Triangular Heads

Telltale traits identify venomous snakes
Snake Collage
Illustrations by Sierra Thomas

When the weather warms in its run-up to summer and the skies open most every day, it can seem that it rains snakes around here.

North Florida is home to some 45 native species of snakes. While they may make your hair stand on end, most are harmless.

In Tallahassee, there are five venomous species: cottonmouths, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, pygmy rattlesnakes, coral snakes and a few copperheads here and there. It only takes one to make for a bad day, maybe even a hospital stay.

Suzie Buzzo, a certified venomous snake handler and the animal curator for the Tallahassee Museum, has a few quick rules of thumb for avoiding reptilian trouble.

“Identify the best you can the venomous snakes that live in your area, so you know what you are looking for,” Buzzo said. “If you believe it might be venomous, just move out of the way as quickly as possible, and leave it alone.”

To determine if a snake is venomous, check the head shape. Venomous snakes tend to have a triangular or spade-shaped head. Some non-venomous snakes will mimic this look by flattening out their heads. 

Cottonmouths, commonly known as water moccasins, are true to their name, lurking in swamps, rivers, ponds and roadside ditches. They may find their way into retention ponds or outdoor water features. As adolescents, water moccasins sport a splotchy, banded pattern with yellow-tipped tails; thick-bodied adults are almost completely black.

The eastern diamondback gets its name from the distinctive black and cream diamond pattern covering its tan, brown or grayish body. Like other rattlesnake varieties, the eastern diamondback’s tail is tipped with a large rattle to ward off predators. These snakes may be found anywhere from sand hills to forests to golf courses and are likely to see you well before you see them. Once you hear that rattle, it’s best to just walk away.

Like the eastern diamondback, pygmy rattlesnakes have a rattle at the tip of their tails, though these tend to be smaller and more prone to breaking off. Pygmies have a grayish body with dark, irregularly shaped blotches often separated by a reddish-brown stripe down the spine. Pygmy rattlesnakes are the venomous snakes most likely to show up in urban areas, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).

Encircled by black, red and yellow bands, coral snakes are often mistaken for the non-venomous scarlet kingsnake. Keen-eyed observers can tell the difference on the basis of a helpful adage: “Red touch black, friend of Jack. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow.” These brightly colored snakes spend most of their time hidden under dry brush, so be careful when prepping your flowerbeds.

Less common, copperheads are found in the hardwood forests of the Apalachicola River Basin. Their coloring can range from a light gray to dusty pink with wide, reddish bands that are often prominent at the head. 

Though a bite can be extremely dangerous, venomous snakes will rarely attack unless provoked and serve an important role in our ecosystem.

“These guys are all really good at controlling small mammal populations,” Buzzo said. “Nobody wants a bunch of rats in their backyard or getting into their house. They also help prevent the spread of disease through the rodent population.”

Bites do happen from time to time. In 2020, 34 Leon County residents called the Florida Poison Control Centers following snake encounters.

If you are bitten, Buzzo said, try to stay calm and keep your heart rate down. You may experience swelling, so remove any restrictive clothing or jewelry, like rings, so that circulation is not impeded. It is critical to get to the hospital as soon as you can, so call a friend or ambulance if needed. Most hospitals in the area carry anti-venom. 

SLITHERERS

“It must be forever a source of wonder that in the course of evolution, one group of animals should have given up the apparent advantages of running around on legs. And it must excite further wonder that some of these animals even left the ‘warm precincts of the cheerful day’ to burrow, forever blind, beneath the surface. But, given enough time, even so unlikely a species as man may be evolved — man, who trembles before the lowly serpent, but fears not to tamper with the majesty of outer space.” — From The Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife, published 1959

PYGMY RATTLESNAKE
Short-tempered, aggressive; its rattle buzzes like an insect.

CORAL SNAKE
Rarely bites, even when handled, but its venom is highly potent.

EASTERN DIAMONDBACK
America’s largest rattlesnake; it often occupies gopher burrows.

COPPERHEAD
Named for a 19th century faction of the Democratic Party — the Copperheads.

Cottonmouth
Interior of its mouth is white; chunky snake that reaches a length of 72 inches.

Categories: Uncategorized