How to identify venomous snakes that live in the Lowcountry
Only six of the 38 snake species in the Lowcountry are venomous. So that’s the good news.
“There’s a very low chance of anyone seeing a venomous snake,” said Will Dillman, herpetologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “99 percent of the time, when a human and a snake meet, it turns out much worse for the snake.”
Snakes don’t chase people, so if your natural reaction is to run away from a snake, you should be in good shape, Dillman said.
“They have very limited means to defend themselves, so a lot of times what we interpret as an aggressive behavior is actually just defensive.”
Hissing and rattling do not indicate a snake is about to attack, but show it’s trying to warn you off.
Leave them be
Most snakes in the Lowcountry are benign and provide services like ridding neighborhoods of rodents. Killing these snakes allows rodents to flourish and can have other negative effects.
“If you remove a predator from an area, other predators tend to take its place,” said Dillman. “So by removing nonvenomous snakes you may be clearing a path for the very creatures you were afraid of in the first place.”
If you are bitten, seek medical attention
“We tell people that the best first aid for a snake bite is someone with a set of car keys that can get you to a medical facility,” said Dillman. “There are a lot of folk remedies for snake bites that will actually do more damage than the bite itself.”
Dillman does not recommend cutting open the bite area or sucking out the venom. Even applying a tourniquet is likely not a good idea.
“In general all those things tend at best to not help, and at worst make things much worse,” said Dillman. “Your best course of action is to remain calm and seek medical intervention.”
Here are the Lowcountry venomous snakes you need to look out for:
This is the most commonly encountered snake in this area. Dillman said more than 90 percent of venomous snake encounters in the Lowcountry are copperheads.
The fortunate thing about copperheads is that they are the least venomous of the venomous local snakes, though a bite from them still requires immediate medical attention.
Copperheads are tan to brown with wedge shaped heads and catlike eyes. They are heavier snakes, with hourglass shaped crossbands all along their body. They can be anywhere from 24 to 40 inches long.
Cottonmouth (aka Water Moccasin)
Much like the copperhead and all but one of the other snakes on this list, cottonmouths belong to a family of snakes known as pit vipers, all of which share the same wedge-shaped head and catlike eyes seen in the copperhead. Cottonmouths are semi-aquatic, meaning they can swim and prefer moist or wet living conditions.
Cottonmouths have large venom-filled jowls. They vary in color from a brightly colored mix of browns and yellows to solid brown or black. Older cottonmouths tend to be less colorful.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
Of all the snakes found in the Lowcountry, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake is certainly the most intimidating. They are the largest species of rattlesnake, with adults measuring between 33 and 72 inches long on average. They can weigh in at more than 10 pounds. On the bright side, according to Dillman it’s rare to see rattlesnakes of any kind in urban or suburban areas.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes can be identified by the diamond pattern on their bodies, which usually overlays brown, tan, or yellowish scales.
The diminutive cousin of the eastern diamondback, the pygmy rattlesnake can grow to a length of between 14 and 22 inches, and is the smallest rattler on record. The rattle on the tail of a pygmy is so small that it usually can’t be heard. There are two subspecies of pygmy rattlesnake in South Carolina, the Carolina pygmy, and the dusky pygmy.
Dusky pygmies prefer to live near water and can be identified by their bluish gray or nearly black appearance. Carolina pygmies tend to be gray, tan or lavender in color. Both subspecies have spots along their bodies.
Timber (or Canebreak) Rattlesnake
These snakes can reach lengths between 30 and 60 inches. They spend most of their time coiled, waiting to ambush prey. However, they mostly reside in rural areas, Dillman said.
The canebreak variety of timber rattlesnake is gray, sometimes with a pinkish hue. They have stripes running down their backs that can be yellow, orange, brown, or slightly pinkish. Non-canebreak timbers are brown or slightly yellow, though black ones have been found. Both subspecies have solid black tails and v-shaped patterns on their backs.
The coral snake is the the only venomous snake here that does not belong to the pit viper family.
“They’re very small and they spend a lot of time underground,” said Dillman of coral snakes. “Most people are never going to see one, and really, to get bitten by a coral snake it requires you picking it up and letting it chew on you for a while.”
Coral snakes are part of the elapidae family. They can measure between 18 and 30 inches and are identifiable by the pattern of red, yellow, and black rings on their bodies.