Venomous Snakes of Southeast Texas

by Lisa Wolling, Executive Director

Love them or not, snakes are an important part of a healthy ecosystem. They are middle-order predators, which means not only do they keep smaller animals in check (such as rodents), but they themselves also food for larger predators (such as owls and opossums). Some snakes use venom to immobilize their prey, so they can also pose a risk to us and our domestic pets. Knowing which snakes to watch out for can help us all to stay safe.

In the state of Texas as a whole, there are 15 potentially dangerous snake species or subspecies. However, since most snakes will avoid encounters with people given the chance, there are more deaths in Texas attributed to lightning strikes each year than to venomous snakebites. It is important to remember that venom is a valuable resource to snakes, and envenomation is a means for that snake to capture and eat prey, so they don’t want to “waste” venom. Snakes don’t hunt humans, so bites are usually a result of the snake being surprised or cornered, or from someone handling snakes. Increasing awareness of snakes through education and outreach is one of the best ways to avoid contact with a potentially dangerous snake. In Montgomery and Harris Counties, there are four species of snakes that are venomous; rattlesnakes, coral snakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths (also called water moccasins).

In nature, bright colors are meant to serve as a warning: “leave me alone or something unpleasant might happen to you”. The brightly colored Coral Snake is Texas’ only member of the Elapidae family, which includes the cobras of Asia and Africa. The Coral Snake is slender with a small head and round pupils (which dispels the myth that all venomous snakes have “cat eyes”, or elliptical pupils), and is generally under 24” in length. Coral Snakes are banded snakes with colors of red, black, and yellow. GENERALLY speaking, the red band and yellow bands are touching and their head is black. However, there are also Coral Snakes with aberrant (or abnormal) coloration, so don’t simply go by the “red touches yellow kill a fellow” rule of thumb. Coral Snakes are found in woodland areas, canyons and coastal plains and they are reclusive, shy snakes. Milk Snakes are similarly colored (red, whitish yellow, and black) but completely harmless; they mimic the coloration of the coral snake as a defensive camouflage. As a precaution, a good rule of thumb is that any snake with these bright colors should not be handled. We also have Eastern Hognose snakes in our area, which are good at bluffing. When scared, they will flatten out their necks like a cobra. However they are completely harmless (unless you happen to be a frog or toad).

Many people are not aware that we do have rattlesnakes in our area, most usually the Timber Rattlesnake, also called a Canebreak Rattlesnake. They are a large, heavy-bodied snake averaging 4-1/2 feet. Coloration is usually brown or tan with wide, dark, V-shaped crossbars with jagged edges form a distinctive pattern across their back. They have yellow eyes with elliptical or cat-like pupils. Their tail is entirely black, and they have wide heads with narrow necks (a typical distinction of all venomous snakes except coral snakes). They are found in wooded areas, moist forests, or rivers, lakes, ponds, streams and swamps. Timber Rattlesnakes are actually listed as a threatened species, and every state inhabited by timber rattlesnakes has laws protecting the species, including Texas. This means that people cannot kill, take, transport, have in their possession or sell timber rattlesnakes. Other species of snakes in our area are similar in coloration and may even “rattle” their tails if they feel threatened (as a bluff), but only rattlesnakes have the actual segmented “rattle” on their tails. As a word of caution, if one is traveling to the Galveston area, there are also Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes located there, so be aware. These rattlesnakes can reach up to 7’ in length and are generally found among the dunes.

Cottonmouths, also called Water Moccasins, get their name from the white tissue inside of their mouth, which they display when threatened. Cottonmouths can be dark brown, olive-brown, olive green, or almost solid black, and they are marked with wide, dark bands. These bands can be very faint on certain snakes (especially the darker in color they are). Juvenile cottonmouths are lighter in color and more distinctively marked. They are a very heavy-bodied, thick snake and they average about 3-1/2 feet in length. A Cottonmouth’s diet consists of mainly fish and frogs, so they are found in swamps, drainage ditches, coastal marshes, rivers, ponds and streams. Most mainly aquatic snakes tend to have a more aggressive personality and will readily bite, but the Cottonmouth is the only venomous water snake in our area. Also commonly found in are area are Plain-Bellied Water Snakes and Diamondback Water Snakes.

One of the most-commonly found venomous snakes in our area is the Copperhead. Copperheads are tan colored with reddish-brown crossband markings and generally 2-3 feet in length. Juveniles have a very distinctive yellow or yellow-green tip on their tail. Most of them in our area are of the subspecies known as Southern Copperheads, which have markings in the shape of a Hershey’s “Kiss”. Copperheads eat mostly mice but will also take small birds, lizards, other smaller snakes, amphibians and insects (especially cicadas). These snakes are found in rocky or wooded close to streams, rivers, or other water sources and they are seldom found dry areas. Other common local snakes are often mistaken for Copperheads or baby Copperheads, such as Western Rat Snakes or Dekay’s Snakes (also called Texas Brown Snakes), but these snakes are harmless and beneficial to have around. Copperhead bites, while painful, are very seldom fatal.

The best way to discourage snakes from coming into your vicinity is to eliminate food sources and hiding spots. Avoid keeping wood or brush piles, or if you do, place them well away from the house. Keep animal and livestock pens clean and clean up any spilled food or grain that might attract rodents (which will, in turn, attract snakes). If you are working in these areas, exercise caution. Never put your hand, arm, foot, or leg into something if you cannot see inside and always wear appropriate footwear, especially at night. If you must move a log, use a long-handled garden tool or long stick first to ensure snakes are neither under, on or around these favored hiding spots. If you are out hiking or walking in wild areas, don’t step over a log without first seeing what is on the other side. Animal burrows make excellent habitat for snakes too, so don’t reach in without first checking. Wear protective clothing and/or heavy footwear if working or hiking in areas where snakes may be nearby. If moving around after dark, always use a flashlight as many snakes come out at night to hunt. If you do come upon a snake, remain still and allow the snake to retreat. If you must move, back slowly and carefully away from the snake. If a snake is on your patio, driveway, or too close to your home, it can be encouraged to move by spraying it with a gentle stream from a garden hose. Many people are bitten while attempting to kill a snake, so please do not attempt to do so. There are snake relocators in our area who will come and remove unwanted snakes. If you or your pet happen to be bitten, try to get a picture of the snake for identification purposes, and then seek medical or veterinary assistance. Even if the snake is non-venomous, or did not envenomate you, the bite may need medical attention (such as a tetanus booster or antibiotics).

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