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Dr. Rebecca McPeakeAssociate Professor - Extension Wildlife Specialist
Phone: (501) 671-2285Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
People fear snakes more than any other wildlife species in Arkansas.
According to psychologists and animal behaviorists, the fear of snakes is a learned
behavior. Research indicates our brains are pre-conditioned to readily accept this
fear. Statistically, however, deaths from venomous snakebites are rare.
With quick medical treatment, the vast majority of victims survive. Obviously, avoiding
encounters with snakes will decrease the odds of being bitten.
Snakes serve an important role in our environment. They prey on rodents, insects,
toads, frogs, crayfish, minnows and other snakes. Snakes are themselves food for hawks,
owls, foxes, bobcats, raccoons, fish and many other species.
Of the 39 species of native snakes in Arkansas, only six are venomous (Table 1). Several
excellent resources are available for identifying snakes.
People mistakenly kill snakes when in fact they pose no threat. Most venomous snakes
are slow to strike and do so only if provoked. Typically, snakes will go to great
lengths to avoid a confrontation with people. A study of cottonmouths in the field
(45 snakes) and laboratory (36 snakes) found half of the snakes encountered in the
field tried to escape. In the lab where escape was not an option, over three-fourths
used threat displays and about a third (13 of 36) bit an artificial hand used in the
Some nonvenomous snakes share common characteristics with venomous snakes, perhaps
to appear more threatening. The nonvenomous eastern hognose or “puff adder” will increase
its head size and emit a smelly musk (Figure 2).
If this doesn’t cause the threat to leave, the snake will roll over and play dead.
The hognose, and some nonvenomous snakes, have color variations and patterns that
can be mistaken for rattlesnakes. Some will vibrate their tails against dead leaves,
making rattlelike sounds. Although these characteristics are intended to improve survivability,
these adaptations may lead to the opposite outcome when snakes encounter snake-intolerant
Venomous native snakes present in Arkansas are the:
Top five photos by Kory Roberts. Bottom photo by Kelly Irwin with the Arkansas Game
and Fish Commission. Adapted with permission from Herps of Arkansas website, and Arkansas Snake Guide by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
All except the coralsnake are in the family Crotalinae, also called pit vipers. Pit
vipers have retractable fangs to inject venom which subdues prey.
The best way to identify venomous snakes is by their color patterns (Figure 3). Many
nonvenomous snakes are mistaken as venomous. Some possess color patterns which mimic
venomous snakes (Figure 4). This is especially true for juveniles which may not resemble
Figure 3. Color patterns of venomous versus nonvenomous snakes. Illustration by Chris Meux.
Venomous native snakes in Arkansas have distinctive color patterns (Table 1). Other
clues may be a triangular head shape, vertical pupils in sunlight (i.e., “cat eye”),
and body thickness.
Some nonvenomous snakes also have triangular heads and thicker bodies, so coloration
is key! Pit vipers have a hole (pit) between the eye and nostril which requires close examination
and therefore it is not recommended for identification in the field.
A Texas gulfcoast coralsnake is very colorful and easily distinguished from the pit
Some nonvenomous snakes have similar colored bands of red, black, yellow or white.
Remember the saying, “red touch black - venom lack; red touch yellow - kill a fellow,”
to prevent mistaken identity. Keep in mind its range is only a small portion of southwest Arkansas. The reclusive
nature of coralsnakes results in few encounters.
If you happen to find an intact shed of a native snake’s skin, observe the tail section
from the vent (where feces is expelled) to the tip (Figure 5). The scales for nonvenomous
snakes will be broken in half, whereas venomous snakes will be whole. The underbelly
scales from vent to tail will appear the same as those in front of the vent. Some
sheds may hold clues to the snake’s identity. The shed of a speckled kingsnake, for
example, will often have a small dot in the middle of each scale.
Figure 5. Tail characteristics of venomous and nonvenomous snakes in Arkansas. Illustration by Chris Meux.
