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Snake safety: You have to be aware of what slithers below

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Spring is here and warmer weather has folks anxious to get outside and enjoy it. It's prime time for turkey hunting, fishing, camping and paddling.

It's also the time when snakes become active after a long winter siesta.

"It's the time and season when people are dying to get out there," John Hardy, aquarist for the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, said. "They are going to run into snakes."

Mississippi is home to about 40 different snakes, but only six are venomous and their habitats vary.

The copperhead is the most widespread.

"The copperhead's habitat is diverse, so he's everywhere," Hardy said. "It is responsible for more venomous bites in Mississippi than any other venomous snake."

Hardy said most other venomous snakes in Mississippi give warnings when they feel threatened, but the copperhead relies on camouflage to evade detection. That camouflage and lack of warning make it relatively easy for people to step on a copperhead if they aren't paying close attention.

Most adult copperheads are about 2- to 3-feet long.

Another venomous snake often encountered is the cottonmouth, particularly among anglers.

"They will be associated with water," Hardy said. "Creeks, sloughs, swamps and wetlands are prime cottonmouth habitat."

When threatened, the cottonmouth will raise its head and open its mouth to expose the white skin inside. They are also known to vibrate or sometimes sling their tails around.

"It's one of the great venomous snakes because he gives you that warning," Hardy said.

While the cottonmouth has a thick body, it is generally only about 30-inches in length.

Rattlesnakes are probably seen more often in movies than in real life, but they are certainly here.

Hardy said the pygmy rattlesnake and the timber rattlesnake are found in almost all areas of the state. The pygmy is the smaller of the two and generally about 18-inches long. The timber rattlesnake is substantially larger at 3½ to 5 feet.

Hardy said both of these rattlesnakes can be found in just about any habitat.

The biggest of them is the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. While some have been reported over 7 feet, lengths of 4½ to 5½ feet are more common.

According to Hardy, the eastern diamondback is limited to the southern part of the state.

"They are mostly associated with sandy pine areas," Hardy said. He also noted that it is considered to be one of the most endangered snakes in the nation.

All three of the rattlesnakes are well camouflaged, but when threatened will let out a buzz with their tails as a warning. Hardy said a bite from a rattlesnake comes only when it feels there is no other option.

All five of the venomous snakes listed so far belong to a group known as pit vipers and have diamond-shaped heads, heat sensors or 'pits' on the front of their heads , along with vertical pupils. The final venomous snake has none of those features.

"The coral snake breaks all the rules," Hardy said.

It doesn't have pits or a diamond-shaped head and its pupils are round. It also differs in that it is a slender snake and grows to about 2- to 3-feet long.

What it does have is color. Red, yellow and black bands make the snake very distinctive, though there are other non-venomous snakes that look similar.

To distinguish between a coral snake and its mimics, Hardy falls back on the old rhyme.

"Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, friend of Jack," Hardy said.

In other words, if the red bands and yellow bands touch each other, it's a coral snake.

While that may seem confusing to some, the good news is Hardy said the odds of coming across a coral snake are low. It is limited to the southern part of the state and spends most of its life hidden in stumps, in holes or under debris.

The looks and habitats of these snakes may vary, but herpetologist Terry Vandeventer of Terry said a person's reaction to them should always be the same.

"You want to get out of there. Step away quickly," Vandeventer said. "Don't stand there frozen in place."

Engaging a venomous snake isn't advised either. Vandeventer said a high percentage of venomous bites occur while a person is trying to catch or kill a snake.

Taking two steps back and walking away is the best way to avoid getting bitten, Vandeventer said.

"The biggest rattlesnake in the country can't bite you if you take two steps back," he said.


Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

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