
conveniently near, an examination of photographs showing the different
kinds is probably the next best way to become familiar with them.

It is generally considered by the layman that four kinds of poisonous
snakes are found in the United States—the rattlesnake, cottonmouth,
copperhead and coral snake. This grouping, although somewhat arbitrary
and certainly not zoologically correct, is firmly established in the
minds of most people and may very well be here to stay. Nevertheless, a
more accurate and scientific approach is possible if we consider each
species and subspecies as a different kind.

Illustrations in this booklet show the 16 kinds (species and subspecies)
of poisonous snakes known in Texas. These photographs, together with
descriptions in the text, should aid in identification. The accompanying
distribution map for each form has been compiled from county records
based on museum specimens, but in a few cases reliable “sight” records
have been used as proof of a snake’s occurrence within a county.

Distribution of snakes within Texas is incompletely known because of a
lack of reliable records; for this reason, the distribution maps are
necessarily far from complete. It is hoped, however, that the lists will
be brought up to date as new localities come to light. If the reader can
make any additions to the present lists, he is asked to communicate with
the author or to deliver specimens to the nearest large college, zoo or
museum maintaining a zoological collection.

Only 16 of the approximately 106 different kinds of snakes found in the
state are dangerously poisonous to man, and some are so rare that they
are seldom seen. In addition, we have in Texas several species of
smaller snakes known as opisthoglyphs, each possessing a mild venom and
a set of small grooved fangs far back in the upper jaw. Because of their
weak and limited supply of venom and small fangs, which are poorly
adapted for injecting poison into large animals, these rear-fanged
snakes are considered harmless to man. By far, the majority of species
are small, being not more than 15 inches long and about three-sixteenths
of an inch thick. In this group are the blackheaded snakes (genus
_Tantilla_) found over most of the state. The slightly larger spotted
night snakes (genus _Hypsiglena_) of west and central Texas have
enlarged but ungrooved teeth in the upper jaw. Two Mexican rear-fanged
snakes, found as far north as the Brownsville region, are somewhat
larger. They are the blackstriped snake (_Coniophanes imperialis
imperialis_) which grows to about 20 inches in length, and the Texas
cat-eye snake (_Leptodeira annulata septentrionalis_), which reaches a
length of about three feet. Still another species, the very rare Texas
lyre snake (_Trimorphodon vilkinsonii_), is known from extreme western
Texas. It is generally less than three feet long.

In spite of the small percentage of poisonous kinds of snakes in the
state, it must be made clear that no one general rule can be used safely
to identify all of them at a glance. It is a mistaken idea that all
venomous snakes have broad, triangular heads. On the contrary, by using
this rule, many of our harmless snakes look more dangerous than do some
poisonous kinds. Furthermore, this generalization is made useless by
several exceptions, a notable example being the coral snake which has a
round head and does not look at all poisonous.

Even the characteristic rattle is not always present to make a
rattlesnake’s identification certain. Sometimes the snake’s rattle is
accidentally broken off, in which case this identifying appendage is
gone. Then, too, a rattlesnake often is coiled in such a way that its
rattles are concealed beneath a loop of its body. Again, the tell-tale
rattle is not visible and it is necessary to recognize the snake by some
other means.

Disregard all so-called “easy” rules by which poisonous snakes may be
identified; instead, learn to know each one by its general overall
appearance. For example, to identify the cottonmouth, look for a
combination of its most characteristic features—relatively short, stout
body and a broad, flat head. Also look for a body color of black, dark
brown or olive and from 10 to 15 wide, usually indistinct, crossbands
which are generally lighter in the center than on the edges. The upper
jaw below the eye, as well as the lower jaw, will be light colored in
contrast to the dark color above the eye. Together, these
characteristics will make identification quite certain at a reasonable
distance. Remember that the young of this snake are colored differently
from the adults and you will not be able to identify the juvenile by
using the color characteristics of the adult snake.

                             THE PIT VIPERS

Our poisonous Texas snakes belong to two families—the _Viperidae_
(subfamily _Crotalinae_—pit vipers) and the _Elapidae_ (cobra-like
snakes). The pit vipers, which include rattlesnakes, copperheads and
cottonmouths, possess an opening on either side of the head, between the
eye and the nostril. With these heat-sensitive pits, the snake can
locate warm-blooded prey in the dark and make a direct hit upon a rat or
mouse which it cannot see.

    [Illustration: Snake skeletons]

Snakes belonging to this family are further characterized by the
possession of elliptical eye pupils, somewhat triangular-shaped heads
and long, movable fangs in the front of the upper jaw. Each fang is
connected by a tube to the poison gland located just behind the eye.
When the snake is at rest and its mouth is closed, the fangs lie folded
back against the roof of the mouth. During the strike, the mouth is
opened so that the upper and lower jaws form an angle of nearly 180
degrees. The fangs are then erected to point almost directly forward.
With the fangs in this position, the strike results in a stabbing action
rather than a true bite.

                            THE COPPERHEADS

Four kinds of copperheads are known in Texas. They are much smaller and
more slender than the closely related cottonmouth and, because they have
proportionately smaller fangs and less venom, are not very dangerous to
man. The four copperheads resemble one another by having the same
general pattern of chestnut or reddish-brown crossbands on a lighter
body color. Differences are based mostly on the size and shape of
crossbands and in the degree of marking present on the belly.

Copperheads are most common in rocky areas of hilly or mountainous
country, as well as in wooded bottomlands. They are rarely seen in dry,
cactus country. Although spending most of their time on the ground,
copperheads occasionally climb bushes and low trees in search of food.
Along the Colorado River near Wharton, they were observed high in trees;
some were 40 feet above the ground. The snakes reached these unusual
heights by crawling along wild grape vines that clung to the tree trunks
and draped over lower limbs. One snake hunter in the area collected
nearly 100 copperheads by pulling them off the branches.

Copperheads do most of their feeding at night. During the spring in some
parts of the state, they are found in large numbers along streams and
other moist areas, where they spend most of the day hidden beneath
decaying logs and other debris which affords good cover. Copperheads
also can be expected when air temperatures are high, and when the soil
and vegetation are wet from recent rain. They often make their homes
within the suburbs of large cities where, due to their nocturnal habits
and protective coloration, they are apt to be overlooked.

Not quick to seek cover when approached, copperheads prefer to lie
perfectly still until an intruder has passed. Once molested, they
frequently vibrate their tails and, if among dry leaves, produce a
buzzing sound not unlike that made by a rattlesnake. Copperheads are
quick to strike at any annoying object, and often bite several times in
rapid succession.

Copperheads seldom deliver a fatal bite because of their short fangs and
small size. Their strike is often blocked by a mere trouser leg. Records
of the Antivenin Institute of America show that during a 10-year period,
not a single death resulted from 308 recorded copperhead bites
regardless of the lack or kind of treatment given victims. In spite of
these reassuring figures, it must be remembered that the copperhead is
potentially a dangerous snake, especially when the bite involves a
child. All bites from this species should receive the same urgent
consideration given the bite of a diamondback rattlesnake.