Snakes that bite to inject toxins in their prey are called venomous. Venom is used
to subdue their prey. The amount of venom injected will vary. In some instances, snakes
perform “dry bites” in which no venom is injected.
The venom of pit vipers is hemotoxic, which means it destroys red blood cells, capillaries
and tissue. Rattlesnake venom is the most severe of the pit vipers.
Nationally, rattlesnakes account for the majority of snakebites (Table 2). Rattlesnakes
accounted for at least 43 (63 percent) of 68 reported snakebite deaths in the United
States from 1983 to 2018. Case studies indicate several were caused by a combination
of alcohol consumption and poor judgment, or an allergic reaction to the antivenin.
Table 2. Number of fatalities caused by venomous snakes in the United States from
1983-2018 reported to Poison Control Centers.
American Association of Poison Control Centers.
No deaths were recorded from Texas gulfcoast coralsnakes at the time of publication.
The coralsnake has potent venom which is neurotoxic, attacking the nervous system
of its prey. Venom is injected through short fangs requiring the coralsnake to bite
and chew its prey. Fortunately, coralsnakes are usually docile and seldom bite when
disturbed. Few people encounter coralsnakes because of their highly secretive habits
in forests in southwestern Arkansas.
Understanding snakes and their habits can help with avoiding being bitten. Oftentimes
movies and the media play upon people’s fear of snakes. Snakes do not purposefully
try to do harm. A venomous snake observed from a distance and left alone is completely
Most snakebites occur when snakes are harassed or threatened, such as when attempting
to harm or kill them. Snakes have only a few means of defense. Most rely on their
camouflage. A study by the Missouri Department of Conservation reported copperheads
tracked with radio telemetry avoided human activity. When humans were nearby, copperheads
remained quiet to avoid detection as their primary defense. A snake’s camouflage makes
them well-suited to hiding undetected in locations where prey species are likely to
be present. Snakes wait for their prey underneath or beside logs, rocks and debris.
If you encounter a snake, step back and allow it to pass. Snakes usually don’t move
fast, and you can retreat from the snake’s path.
There are several options for dealing with snake problems including habitat modification,
exclusion from buildings, capture/release of nonvenomous snakes, constructing a snakeproof
fence or birdhouse and leaving them alone.
If snakes are a problem, keep snakes from your yard by mowing the lawn regularly and
removing piles of logs, brush, rocks or debris where mice and other prey may live.
Eliminate cool, damp areas where snakes hide. Keep mulch in flower beds to a minimum
and avoid low-growing plants, particularly near the home. Controlling for insects
and rodents can help control snakes. See Controlling Mice and Rats MP546. Avoid leaving dog food, cat food or excess seeds from bird feeders outside. Keep
grains or other rodent attractants in sealed containers, and set mouse traps to control
rodents around your home.
Use caulk, weather stripping, spray foam, mortar or other material to seal small openings
around foundations and spaces around plumbing pipes, heating, cooling and electrical
ducts. Snakes can enter a hole the size of a dime, so seal every possible entry.
Nonvenomous snakes found indoors can be removed from your property and relocated.
Snakes are adept at climbing and eating bird eggs and fledglings. Snakes can climb
smooth poles, even ones that have been greased. A cone guard mounted on a metal pole
or PCV pipe can be effective at deterring snakes. Cone guard baffles can be purchased
where wild bird supplies are sold or made from galvanized sheet metal (Figure 6).
Figure 6. A cone guard or baffle can prevent snakes from entering songbird nest boxes.
Illustration by Chris Meux.
Under certain circumstances, such as a small backyard, lakeside yard or play area,
constructing a snakeproof fence is an option (Figure 7). Use 36-inch high galvanized
hardware cloth with a 1/4-inch mesh. Bury the fence 6 inches deep and slant outward
at a 30-degree angle. The gate should fit tightly and swing into the area. Clip vegetation
around the fence to keep snakes from crossing over.
