Those of us who enjoy the wilds of Florida benefit from basic knowledge of Florida snakes, particularly the venomous snakes found here.
They’re not a major issue. In my experience, I rarely come across one. But they exist, and I occasionally come across one. However, in my lifetime of exploring Florida’s backcountry, I’ve only had a handful of close encounters with these creatures.
Nonetheless, if you can identify a venomous snake and are familiar with its habits and habitat, you will be able to enjoy your outdoor adventures even more.
Harmless Florida Snakes Aren’t a Concern
Most Florida snakes are harmless. While you could receive an unpleasant, germ-laden bite that might require a tetanus shot, these harmless snakes have no venom, so there’s only a minor wound to contend with, unless, of course, you happen to trip over a log or something trying to get away from one. “They won’t hurt you, but they can make you hurt yourself,” is an old Glades saying.
Venomous Snakes in Florida
Since harmless Florida snakes aren’t really a concern, let’s focus on the venomous ones.
Florida is home to six species of venomous snakes. These include the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Timber Rattlesnake, Dusky Pigmy Rattlesnake, Cottonmouth (also known as Water Moccasin), Copperhead, and Coral Snake. All of these species are native to Florida and can be found throughout the state.
The most common venomous snake in Florida is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. It is found in a variety of habitats including pine Flatwoods, sandhills, hardwood hammocks, and coastal dunes. The timber rattlesnake is also fairly common and can be found in wooded areas, especially near rivers and streams. The other four species are less common but can still be found in certain parts of the state.
Venomous snakes should always be treated with caution and respect.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
The largest and deadliest snake in the United States, the Eastern diamondback normally measures around 3 to 5 feet in length. Sometimes, they reach 6 feet. If you put much stock in snake stories, a 9-foot diamondback turns up every now and then. Is it possible? I don’t know. But I do know this: Snakes–the same with fish–shrink when they get close to a tape measure.
Where Diamondbacks Are Found
You’ll find diamondbacks mostly in the pine Flatwoods. They sometimes inhabit gopher (tortoise) holes, and in the spring especially, you might see them sunning themselves near the gopher hole’s entrance. Whenever I walk past a gopher hole, especially in the springtime, I’m always careful to be on the lookout for a nearby diamondback.
You might also see them in and around stands of palmettos or tall grass.
Diamondbacks even show up in some pretty strange places–like swimming miles offshore in saltwater Florida bay.
Not Aggressive by Nature
Although diamondbacks will defend themselves vigorously when threatened, it’s not in their nature to be aggressive.
According to Steve Bennet and Wade Kalinowski of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, diamondbacks are “ambush predators” waiting specifically for prey.
When the diamondback is safely hidden and in an ambush position, it usually lies still when a human passes by.
But if it’s stretched out and between ambush sites, it probably feels threatened and is more likely to rattle and get confronted. (Refer back to what Maynard says about snakes when they’re “hurt, mad, cornered, or scared.”)
It can strike up to two-thirds of its body length, and its bite can be deadly.
When walking the backcountry, you can play it safer by staying on well-defined trails. Also, step on top of logs and then away from them rather than over them. This latter suggestion can help you avoid close contact with a snake stretched out or coiled just on the other side of the log.
If you’ve spent much time in Florida’s backcountry, you’ve probably walked by more diamondbacks than you’d care to know about. The stealthy little critters chose simply to lie still to avoid confronting you. You’re not food, so why should they waste their venom and energy tangling with something big enough to eat THEM?
Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake
This Florida snake bites more people than any other venomous snake in the state. It’s feisty, and aggressive and can be found just about anywhere on the peninsula.
In fact, it’s Florida’s most common venomous snake.
It usually doesn’t get much longer than a foot or two, and the sound produced by its vibrating tail sounds more like an insect’s buzz than a snake’s rattle. Its bite is seldom fatal, not because the venom isn’t potent, but due to its small size and relatively low venom yield. A small child would be at greater risk of death than would a healthy adult.
A Dusky Pygmy Story
One cold, early spring night while we were on a canoe trip on the northern Withlacoochee river, my wife slept atop a pygmy rattlesnake.
We found him in the morning as were taking down our tent. It seems he had crawled under our tent’s flooring during the night, probably attracted by the warmth of her body.
Fortunately, for her, he was too cold to move very fast and didn’t seem interested in striking or biting at all. We headed downriver that day thankful she had survived her encounter unscathed.