The four forms of copperheads occurring in Texas are the only kinds
found in the United States.

                          SOUTHERN COPPERHEAD
                  _Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix_

    [Illustration: SOUTHERN COPPERHEAD]

Description—Lighter in color than the other copperheads, this form has a
body color of light brown or tan, often with a pinkish tinge.
Hourglass-shaped crossbands of darker brown are very narrow along the
middle of the back and are sometimes broken, forming two separate
triangular markings, one on each side of the body. As on the northern
copperhead, the bands are rounded at their bases. The belly is pale and
indistinctly marked.

Size—Adults average between 20 and 30 inches long, while some especially
large examples reach a length of more than 40 inches.

Young—The average number in a brood is five or six. As with all North
American pit vipers, the young do not hatch from eggs but are born
alive, enclosed in a thin membranous sack. They are paler than adults,
with a more vivid pattern, and a bright sulphur yellow tail tip.

Distribution in Texas—The southern copperhead is known in about the
eastern third of the state, where it has been found in the following
counties: Austin, Bastrop, Bowie, Brazoria, Brazos, Burleson, Calhoun,
Chambers, Cherokee, Colorado, Fort Bend, Gonzales, Grimes, Hardin,
Harris, Harrison, Henderson, Hopkins, Houston, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty,
Madison, Matagorda, Montgomery, Nacogdoches, Newton, Orange, Polk,
Robertson, San Jacinto, Smith, Tarrant, Trinity, Victoria, and Walker.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                          NORTHERN COPPERHEAD
                    _Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen_

    [Illustration: NORTHERN COPPERHEAD]

Description—This darker form has a pattern of reddish-brown or chestnut
colored crossbands, which become narrower near the middle of the back
and rounded at the bases. The darker color of these “dumbbell” shaped
bands contrasts with the hazel-brown body color. The underside of the
snake is dark and indistinctly mottled with gray or black. Its head is
usually of a lighter tint than the body.

Size—Adults usually are about two and a half feet long but record size
individuals of more than 40 inches have been caught.

Young—Newborn northern copperheads, from three to 14 in a brood, may be
from eight to 10 inches long.

Distribution—Records of this snake are rather widely scattered over the
northeastern part of the state. Specimens have been collected in the
following counties: Bastrop, Bowie, Burleson, Cass, Collin, Colorado,
Coryell, Dallas, Ellis, Fannin, Grayson, Guadalupe, Hopkins, Hunt,
Kaufman, Lamar, Lee, McLennan, Milam, Morris, Robertson, Smith,
Somervell, and Titus.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                         BROADBANDED COPPERHEAD
                  _Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus_


Description—The very broad, straight edged crossbands of this snake
easily distinguish it from other copperheads. The similar Trans-Pecos
copperhead differs by the presence of a light colored inverted U at the
base of each crossband. The dark brown bands of this form are slightly
narrower at the middle of the back than on the sides; their nearly
straight edges gives the bands a squarish appearance. The dark
crossbands contrast strongly with the lighter body color, while the
belly is of almost the same shade as the bands. The tail is tipped with
yellowish green, more pronounced in the young.

Size—Snakes of this subspecies probably reach a length of three feet but
most adults are about two feet long.

Young—Litters probably average five or six but little else is known
about the breeding habits of this form.

Distribution—Widely scattered records include the following counties:
Atascosa, Bandera, Bastrop, Bexar, Bosque, Burnet, Callahan, Comal,
Cooke, Crockett, Denton, Dimmit, Eastland, Fayette, Frio, Gillespie,
Gonzales, Grayson, Guadalupe, Hamilton, Hays, Kendall, Kerr, Mason,
Medina, McLennan, Parker, Palo Pinto, Real, San Saba, Tarrant, Taylor,
Throckmorton, Tom Green, Travis, Uvalde, Victoria, Wilson, Wise, and

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                         TRANS-PECOS COPPERHEAD
                  _Agkistrodon contortrix pictigaster_

    [Illustration: TRANS-PECOS COPPERHEAD]

Description—This species resembles the broadbanded copperhead by its
straight edged, squarish crossbands but differs from all other
copperheads by having uniformly dark or strongly mottled belly. It also
differs from the broadbanded form by the presence of a light colored
inverted U at the base of each crossband. The pattern consists of about
13 chestnut-brown crossbands with narrow, dark borders. The color
between the bands is light hazel brown, flecked with darker brown.

Size—This is the smallest of the copperheads, probably not reaching a
length of two and one-half feet.

Young—Nothing is known of the breeding habits of this rare snake.

Distribution—This form apparently is restricted to the mountains of West
Texas, where it is known in Brewster, Jeff Davis, Presidio and Terrell
Counties. Until 1949 it was found sparingly throughout its range and
less than a dozen specimens had been found by experienced collectors.
Recently, however, students from The University of Texas obtained about
100 of these snakes during a six weeks’ summer course in a small section
of Terrell County. This indicates that the Trans-Pecos copperhead is
common, but in restricted areas only. Such areas generally are in wooded
canyons and live oak groves where there is some leaf litter.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                            THE COTTONMOUTH

Only one kind of cottonmouth is found in Texas. It is one of our
heaviest and largest poisonous snakes and may reach a length of more
than five feet. When viewed from above, the head appears triangular
shaped and from the side the head looks flat on top.

The eye pupils, as with all members of the pit viper sub-family, are

                          WESTERN COTTONMOUTH
                  _Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma_

    [Illustration: WESTERN COTTONMOUTH]

Description—This is the most variable poisonous snake in the state, both
in color and in the presence or absence of markings. Adults are much
less brilliantly marked than are the young or newborn snakes. Adults
have a background of dark brown and are marked by from 10 to 15 dark,
wide crossbands somewhat lighter in the center than at the edges. The
bands, which have irregular edges, become a little wider along the
sides. However, not all cottonmouths look like this. While some
individuals have clearly defined crossbands, others have none. There is
also considerable variation in color. Some cottonmouths are brown; some
are olive brown or olive green; and some are entirely black. The lower
jaw, as well as the upper jaw below the eye, is light in contrast to the
dark color on top of the head. Young cottonmouths are vividly marked on
a background of reddish-brown, highlighted by darker brown bands edged
with white. They look much like copperheads.

Size—In Texas, this heavy-bodied snake reaches a maximum length of about
four and a half or five feet, but the average is more nearly three feet.

Young—About eight are born in each litter. They are from six to eight
inches long at birth.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

Distribution—The cottonmouth has been reported in the following
counties: Anderson, Aransas, Atascosa, Austin, Bandera, Bexar, Bowie,
Brazos, Brazoria, Burleson, Burnet, Cass, Calhoun, Chambers, Cherokee,
Collin, Colorado, Comal, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Falls, Fannin, Fisher,
Fort Bend, Galveston, Goliad, Gonzales, Grayson, Guadalupe, Hardin,
Harris, Harrison, Hays, Henderson, Houston, Jasper, Jefferson, Kaufman,
Kerr, Kimble, Lamar, Leon, Liberty, Limestone, Marion, Mason, Matagorda,
Maverick, McLennan, Medina, Montgomery, Morris, Nacogdoches, Newton,
Nueces, Orange, Parker, Polk, Red River, Refugio, Robertson, San
Jacinto, San Patricio, Shelby, Smith, Sterling, Tarrant, Tom Green,
Travis, Uvalde, Val Verde, Victoria, Walker, Wharton, Wilson, and Wise.

