Summertime is snake time in the Ozarks
Snakes are misunderstood. At least, that's what the experts say.
"Psychologists tell us that snake phobia is perhaps the number one fear, diagnoseable fear, that people might have," said Dr. Brian Greene, Associate Professor of Biology at Missouri State University. "And this tends to make people exceptionally fearful of them. They're not as dangerous as people think they are."
There are several species native to the Ozarks, so it is not uncommon to come across a few of them if you spend the summer in the great outdoors. The species that people will come across the most are water snakes, garter snakes, black rat snakes, prairie king snakes and speckled king snakes. Most of the other species are very difficult to find because live in remote areas or hide under something.
Missouri is also home to four venomous species; timber rattlesnake, the pigmy rattlesnake, the copperhead and the cottonmouth. The timber rattlesnake is the most dangerous, according to Dr. Greene, because it is the biggest, but it lives in very remote areas and is very rare to see.
The most commonly sighted venomous snake is the copperhead, since they can be found all across the state.
How do you know if a snake that you encounter is harmless or venomous? There is no exact formula, but there are a few characteristics to look for.
"None of our venomous snakes really have a single color, they usually have some kind of pattern, so that's a useful characteristic," said Dr. Greene. "If a snake has a stripe down the length of its body, it's not venomous, it's got to be a non-venomous species. So those two characters work pretty well for the kinds of things people might run into."
If you spend a lot of time on the water in the summer, there's a myth that if a snake is underwater, it can't bite you, but that's actually
not true. Water snakes and cottonmouths feed under water, so they can certainly bite under water too.
However, there are some things you can look for to see if a snake you see in the water is venomous.
"Cottonmouth tends to be a lot more buoyant, so it swims with a lot of its body out of the water," said Dr. Greene. "And if it's a water snake, you're going to see mostly it's head, and the rest of it is going to be submerged. And there's also a difference in the facial coloration, which might help you from a distance if you're not sure what it is. A water snake has pretty much a solid brown head, but the cottonmouth has a white stripe on each side of it's head that's very distinct."
For the most part, if you keep your distance, a snake will not attack.
"Regardless of what some people think, snakes do not attack people," Dr. Greene said. "They'll stand their ground and defend themselves if they're threatened, but they're not looking to come after you. The defensive displays that they have are essentially a warning that they are dangerous, stay away from me."
And even if you're bitten, it most likely won't kill you. Copperhead bites are the most common, since that species of snake is one of the most commonly sighted in Missouri. But a copperhead bite is not lethal.
"Copperhead bites are not uncommon in Missouri, but dying from a snake bite is exceedingly rate," Dr. Greene said. "In the United States, there are several thousand people bitten by venomous snakes every year and there are always less than 10 deaths, sometimes as few as three. So yes, you're more likely to get killed in a lightning strike or even a dog bite than to be killed by a venomous snake."
If you are bitten, seek medical attention, but there is no need to rush. Your doctor will most likely give you an antihistamine and treat the symptoms of the bite. If the bite is severe, you can also receive an anti-venom.