Also called “timber rattlers,” these Florida snakes are found only in north Florida, usually in the northeastern part of the state, and usually no more than about 75 miles from the Georgia line.
Large Florida Snake
These large reptiles are second in size to diamondbacks. They are usually some shade of gray, brown, maybe pink, with dark crossbands. Their average length is about three to five feet.
Canebrakes live in cane thickets, along river bottomlands, and in other low-lying areas.
A canebrake’s bite is deadly serious. The venom is potent, often a hemotoxic and neurotoxic cocktail that causes all sorts of problems.
Watch Your Step
Watch where you step. Step on top of logs, not over them.
Cottonmouth Water Moccasin
In my experience, these are the Florida snakes you have to watch for most.
The Cottonmouth Water Moccasin, also known as the Agkistrodon piscivorus, is a venomous snake native to Florida. It is one of the four species of water moccasins found in the United States. The Cottonmouth Water Moccasin can be identified by its dark brown or black coloration and its triangular-shaped head.
The Cottonmouth Water Moccasin can be found in freshwater wetlands and marshes throughout Florida. They are often seen near the edges of ponds, lakes, rivers, and swamps. They are primarily active during the day and are most active during the hot summer months.
It is important to take caution when around this species of snake as it is highly venomous and capable of delivering a painful bite if provoked. If bitten by a Cottonmouth Water Moccasin, seek medical attention immediately as their venom can cause serious injury or death if left untreated.
They live mostly in and around water. You may see them on logs or ledges next to the water or draped over limbs and branches hanging low over the water.
Fat, Stocky Snakes with an Attitude
They are fat, stocky snakes–averaging three to four feet in length–that when agitated open their mouth wide to reveal a cottony-white interior, hence the name.
They seem to be saying, “Hey, you see these fangs, they ain’t just for looks, so BACK OFF.”
Water moccasins are brownish-black in color. The younger ones look similar to copperheads, but they tend to darken as they age, and the big ones can be almost all black.
They resemble some non-venomous water snakes, and unless you’re experienced, it can be hard to distinguish between the two.
Some distinguishing features:
- The Cottonmouth has elliptical, cat-like pupils while non-venomous water snakes have round pupils. However, when a Cottonmouth’s pupils are dilated, they’re almost round, so be aware of that.
- Cottonmouths have a dark stripe that runs behind the eye alongside the head, whereas harmless water snakes have other head patterns.
- Cottonmouths tend (not always, but tend to) swim high in the water, appearing somewhat overly buoyant. The harmless water snakes tend to swim mostly submerged.
- Cottonmouths tend to retreat slowly, while water snakes tend to zip out of the way whenever possible. I know, however, that some harmless water snakes will stand their ground and act aggressively when disturbed.
- On a dead specimen, check the belly scales below the vent. Cottonmouths have a single row of scales down to the tail’s tip, while water snakes have a double row. Note: Snakes maintain some degree of reflexive muscular activity up to a few hours after death. Dead snakes can bite just as sure as live ones can. Be careful handling any dead snake. Carefully remove and dispose of the head.
Be watchful around water. Don’t be overly nervous, but do be mindfully watchful for water moccasins. When surprised, they may strike viciously several times before attempting to retreat.
If you have left an overturned watercraft by the water, use caution in righting it. Canoeists have been bitten when they carelessly stuck their hands or feet under their overturned canoes.
Fish on a stringer attract cottonmouths. Fishermen are sometimes bitten when they reach their hands over their boat’s gunwale to pull in the day’s catch.
And cottonmouths CAN bite underwater, so be mindful of that. I’ve swum in dark Florida waters all my life and have never been bitten, but it could happen. In my estimation, if I’m daring enough to drive on I-75 or I-95, I’m certainly daring enough to swim mindfully cautiously in Florida waters.
Copperheads in Florida exist only in a small part of the state–about a 50- or 60-mile-wide area just west of Tallahassee. To delineate this area, draw a line extending southeast from the Georgia border through Marianna and dipping below the latitude of Tallahassee but stopping short of the Gulf shore. Then, continue this line back northward through Quincy and to the Georgia border.