The cottonmouth is one of our largest poisonous snakes. It is
particularly abundant in the coastal marshes of southeastern Texas where
it is found along streams, ponds and lakes. Although ordinarily rather
sluggish, it immediately draws back its head and opens its mouth widely
in a threatening manner when annoyed, exposing the white tissue lining
the inside of the mouth. This characteristic pose is responsible for its
popular name. Moreover, like the copperhead, which also lacks rattles,
it has the habit of vibrating its tail when sufficiently annoyed. Thus,
when it is among dry leaves, or if the tail strikes a hard object, the
resulting sound may be similar to that made by a rattlesnake.

The name water moccasin, which is loosely applied to any and all water
snakes as well as to the cottonmouth, has resulted in a popular but
misplaced belief that all “water” snakes are poisonous. It should be
pointed out here that the cottonmouth, _Agkistrodon piscivorus
leucostoma_, is our only poisonous aquatic serpent. The several kinds of
harmless water snakes, which in some instances resemble it, are devoid
of poison. They can, at most, inflict a bite no more serious than the
scratch of a cat and these wounds require only the first aid recommended
for minor cuts.

Harmless water snakes most frequently mistaken for the cottonmouth
include the large diamondbacked water snake of central and eastern
Texas, the blotched water snake found over most of the state, and the
yellowbellied and broadbanded water snakes of eastern Texas. Most of
them are relatively heavy bodied, possess somewhat diamond shaped heads
and, although not venomous, will bite viciously if stepped upon or

                            THE RATTLESNAKES

More than one-half of all the poisonous kinds of snakes known in Texas
are rattlesnakes, and records show that almost every county has at least
one variety. Texas rattlesnakes range in size from the very small,
18-inch western pigmy rattlesnake, which rarely if ever causes death
among humans, to the seven-foot western diamondback rattlesnake, known
to be one of the most dangerous snakes in North America. All have
comparatively stout bodies, facial pits characteristic of the family,
and rattles.

The rattle, which sets this snake apart, is a series of loosely
interlocking horny segments which, when vibrated, produce a sharp
buzzing sound as the segments strike against one another. A
rattlesnake’s age cannot be determined by the number of segments of its
rattle because a new segment is added with each shedding of the skin.
Because a snake may shed several times a year, the resulting number of
segments added annually may be six or more. On the other hand, the
segments are frequently broken off as the rattle becomes caught in
underbrush, so that few rattlesnakes have a complete rattle.

                           WESTERN MASSASAUGA
                    _Sistrurus catenatus tergeminus_

    [Illustration: WESTERN MASSASAUGA]

Description—The general body color is brown or gray. About 39 dark
brown, oval blotches extend along the middle of the back while two rows
of smaller blotches are found along each side. These blotches are
narrowly edged with a lighter color.

Size—Adults average two feet in length; larger specimens are sometimes
as long as three feet.

Young—The young resemble the adults but are lighter in color. Average
number in a litter is eight or nine and they measure eight or nine
inches at birth.

Distribution—Records of this snake are widely scattered throughout the
state, including the following counties: Andrews, Aransas, Armstrong,
Bell, Bosque, Brazos, Calhoun, Cameron, Chambers, Clay, Colorado,
Crosby, Dickens, El Paso, Gaines, Galveston, Hardeman, Haskell,
Hemphill, Jim Hogg, Johnson, King, Matagorda, McLennan, Midland, Nolan,
Nueces, Parker, Pecos, Roberts, Shackelford, Sutton, Tarrant,
Throckmorton, Victoria, Wheeler, Wilbarger, Winkler, Yoakum, and Young.

This small rattlesnake is uncommon in Texas, although years ago it was
plentiful in some parts of the state. J. K. Strecker in his _Reptiles
and Amphibians of Texas_, 1915, states:

  Mr. Luttrell of Claude, Armstrong County, informed me that he has
  often killed from 50 to 60 during one wheat season, but during the
  past four or five years he has not seen more than half a dozen a year.

Wet places, usually near swamps or marshes, are its favorite habitat.
One of our most docile rattlesnakes, it is seldom inclined to use its
rattle, even when almost stepped upon.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                       WESTERN PIGMY RATTLESNAKE
                    _Sistrurus miliarius streckeri_


Description—The body color of this snake is from gray to grayish-brown.
Its back is marked with about 35 small, dark spots which are wider than
long. Another row of smaller spots is located along each side toward the

Size—Specimens average 18 inches long and large examples may reach a
length of more than two feet.

Young—The normal brood contains from eight to 10 but some may have as
many as 18. Average length of the newborn is five or six inches.

Distribution—All county records of this snake, except one from Mitchell
County, are in the eastern part of the state. The Mitchell County record
may be an error. Records include the following counties: Anderson,
Angelina, Brazoria, Brazos, Chambers, Cooke, Dallas, Galveston, Hardin,
Harris, Harrison, Henderson, Houston, Jasper, Jefferson, Lamar, Leon,
Liberty, Matagorda, McLennan, Mitchell, Montgomery, Newton, Orange, Red
River, Refugio, Robertson, San Jacinto, Smith, Somervell, Victoria,
Walker, Wharton, and Wise.

The western pigmy rattlesnake prefers to live in dry areas; reports of
professional collectors indicate that it is found in greatest number
after heavy rains and at night. While more aggressive than its close
relative, the massasauga, its small size makes it one of our least
dangerous poisonous snakes. Its rattle is small, often difficult to see,
and cannot be heard at distances greater than a few feet.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                            _Crotalus atrox_


Description—Although individuals of this species show a great deal of
variation in color, from a chalky white to a dull red, they can be
identified immediately by the alternate black and white rings of about
equal width on the tail. There is a pattern of brown diamond shaped
markings along the middle of the back, which stands out against the
lighter body color. Each diamond has a narrow light border.

Size—Adults are generally from three and a half to four and a half feet
long. Reliable reports indicate that this species grows to a length of
over seven and a half feet, and six-foot specimens are not rare.

