Tennessee is home to 32 species of snakes, four of which are venomous. Poisonous is not the correct word because poison is ingested and venom is injected. All of Tennessee's venomous snakes are from the pit viper family. They get that name from having a heat-sensing pit just behind each nostril, which they use in sensing their prey.
Beware of These Snakes
The four Venomous Snakes of Tennessee are:
- Northern and southern copperhead
- Timber rattlesnake
- Western cottonmouth
- Western pigmy rattlesnake
How to Identify a Venomous Snake
The venomous snakes of Tennessee have elliptical (cat-eye) shaped pupils. If a snake in Tennessee has round pupils, it is nonvenomous. Also, most have thick bodies and blunt tails. They have triangular shaped heads, but some larger non-venomous snakes appear to have the same head shape. The venomous snakes have a single row of scales on their bellies above their anus, whereas all of the state's nonvenomous snakes have two rows of belly scales. If you find a snakeskin that has a single row of belly scales, then it came from a venomous snake.
The Scarlet King Snake
A notable mention is the scarlet king snake in Tennessee, which resembles the venomous coral snake of the southern United States. A way to distinguish between the two is an old rhyme: "Red and black, friendly Jack. Red and yellow, kill a fellow." In other words, if the red color band of the snake touches a black band, then it is a harmless scarlet king snake, but if the yellow band of the snake touches the black band, then it is a venomous coral snake.
More About the Snakes
Of all the venomous snakes in Tennessee, the cottonmouth has the meanest temperament. Cottonmouths will stand their ground when encountered, and they will give you a good dose of venom with each bite. Contrary to old wives tales, the cottonmouth can bite underwater. All snakes in Tennessee have white mouths, so do not base your identification of a cottonmouth on that criterion alone.
The timber and western pigmy rattlesnakes are easier to identify because both have a button at the end of their tails that they rattle in self-defense, to warn predators away. They add a button each year as they shed their skin. The buttons are extremely fragile, so determining the age of the snake cannot be determined from the number of buttons present. If the rattlesnake is startled and must defend itself in an instant, then it will not rattle its tail.
Copperheads are relatively shy snakes, but they account for the most reported bites each year in Tennessee. They will inject venom based on the amount required to render its prey inactive. They know that they cannot digest a human, so roughly 50 percent of their bites are dry bites, meaning that when they bite, no venom is injected.
Snake Bites in Tennessee
Most of the venomous snakes of Tennessee are nonaggressive, with the exception of the cottonmouth. Of all the bites reported in the United States, most occur from handling or stepping directly on the snake. Two of the best ways to avoid being bitten is (1) to be aware of your surroundings while trekking through the woods and (2)to never pick up a snake and play with it. In Tennessee, it is illegal to harm, kill, remove from the wild or possess native snakes taken from the wild without the proper permits.
There are about 50,000 deaths worldwide from venomous snake bites reported each year. Of those, only 12 to 15 are in the United States, and within Tennessee, only four snake bite deaths have been reported since 1960. The venomous snakes of Tennessee are not as lethal as the snakes of other states like Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
It doesn't matter how stylish your shorts and tank top ensemble are for the summer if you are going to be walking in wooded areas, wear a pair of boots. Remember that in the woods, you are in the snakes' backyard. Snakes don't set out to bite humans; they just react to the ignorance or carelessness of people not watching where they are walking.
Most Tennessee snakes are nocturnal during the summer months and only lie in the midday sun to warm their blood. During the early spring and late fall, they are more prevalent during the daylight hours when the temperatures are at their highest. Because you're more likely to encounter a snake in these seasons, you are also more likely to get bit then. During the winter months, snakes hibernate, thus lowering your chances of an encounter.
To keep the snakes away from your home, the best defense is to keep your lawn mowed. A snake will not travel across a field in plain view of a hawk looking for a slithery meal. Also, keep all debris cleaned up. Snakes tend to love something to hide under.
If You Get Bitten By a Snake
The first thing to do is remain calm. You have been bitten by a snake and there is nothing you can do to reverse it. Snakebites in Tennessee carry a lower risk of death than getting into a car and driving through rush hour traffic. Your most severe problem is not the chance of death but tissue damage to the bite area.
After you get bitten:
- Remove all jewelry around or above the bite area. More than likely your worst problem with the bite will be swelling.
- Keep the bite area below the heart.
- Do not apply a tourniquet. If you restrict the flow of venom into a small area, then you will suffer greater tissue damage to the bite area.
- Do not give the victim aspirin. It will thin the blood and cause the venom to spread more than it normally would. The same applies to giving the victim alcohol.
- Do not try to capture the snake. Antivenom is the same for all Tennessee snakes so capturing is a futile attempt and only heightens the chances of a second snakebite victim.
- The telltale signs of a venomous snakebite are swelling and an intense burning sensation of the bite area.
- Do not try to suck out the venom. By cutting the bite area, you suffer a greater chance of dying from blood poisoning than from the bite itself.
- Do not apply ice to the bite area. The most severe problem with snake bites is tissue damage. The application of ice greatly increases the chances of amputation of the limb near the bite area.
How to Treat a Snakebite
You may have heard about the remedy of applying a high voltage current to the bite area. Snake venom carries seven different chemicals that have yet to be identified and some people have reported the application of a high voltage DC current seemed to deactivate the venom. However, in reality, more people have died from applying high voltage AC current instead of DC current than people who just went to the doctor.
The bottom line: If you get bit, go to the doctor. Most of the time antivenom will not even be administered. The doctor will more than likely monitor your blood pressure and the swelling and then send you home in the morning.