When people in other parts of the state claim to have seen a Copperhead, it’s likely what they saw was a young Cottonmouth Water Moccasin, which resembles a Copperhead in that they have similar markings. A Copperhead is sometimes called an “upland moccasin,” a fitting name since like the Water Moccasin, a Copperhead is also a pit viper. Their coloring is dark brown to pale orange or coppery, allowing them to blend in almost perfectly with fallen autumn leaves. In the spring and the fall, Copperheads are active mostly by the day. In summer’s heat, however, they are active mostly at night. The average Copperhead length is 2 to 3 feet. Be somewhat wary walking through fallen leaves. The Copperhead’s bite is definitely dangerous. Its venom, however, is not considered as potent as that of other pit vipers.
Eastern Coral Snake
Unlike all other venomous Florida snakes, the Eastern Coral Snake is not a pit viper. In fact, it’s a member of the cobra family.
The Eastern Coral Snake is a species of venomous snake native to the southeastern United States. It is found in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The Eastern Coral Snake is easily identified by its distinctive coloration of red, yellow, and black rings.
The Eastern Coral Snake is relatively small, averaging between 18 and 30 inches in length. It feeds primarily on other snakes and lizards but will occasionally consume frogs and mice as well. This species of snake is nocturnal and spends most of its time underground or beneath logs and rocks during the day.
The Eastern Coral Snake has a potent neurotoxic venom that can cause muscle paralysis if left untreated. While bites from this species are rare due to their shy nature, it is important to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect you have been bitten by an Eastern Coral Snake.
Coral Snake Coloration
Its bright and attractive colors serve as nature’s warning that this little guy is dangerous. Red, yellow, and black bands encircle almost the entire body. In some rare cases, however, coral snakes can be very dark, even all-black. This is called a “melanistic” phase. In other rare cases, in an albino coral snake, the normally black rings can be all white.
Secretive and Mild-Mannered
Coral snakes are secretive, mild-mannered reptiles, which burrow under leaves and other debris, remaining hidden from most human contact.
Relatively Small Size
Generally, they are about 20 to 35 inches long, with a record size of 51 inches.
Two species of harmless snakes closely resemble the coral snake: the scarlet king snake and the scarlet snake.
These are distinguished from a coral snake in that, in Florida, a coral snake has a black nose and red and yellow touching bands.
Remember this old saying: “Red and yellow kill a fellow; red and black, good for Jack.” When the snake is slithering, it’s not easy to tell which bands touch–the red and the yellow, or the red and the black. In such cases, look for the coral snake’s black nose as your first clue to identification. If you have any doubt as to identity, treat the animal as if it were a coral snake.
While pit viper venom is primarily hemotoxic, meaning it attacks the blood, coral snake venom is primarily neurotoxic, meaning it attacks the central nervous system. They say the bite isn’t particularly painful, but without medical help, the victim could die of respiratory distress.
Misinformation About Florida Snakes
In the northern Everglades region where I grew up, it seemed as if almost everyone had at least one snake story.
Every time a snake story was re-told, the snake got bigger and meaner than it was the last time the story was told. Before you knew it, we were talking aggressive 9-foot diamondbacks with heads as big as two fists.
A lot of misinformation about snakes, Florida snakes included, has developed over time. Maybe it’s the result of tall stories, inordinate fear, or a combination of both. Whatever the reason, snakes have gotten a bad rap. That’s not to say the venomous ones don’t pose any danger–they do. Be aware of their habitats, and watch where you step when you’re in areas they’re likely to be.
Misinformation about Florida snakes is a common problem. Many people are unaware of the variety of species that inhabit the state and their habits. This can lead to fear and misunderstanding of these creatures, which can be dangerous for both humans and snakes.
The best way to combat misinformation about Florida snakes is to educate yourself on the types of snakes that live in your area and their behavior. Research online or consult with a local herpetologist or wildlife biologist if you have questions. Additionally, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings when outdoors, as some venomous species may be present in certain areas.
Finally, it’s important to remember that snakes are an important part of our ecosystem and should not be feared or harmed unnecessarily. By educating ourselves on these creatures, we can better understand them and appreciate their role in our environment.
From the Snake’s Point of View
But it’s not as if they lie in wait to attack you. The fact is, Florida snakes would just as soon avoid you.
Look at it from the snake’s point of view. He’s interested mostly in finding something to eat–a mouse, a frog, a lizard, whatever. You’re a big two-legged, dangerous predator that shakes the ground when you walk. He’s low to the ground and senses the vibrations. He wants nothing to do with you.
Now, if for some reason he’s “hurt, mad, cornered, or scared,” says my friend and renowned snake expert, Maynard Cox, he’ll lash out. Other than that, a snake prefers to lie in stealth while you pass by.