Young—Broods average 10 or 12 but occasionally contain 20 or more. The
newborn diamondback is about a foot long and looks very much like the

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

Distribution—Known throughout most of the state except the extreme
eastern part, it may be expected in many more counties from which
records of its occurrence have not yet been received. It is definitely
known in these counties: Andrews, Aransas, Archer, Armstrong, Atascosa,
Bandera, Bastrop, Baylor, Bee, Bell, Bexar, Blanco, Borden, Bosque,
Brazoria, Brazos, Brewster, Briscoe, Brooks, Brown, Burnet, Caldwell,
Calhoun, Cameron, Clay, Coke, Comal, Comanche, Concho, Coryell, Cottle,
Crockett, Crosby, Culberson, Dallam, Dallas, Dawson, Deaf Smith, DeWitt,
Dickens, Dimmit, Donley, Duval, Eastland, Ector, Edwards, El Paso,
Erath, Fisher, Foard, Frio, Galveston, Garza, Gillespie, Goliad,
Gonzales, Guadalupe, Hardeman, Harris, Hartley, Hays, Hidalgo, Howard,
Hudspeth, Hutchinson, Irion, Jack, Jackson, Jeff Davis, Jim Hogg, Jim
Wells, Karnes, Kendall, Kenedy, Kent, Kerr, Kimble, King, Kinney,
Kleberg, Knox, Lampasas, La Salle, Lavaca, Limestone, Live Oak, Llano,
Lubbock, Lynn, Martin, Mason, Matagorda, Maverick, McCulloch, McLennan,
McMullen, Medina, Midland, Milam, Mills, Mitchell, Moore, Motley, Nolan,
Nueces, Oldham, Palo Pinto, Pecos, Porter, Presidio, Randall, Real,
Reeves, Refugio, San Patricio, Scurry, Shackelford, Somervell, Starr,
Sterling, Stevens, Tarrant, Taylor, Terrell, Throckmorton, Tom Green,
Travis, Uvalde, Val Verde, Victoria, Ward, Webb, Wells, Wilbarger,
Willacy, Williamson, Wilson, Winkler, Wise, Wichita, Young, Zapata, and

This is the most dangerous and, at the same time, the most common
poisonous snake in the state. Therefore, it is one which all Texas
outdoorsmen should be able to recognize on sight. A summary of snake
bite cases in the United States over a 10-year period shows that more
people died from bites of this species than from bites of any other
North American snake. There are several reasons why this snake is
responsible for so many bites and such a high number of deaths. Chief
among these is its large size. It ranks as one of the two largest
poisonous snakes in the country, being second only to the eight-foot
eastern diamondback rattlesnake of the southeastern states. In direct
proportion to its size, it has long fangs and poison glands which hold a
great amount of venom. These factors insure a long strike and deep fang
penetration. In addition, it has an unusually furious disposition and,
if threatened with danger or sufficiently annoyed, will vigorously
defend itself instead of seeking immediate escape.

Although strictly a land snake, the diamondback may sometimes be found
crossing streams or ponds and, occasionally, individuals will venture
out into lakes and bays.

                           TIMBER RATTLESNAKE
                      _Crotalus horridus horridus_

    [Illustration: TIMBER RATTLESNAKE]

Description—This snake is much like the larger canebrake rattler but
lacks the dark stripe from the eye to the back of the mouth, and
generally is without the reddish-brown stripe down the middle of its
back. Dark brown chevron shaped crossbands contrast with the general
body color of yellowish tan. In some specimens black stippling occurs
between the markings. Both black and light color phases of this snake
are found in some parts of its range. It is unknown whether the dark
specimens occur in Texas. The tail is marked with three or four dark
bands on the lighter specimens but is altogether black on the darker

Size—Throughout its range this snake has an average length of from three
and a half to four feet, but a specimen six feet long is on record.

Young—The number in a brood varies from three to 12. Length of the
newborn is eight or nine inches.

Distribution—The timber rattlesnake prefers rocky hills and mountains
that are not too heavily wooded, but it sometimes inhabits bogs and
swamps at lower elevations. In either situation, it seldom survives for
long in areas heavily populated by man. In common with most other
rattlesnakes, it seeks escape when approached by man and fights only
when surprised or cornered. Known in northeastern Texas, it is reported
from Cooke, Denton, Eastland, Grayson, Lamar, Red River, Taylor, and
Wise Counties.

Like the prairie rattler, it often seeks the same denning areas year
after year and congregates in numbers to hibernate for the winter.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                         CANEBRAKE RATTLESNAKE
                    _Crotalus horridus atricaudatus_


Description—This is a large and heavily built snake with a brown or tan
back marked by a series of wide, dark, chevron shaped crossbands. It may
be distinguished from the similar timber rattlesnake by its larger size,
its more vivid markings, and the presence of a dark stripe from the eye
to the angle of its mouth. Generally, a narrow, reddish-brown stripe
extends down the middle of the back. Its tail, as in some other
rattlesnakes, is entirely black.

Size—In Texas this snake reaches a length of about six feet, while in
nearby Louisiana exceptionally large specimens, some nearly seven feet
long, have been found. Length averages four and a half feet.

Young—About eight or ten are born in a brood.

Distribution—This species prefers wooded areas in wet bottomlands. It
has been found in the following counties: Austin, Bexar, Bosque, Bowie,
Brazoria, Brazos, Cass, Cooke, Coryell, Dallas, Denton, Eastland, Ellis,
Falls, Fayette, Freestone, Gonzales, Grayson, Hardin, Harris, Henderson,
Jasper, Jefferson, Liberty, Madison, McLennan, Navarro, Robertson, San
Jacinto, San Patricio, Taylor, Victoria, Waller, Williamson, and Wise.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                        BANDED ROCK RATTLESNAKE
                       _Crotalus lepidus lepidus_


Description—This snake is very similar to the mottled rock rattlesnake,
with which it might be confused, but from which it differs by having a
more mottled appearance between the crossbands and a dark stripe from
the eye to the angle of the mouth. It has a pattern of about 18 or 20
widely spaced dark crossbands with irregular edges in contrast to its
gray body color. Belly color varies from cream to pink.

In the Chisos Mountains, where there is much reddish igneous rock, the
normal color of this snake is pinkish; the variety has been given the
name of “pink rattler” by people of that region. Specimens from the
limestone ledges along the Pecos Canyon at Howard Creek and Sheffield
are very light in color, resembling the limestone rock on which they are

Size—This is one of our smallest rattlesnakes, having an average length
of two feet. The rattle is rather large in proportion to the small size
of the snake.

Young—About four are born in a brood and they measure about seven and a
half inches at birth.

Distribution—This form is restricted to the mountainous areas of the
western and southwestern parts of the state; it has been found in the
following counties: Brewster, Culberson, Edwards, Jeff Davis, Maverick,
Pecos, Presidio, Real, Terrell, and Val Verde.

Because of its small size and distribution restricted to rocky places at
high elevations, the banded rock rattlesnake cannot be considered a
serious menace to man. Apparently there is no record of anyone ever
having been bitten by this snake. It has a quiet disposition and, if
alarmed, will immediately retreat within the masses of jumbled rock
which are its home.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                        MOTTLED ROCK RATTLESNAKE
                      _Crotalus lepidus klauberi_


Description—This species and the banded rock rattlesnake look much
alike. Both are small and slender, and marked with a series of
widely-spaced dark crossbands along the length of the body and tail. The
banded rock rattlesnake, however, has about 20 or 22 dark brown or black
crossbands, which contrast strongly with its greenish-gray body color.
It further differs from the banded rock rattlesnake in lacking a dark
stripe from the eye to the angle of its mouth.

Size—Adults average two feet in length.

Young—A record of one brood is the only known published information
concerning the young of this snake. Carl F. Kauffeld of the Staten
Island Zoo mentioned a litter of four and wrote:

  All were irritable from the first, promptly broke through the
  membranous sacs in which they were enclosed and struck violently at
  any passing object. All were marked and colored much like the adults
  except that the delicate pink along the venter of the latter was not
  in evidence; and the tails, which in the adults are salmon or terra
  cotta red (including the basal segment of the rattle) were brilliantly
  sulphur yellow for at least their distal half....

The newborn snakes measured about eight inches in length.

Distribution—This subspecies is found in much the same type of country
as the banded rock rattlesnake, being partial to rock slides high in the
mountains. The two counties in the state in which it is known, El Paso
and Culberson, are both in extreme western Texas. In disposition it is
said to be quite timid; however, at times, it becomes irritable without
much provocation.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                        BLACKTAILED RATTLESNAKE
                      _Crotalus molossus molossus_


Description—There are about 32 dark rhomboid markings along the back.
These light edged blotches are centered with one or two irregular light
areas, while the outer edges form bars which extend down each side to
the belly. Body color varies from gray to olive green, while the
blotches are dark brown or black. The tail is uniformly black, as its
name implies.

Size—The blacktailed rattlesnake is one of our largest poisonous snakes.
Texas specimens average three and a half feet but may grow somewhat
longer. One, nearly 50 inches long, was collected at Persimmon Gap in
Brewster County.

Young—About five young comprise the average brood.

Distribution—Records are available from the following counties: Bandera,
Bexar, Brewster, Burnet, Comal, Culberson, Edwards, El Paso, Hudspeth,
Jeff Davis, Kendall, Kerr, Kimble, Medina, Pecos, Presidio, Real, San
Saba, Terrell, Travis, Upton, and Val Verde.

Hilly areas with steep canyons are the preferred habitat of this snake.
In the Big Bend region of Texas, where apparently it is the most common
rattlesnake, specimens have been taken from as high as 7,400 feet
elevation. It shows an inclination to coil in bushes or on tree limbs
near the ground, although by far the majority of specimens encountered
are found on rocky ledges. Its disposition has been reported by some to
be very irritable, while others claim it is quiet and docile.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                           MOJAVE RATTLESNAKE
                    _Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus_

    [Illustration: MOJAVE RATTLESNAKE]

Description—This moderately slender snake is very similar in color and
markings to the western diamondback rattlesnake. Its body is olive green
with a pattern of darker diamond shaped markings down the middle of the
back. These blotches are well defined by a border of light scales. It
differs from the western diamondback in having narrower black tail rings
and wider white spaces between these rings. A narrow light line extends
from the eye to above the angle of the mouth.

Size—Average length is three feet, or shorter than the diamondback
rattlesnake. Because of its more slender form, it does not appear as
large as a western diamondback of equal length.

Young—The average litter contains eight, the young being similar to the
adults in color and marking.

Distribution—The Mojave rattlesnake is known in Brewster, Hudspeth and
Presidio Counties.

Unlike most other rattlers, this species is reported to be most active
during daylight hours. It is rather quiet by nature and does well in

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                          PRAIRIE RATTLESNAKE
                       _Crotalus viridis viridis_

    [Illustration: PRAIRIE RATTLESNAKE]

Description—Color of the back is greenish or grayish. A series of dark,
rounded blotches extends down the middle of the back. These markings,
with narrow white borders, become wider and shorter near the tail to
form bands. In front of the eye is a narrow light line which extends
backward and downward to the mouth.

Size—Rather slender in form, this snake reaches a maximum size of five
and a half feet. Average length is three feet.

Young—Broods average 12 but vary from four to 21.

Distribution—Texas records of this snake are widely scattered. Counties
in which it is know include: Andrews, Armstrong, Baylor, Brewster,
Briscoe, Callahan, Carson, Castro, Childress, Crane, Crosby, Dallam,
Dawson, Deaf Smith, Dickens, Ector, El Paso, Garza, Gray, Hansford,
Hartley, Haskell, Hemphill, Hockley, Hutchinson, Kent, Lamb, Lipscomb,
Lubbock, Lynn, Midland, Moore, Ochiltree, Oldham, Pecos, Potter,
Presidio, Randall, Reeves, Roberts, Sherman, Taylor, Tom Green, Ward,
Wheeler, Wilbarger, Winkler, and Yoakum.

When aroused, this snake becomes a vicious adversary but, like most
snakes, is satisfied to go its way if given half a chance.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

                           THE ELAPID SNAKES

The single representative of this family (_Elapidae_) in Texas is small,
slender, and brightly colored with rings of red, yellow and black. The
head is small and rounded and eye pupils are circular. Its
venom-conducting fangs, in the front of the upper jaw, are small and
permanently erect; consequently, some chewing is required before the
snake can inject its poison with certainty. As if to make up for its
poor biting equipment, the coral snake possesses a venom of high
toxicity, a venom much more potent than that of the pit vipers which are
so well adapted for injecting their poison quickly and deeply. Because
this poison produces scarcely any severe local symptoms, the danger from
a bite may be overlooked and treatment delayed. Although pain is
present, the usual dramatic symptoms of snake poisoning, such as
extensive discoloration and great swelling at the site of bite, are
scarcely noticeable. This absence of conclusive symptoms may lead the
victim to believe he has been bitten by a harmless snake. In all coral
snake bites, prompt action is necessary.

                           TEXAS CORAL SNAKE
                       _Micrurus fulvius tenere_

    [Illustration: Left, coral snake; right, Mexican milk snake]

Description—Generally less than two and a half feet long, this is our
most colorful venomous snake and, at the same time, the least dangerous
in appearance. Its small, narrow head, slender body and brightly colored
pattern can be dangerously misleading. Children, especially, are
inclined to pick it up because they are attracted by its colors and
convinced that such beauty must be harmless. The pattern consists of
red, yellow and black rings which encircle the body in the following
order: a broad black ring, a much narrower yellow ring, a broad red
ring, a narrow yellow ring, a broad black ring, and so on. Note that the
red and yellow rings on the body touch one another. The snout is black
and a broad yellow ring crosses the back of the head.

Identification of this snake would be simple were it not for the fact
that several harmless snakes resemble it in form and coloration. These
mimics are marked with yellow, red and black rings—but the arrangement
is consistently different from that of the coral snake. The red and
yellow rings of the coral snake touch one another, while in the harmless
forms these colors are separated by black rings. A simple rhyme adopted
by Boy Scouts to help them associate “danger” with the color combination
found on the coral snake is, “Red and yellow kill a fellow.” Remember
this easy rhyme and, when you find yourself involved with a colorful
little snake with adjacent red and yellow rings, be cautious.

The harmless kind most closely resembling the coral snake probably is
the Mexican milk snake, technically known as _Lampropeltis doliata
annulata_ and found south of Kerrville. The head of this snake normally
is black. Body and tail are marked with a series of from 19 to 25 narrow
yellow rings bordered by slightly wider black rings. The red rings on
the body are just as wide as the combined yellow and two adjacent black
rings. Another of these mimics is the western milk snake (_Lampropeltis
doliata gentilis_), a small species usually less than two feet long,
which is native to central and western Texas. It has a pattern of from
25 to 40 yellow rings which are bordered by black. The red rings are
separated from the yellow by black rings. All rings on this form are
very narrow. In the southeastern part of the state is found still
another of these mimics—the Louisiana milk snake (_Lampropeltis doliata
amaura_). Rarely reaching a length of two feet, this form has a pattern
of narrow yellow rings which are bordered on each side by narrow black
rings. The much wider red rings are separated from the yellow by the
black rings. In the scarlet snake (_Cemophora coccinea_) of eastern and
coastal Texas, the pattern is a series of wide red blotches bordered by
much narrower black bands. The yellow bands, about half the width of the
red ones, are separated from them by the black bands. The belly is
unmarked white or yellow. Adults are about a foot and a half long but a
25-inch specimen is on record.

Size—The coral snake is generally less than two and a half feet long
with a body diameter of about three-eights of an inch. The largest known
specimen is nearly 42 inches long and was collected on the mid-Texas

Young—This is the only poisonous Texas snake which lays eggs. From two
to nine eggs constitute the egg complement of this form.

Distribution—This snake is known in the following counties: Angelina,
Aransas, Atascosa, Austin, Bandera, Bastrop, Bee, Bell, Bexar, Bosque,
Brazoria, Brazos, Brooks, Burleson, Burnet, Caldwell, Calhoun, Cameron,
Chambers, Colorado, Comal, Dallas, DeWitt, Duval, Ellis, Fort Bend,
Galveston, Goliad, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Hardin, Harris, Harrison, Hays,
Henderson, Hidalgo, Houston, Jackson, Jasper, Jefferson, Jim Hogg,
Karnes, Kendall, Kenedy, Kerr, Kleberg, Lavaca, Lee, Leon, Liberty, Live
Oak, Llano, Mason, Matagorda, McLennan, Milam, Montgomery, Morris,
Nacogdoches, Newton, Nueces, Orange, Palo Pinto, Panola, Polk, Real,
Refugio, Robertson, San Jacinto, San Patricio, Sutton, Tarrant, Terrell,
Tom Green, Travis, Victoria, Walker, Waller, Wharton, Willacy,
Williamson, and Wilson.

Unlike most other poisonous snakes, this species is a burrower, coming
to the surface after a warm rain to feed upon small lizards and snakes.
Contrary to even expert opinion, it is not primarily nocturnal, but
becomes active during daylight and evening hours. It is often found in
or under decaying logs or other trash, especially in damp regions; in
the San Antonio area, specimens frequently are found under flagstones
near homes.

    [Illustration: Distribution map]

In spite of its inoffensive nature, the coral snake is no different from
other snakes in that it will bite if stepped upon or restrained. It does
not deliberately coil and strike with accuracy like the pit vipers.
Instead, it swings the forward part of the body from side to side until
it can secure a hold to bite and then begins a chewing motion to imbed
its short fangs.

The notion that its mouth is too small to bite effectively has in some
instances resulted in careless disregard for its deadliness. It is true
that the head appears very short and the mouth not capable of opening
widely. Actually, the skull is rather elongated and the mouth can be
opened to a greater degree than might be expected. Even when it bites a
relatively flat surface, such as the back of the hand, the snake’s
closing mouth will pinch the skin, allowing the fangs to penetrate.


Generally speaking, snake venoms are divided into two broad categories,
neurotoxic and hemorrhagic, depending on their destructive actions.
Neurotoxic poison is characteristic of cobras and coral snakes and
produces considerable pain but little or no swelling and discoloration
at the bite. Death from this type of poison is the result of respiratory
failure and is preceded by such symptoms as headache, muscular weakness,
lethargy and facial paralysis with accompanying difficulty in speech.

Hemorrhagic venom, on the other hand, affects primarily the blood cells
and vessels. Local reaction is evident soon after injection of the venom
and consists of pain, discoloration, and swelling at the site of the
bite. All of these symptoms gradually become more extensive. Weakness,
nausea, vomiting and—occasionally—diarrhea may follow in a few hours. In
many cases of snake bite, shock is present.

Although every snake’s venom contains both the neurotoxic and
hemorrhagic elements, the proportion of these components varies with
each kind of poisonous snake. For example, the venom of the coral snake
is primarily neurotoxic in action, but produces a small hemorrhagic
effect as well. On the other hand, water moccasin venom, although
basically hemorrhagic in action, has a greater amount of the neurotoxic
element than do the poisons of the copperheads or rattlesnakes.
Furthermore, neurotoxic effects are more evident following the bites of
the Mojave and massasauga rattlers than they are in poisonings by other
Texas rattlesnakes.

    [Illustration: FIRST AID KIT]

Equipment necessary for first aid treatment of snake bite includes a
sharp cutting instrument such as a razor blade or sharp knife for making
incisions, a constricting band to retard the flow of lymph, iodine or
alcohol for sterilizing the knife and bitten area, and a suction device
for removing the venom-contaminated lymph. This last item is especially
important if you are alone and cannot reach the wound to apply suction
by mouth.

Snake bite kits containing the essential items can be purchased at most
drug or sporting goods stores at a cost of from two to five dollars,
depending upon the make. Anyone who spends much time outdoors should
carry a snake bite kit at all times, and he should know how to use it. A
smaller kit can be more easily carried and is less likely to be left at
home or in the car.

                          DIAGNOSING THE BITE

To make certain that a poisonous snake has caused the bite, first
examine the wound for teeth marks. In a perfect bite by a poisonous
snake (excluding the coral snake), the pattern will reveal two
distinctly larger holes where the fangs have entered the flesh. There
also may be two rows of smaller teeth marks between these punctures.

    [Illustration: Snakebite patterns]

Furthermore, if the snake engages the lower jaw, two additional rows of
small teeth impressions will be seen below the first group.

Frequently the bite pattern is not a clear one. For example, if the
snake pulls to one side as it disengages the fangs after a strike, the
result is a series of scratch marks instead of punctures. There is also
the possibility that the snake will engage only a single fang; or,
perhaps, during fang replacement, two fangs are temporarily in position
on one or both sides of the upper jaw. Any of these conditions, as well
as others, can contribute to an obscure bite pattern.

The bite of a coral snake often is difficult to diagnose by examination
of the wound. Because this snake impels its fangs in a sort of chewing
motion, the pattern created by its bite may be two groups of closely
spaced punctures where the fangs have entered the flesh a number of
different times.

A clearly defined harmless snake bite pattern consists of a series of
uniformly small punctures (four rows made by teeth in the upper jaw, two
rows by teeth in the lower), but always without the large fang holes.
More typically, a non-poisonous bite produces several rows of scratches.

Pit-viper poisoning is diagnosed primarily by the presence of _local_
signs and symptoms. The most important of these are:

  1. _Pain_ accompanies most poisonous snake bites. Generally intense
  and burning in character, it becomes more severe with the passing of
  time. This symptom alone is not conclusive because pain can be
  imagined following a non-poisonous bite. Occasionally in a severe
  bite, the pain is replaced by numbness and tingling.

  2. _Swelling_ at the bite area is present in every case of poisoning.
  It will appear within five to 30 minutes. In a severe case, the
  swelling may continue to spread for 24 hours. There will be no
  swelling from a bite by a non-poisonous snake or by a poisonous snake
  that injected no venom.

    [Illustration: Snakebite swelling]

3. _Discoloration_, reddish or bruise-like in appearance, begins around
the fang punctures within a half hour and becomes gradually more

Intense local pain is symptomatic of coral snake poisoning but, unlike a
case of pit-viper poisoning, swelling and discoloration are not
pronounced. Diagnosis of coral snake envenomation is difficult and must
be based primarily on systemic symptoms: headaches, weakness, lethargy
and facial paralysis.

                          SEVERITY OF THE BITE

Even after the bite has been diagnosed as venomous, it is not
immediately possible to predict the course it will follow. The severity
of each case of snake poisoning is determined by the speed with which
symptoms progress. Although the bite of a large snake is generally more
serious than one caused by a small snake, the seriousness of a bite
cannot be gauged by snake size alone. Some variable factors that affect
the severity of each case include:

  1. Age, size and health of the victim.
  2. His allergy complex and sensitivity to protein poisoning.
  3. His emotional condition immediately after having been bitten.
  4. Location of bite on the victim.
  5. Amount of fang penetration and venom injection.
  6. Number of times the victim was bitten.
  7. Kind and size of snake that bit him.
  8. Whether or not the snake recently had eaten.
  9. Conditions of the snake’s fangs.
  10. How soon treatment was administered.

                          FIRST AID TREATMENT

It is important that every snake bite victim receive first aid treatment
as soon as possible. The patient must not exert himself by running,
because increased circulation brought on by such physical activity will
speed up absorption of the poison. For the same reason, the use of
whiskey or other stimulants should be avoided.

The victim’s state of mind is important; he must promptly be convinced
that his chances for recovery are good—and, indeed, they are. He should
not be terrified by the thought that every snake bite means certain
death. Actually, a survey of case histories shows that with prompt and
proper treatment, only about one or two per cent of all snake bites in
this country are fatal.

There is a considerable difference of opinion about the correct first
aid treatment for poisonous snake bite. The Division of Medical Sciences
of the National Research Council, a section of the National Academy of
Sciences, recently made a study to determine the most effective method
of such treatment. It recommended immobilization of the bitten limb,
application of a constricting band, and prompt incision and suction.

Based on these recommendations, the following first aid treatment for
poisonous snake bite is suggested:

  1. IMMOBILIZE THE AFFECTED ARM OR LEG whenever possible. Where this is
  not practicable, keep movement of the bitten limb to a minimum.
  Muscular activity helps increase the spread of venom. Whenever
  feasible, transport the victim by litter to further medical aid.

  2. APPLY A CONSTRICTING BAND from two to four inches above the bite,
  between the wound and the heart. This will help to limit the spread of
  venom until it can be removed by incision and suction or neutralized
  by antivenin. A piece of rubber tubing or a strap tourniquet, included
  with every snake bite kit, is best for this purpose. When these are
  not available, items of clothing may be used. A shoe lace, neckerchief
  or a strip of clothing torn from shirt or trousers will do. The
  poison, unless injected directly into a major blood vessel or deeply
  into a muscle, is absorbed slowly by the lymphatics below the skin.
  Therefore, do not restrict the deeper blood circulation by applying
  the constricting band too tightly. It should be loose enough for a
  finger to be slipped under it with little difficulty. Remember that
  during first aid treatment the constricting band must be loosened
  every 15 minutes for about two minutes. This precaution may prevent
  gangrene. If the bite is on the hand or forearm, take off rings,
  bracelets or other jewelry because subsequent swelling may make their
  removal difficult.

    [Illustration: Applying constricting band]

3. MAKE INCISIONS after sterilizing the cutting instrument and the bite
area with iodine or alcohol. If no antiseptic is available, the blade of
the cutting instrument can be sterilized by holding it over a flame (a
match will do). Make _one_ cut over each fang mark parallel with the
long axis of the bitten limb, not across it. Incisions should be
one-quarter inch long and one-eighth to one-quarter inch deep, but
definitely no longer than the diameter of the suction apparatus being
used. This would allow air to enter the suction bulb from the outside
and the device would then be unable to work. Incisions are of the utmost
importance to first aid treatment; without them little or no poison can
be withdrawn from the wound by suction. However, making even a small
incision involves some risk and this operation should be done with
considerable care. Improper or carelessly applied first aid may actually
do more harm than good. Although a physician may later decide to make
additional incisions to relieve the pressure of swelling, only the cuts
over the fang marks are recommended for first aid.

    [Illustration: Making incision]

4. APPLY SUCTION to the cuts. This can best be done with one of the
suction devices manufactured for that purpose but, if none is available,
suction can be applied by mouth. There is little danger in oral suction
unless the lips or inside of the mouth have cuts or abrasions. Contrary
to popular opinion, a tooth cavity will not permit passage of venom into
the blood. Moreover, snake venom is destroyed by the stomach’s digestive
juices, so if some is accidentally swallowed, there is little need to
worry if you have a healthy system. Only during the first 30 minutes
following the bite can much venom be removed by incision and suction.

    [Illustration: Applying suction]

    [Illustration: Snakebite kit]

5. GET TO MEDICAL AID as soon as possible—but keep in mind that
unnecessary physical exertion is harmful.

Antivenom may be administered soon after first aid has been started, but
this is best left to a doctor. The North American Antisnakebite Serum
made by Wyeth, Inc., of Philadelphia 3, Pennsylvania, is effective
against pit viper bites but is of less value in the treatment of coral
snake poisoning. Because coral snakes cause so few bites in the United
States, no serum to neutralize their venom is prepared in this country.
In South America, where these snakes are common and may reach a length
of five feet, a serum to neutralize the poison is being produced by the
Instituto Butantan at Sao Paulo, Brazil. It and other foreign snake bite
serums often are available at larger zoos where exotic poisonous species
are exhibited.

                       SUGGESTIONS TO PHYSICIANS

In most areas of Texas, snake bite is an uncommon medical emergency, and
one with which few doctors have had experience. For this reason, the
following recommendations by the National Research Council’s Division of
Medical Sciences are included for the benefit of the physician.

    _Statement on Hospital Care Following Bites by Venomous Snakes_
                          _December 14, 1960_

_Admission Procedures_

The routine admission history and physical examination should provide
and record, if possible, the identity and length of the snake, the time
of the bite, and the details of all first aid measures employed,
including the time lapse for each and the mode of transportation to the
hospital. The record should state whether a tourniquet, incision and
suction, or the ligature-cryotherapy technique has or has not been used.
Inquiry should be made concerning previous bites, allergic
manifestations in general, and whether or not the patient had previously
received horse serum. The admission examination should provide
information from which the severity of the envenomation can be estimated
as a guide to the need for the administration of antivenin and other
therapy. Sensitivity tests should be instituted promptly during
admission if not previously begun.

When the patient enters the hospital, blood should be drawn immediately
for typing, matching and coagulation studies.

Although envenomation by one of the snakes of North America may present
severe signs and symptoms, death is rare except in children or following
envenomation by a large snake. However, permanent damage of an involved
extremity is frequent following a bite by certain of the North American
venomous snakes; plastic or orthopedic surgical repair to restore
function, or amputation, are not unusual consequences. Early and
continuing close observation is needed to determine if certain
therapeutic measures prevent or promote undesirable results.

                           _Laboratory Tests_

No rigid set of rules regarding therapy can be justified; the
responsible physician must use his best judgment in his choice of tests
to be performed as a guide to procedures to be used.

Clinical studies could include items such as repeated hematologic tests,
hepatic and renal function studies, serial electrocardiograms,
electroencephalograms, and other studies to therapy, depending on the
composition of the venom involved and within the limits of personnel,
time and equipment available.

                        _Therapeutic Procedures_

                              A. Systemic

  1. Immobilization. During transportation, admission procedures, and
  most of the early hospitalization period, immobilization of the
  affected part and absolute rest should be continued. A sedative or
  analgesic may be administered to relieve restlessness and anxiety; ice
  bags may be applied to alleviate severe pain. The extremity should be
  immobilized in the position of function, and active and passive
  exercises to prevent contracture started after the third day if
  consistent with the patient’s condition.

  2. Blood Transfusion. Postmortem examinations have at times revealed
  extensive retroperitonial and intraperitonial hemorrhage, and
  hemorrhage into the viscera, including the liver and kidney.
  Progressive decrease in the total volume of circulating red blood
  cells has been attributed to the development of a massive hemolytic
  anemia or internal hemorrhage. Blood transfusions may be necessary and
  at times have been followed by marked improvement. Studies of the
  several factors involved in blood clotting may be useful as guides to
  treatment. The first and subsequent specimens of urine should be
  especially examined for the presence of red blood cells, hemoglobin,
  and protein.

  3. Electrolyte Balance. Abnormality of fluid and electrolyte balance
  should be detected and corrected on a continuing basis.

  4. Antivenin. Polyvalent or specific antivenins prepared from venoms
  of snakes in the same geographic area should be administered in
  therapeutic quantity as recommended by the manufacturer only with full
  realization that the hazard of immediate allergic reaction or delayed
  serum sickness are factors to be evaluated in the decision to carry
  out this type of treatment. During hospitalization, antivenin should
  be given intravenously, provided that sensitivity tests indicate that
  the patient is not allergic to the antiserum to be used.
  Desensitization, if necessary, should precede the administration of
  antivenin by any route. The use of antivenin in such cases should be
  carefully evaluated. Injection in normal muscles in other extremities
  would be the second choice, since local injections into the deposit
  site do not diffuse efficiently into the entire damaged area and would
  increase the hazard of pressure ischemia leading to increased tissue
  necrosis. Epinephrine should be available for immediate use when
  foreign protein is being administered.

  5. Corticosteroids. The use of corticosteroids should be restricted to
  the prevention or treatment of late manifestations of allergy
  following administration of antivenins.

  6. Antibiotics. A broad-spectrum antibiotic should be administered
  promptly in appropriate dosage if the reaction to envenomation is
  severe. Since the nature of the injury markedly predisposes to
  infection, and pathogenic bacteria are found in the wound, this use of
  antibiotics seems justified. Laboratory sensitivity tests, if
  available, should control the continuing choice of antibiotics to be
  used. A massive wound infection with severe systemic reaction could be
  mistaken for severe envenomation. Repeated blood and wound cultures
  would be of help in making the distinction.

  7. Tetanus Prophylaxis. Tetanus toxoid should be administered upon
  admission if it has not been given as a first aid measure.

  8. Respiratory Paralysis. If respiratory paralysis develops following
  envenomation by one of the _Elapidae_ (this family includes the coral
  snake), the use of tracheostomy and intermittent positive pressure
  artificial respiration is indicated.

  9. Renal Shutdown has been an occasional occurrence following massive
  envenomation. An awareness of this possible complication can do much
  toward the prevention and treatment of secondary effects arising after
  its occurrence. Routine daily tests such as B.U.N., CO₂ combining
  power, and serum potassium levels are indicated in severe cases.

                B. Local Measures During Hospitalization

  1. Tourniquet (Constricting band). A tourniquet applied following a
  bite by a venomous North American snake should be removed if
  envenomation seems mild or after a potent antivenin is given in
  therapeutic quantity. The prolonged use of a tourniquet or of a
  constricting band would increase local tissue damage due to the action
  of venom and might delay the vascular transport of antivenin into
  envenomated areas.

  2. Incision and Suction. Substantial amounts of venom can be removed
  during the first half-hour from subcutaneous deposits by incision and
  suction. On the other hand, if the casualty is admitted to the
  hospital one hour or more following envenomation, an attempt to remove
  venom by incision and suction at the site of the bite would be of
  little value. However, if marked subcutaneous pitting edema develops,
  interstitial pressure can be relieved by several longitudinal
  incisions extending into the subcutaneous tissues. Suction and
  fasciotomy may be required at times.

Parrish (1961), using a modification of Wood, Hoback and Green’s (1955)
clinical classification of pit viper venenations, has proposed the
following guide for determining the severity of a poisonous snake bite.
This classification is based upon present signs and symptoms and the
clinical course of the patient during the first 12 hours of
hospitalization. It will be useful as a guide in treatment.

Grade O (No venenation). Fang or tooth marks present, minimal pain, less
      than one inch of surrounding edema and erythema, and no systemic

Grade I (Minimal venenation). Fang or tooth marks present, moderate
      pain, from one to five inches surrounding edema and erythema in
      the first 12 hours after bite, and no systemic involvement.

Grade II (Moderate venenation). Fang or tooth marks present, severe
      pain, six to 12 inches of surrounding edema and erythema in the
      first 12 hours after bite, with systemic involvement—nausea,
      vomiting, giddiness, shock or neurotoxic symptoms present.

Grade III (Severe venenation). Fang or tooth marks present, severe pain,
      more than 12 inches of surrounding edema and erythema in the first
      12 hours after bite, with systemic involvement (as in Grade II).


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A 16 mm. motion picture film in color, entitled, “Poisonous Snakes,” is
available from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Reagan State
Office Building, Austin, Texas. It deals with snake bite prevention,
poisonous snake identification and first aid treatment.

                              FIELD NOTES

                          Transcriber’s Notes

—Retained publication information from the printed edition: this eBook
  is public-domain in the country of publication.

—Corrected a few palpable typos.

—Collated Table of Contents, and re-ordered entries, or added headings,
  to coordinate with the actual contents.

—In the text versions only, text in italics is delimited by

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