Figure 7. A snakeproof fence can be an option for enclosing small areas. Illustration courtesy of University of Missouri Extension.
No repellents have proven effective for snakes. Dr. T’s Snake-A-Way (7 percent naph
thalene and 28 percent sulfur), a commercial snake repellent, has not proven successful
in repelling western rattlesnakes and plains garter snakes. Several potential home
remedies have been tested on black rat snakes and have also proven ineffective. These
include gourd vines, moth balls, sulfur, cedar oil, a tacky bird repellent, lime,
cayenne pepper spray, sisal rope, coal tar and creosote, liquid smoke, artificial
skunk scent and musk from a king snake (which preys on other snakes).
If the snake is not causing harm, oftentimes the best response is to simply leave
it alone. Prodding or handling a snake increases the risk of a snake bit. Some nonvenomous
snakes consume rodents and other snakes (Figure 8), including venomous snakes. Having
nonvenomous snakes around could be beneficial.
Many people get bitten in the process of trying to kill a venomous snake. Leaving
a snake alone often is the best option. If lethal removal is necessary, a venomous
snake should be struck with a long stick, rod or other tool, such as a garden hoe.
Keep out-side of the snake’s striking range, which is usually less than one-half the
total length of the snake.
Be cautious when removing the snake. A dead pit viper, even if it has been decapitated,
can bite and inject venom for several hours after the initial blow. Placing a warm
object, such as a hand, near the snake’s mouth may trigger a biting response.
All native snakes, including venomous snakes, are protected by law. Evidence indicates
some snake species are declining due to habitat destruction and human activities.
The Arkansas Wildlife Action Plan identifies snake “species of concern” because of declining numbers, including two
venomous species, the western diamond-backed rattle-snake and the coralsnake, both
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission enforces regulations which prohibit killing
nongame species, including venomous and nonvenomous snakes, except under limited circumstances.
Commission code allows nongame wildlife (excluding bats, migratory birds and endangered
species) that pose a reasonable threat to persons or property to be taken. Presumably
a venomous snake which is endangering others, especially children, can be dispatched.
Arkansas law does not allow killing of any snake indiscriminately for sport or other
reasons. Instances where intent or motive are unclear may be decided in a court of
If bitten by a venomous snake, move away to avoid further bites. Do not attempt to
catch or kill the snake, as this could result in additional snakebites and also wastes
time when treatment is the priority.
An antivenin is available for all native pit vipers, so it is helpful, but no longer
imperative, to determine the particular species of pit viper. If there is uncertainty whether the snake is a pit viper, check the injured area
for one or two (and on rare occasions three) fang marks in addition to teeth marks.
Typically, there is swelling and pain in the bite area, followed by black and blue
discoloration of the tissue and possibly nausea.
A snakebite victim may go into shock if the tissues in the body do not receive enough
oxygen or nutrients. Symptoms of shock are:
Lay the person down in a safe place and try to keep him or her warm until emergency
If a coral snakebite is suspected, seek immediate medical attention. Because of their tiny teeth, a coral snake’s bite is difficult to detect. Their bites,
though rare, are easy to miss. They are painless, with little change in the surrounding
tissue. Local numbness may occur and breathing will become labored. As symptoms progress,
these symptoms may become more difficult to reverse medically.
Although exotic venomous snakebites are rare, fatalities do occur. Keepers of exotic
snakes should keep venom protocols. Seek immediate medical attention and alert medics
quickly as it may be difficult to find anti-venin for these less common, nonnative
If bitten by a nonvenomous snake, treat the wound as you would any minor scrape or
cut. Keep it clean and apply antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection. A bite from
a nonvenomous snake may feel like a pinch or pin prick and may itch, but it shouldn’t
sting like a venomous snakebite.
The bite wound will correspond with the rows of sharp, pointy teeth found in a snake’s
mouth. The bite may bleed more than one might expect due to the sharpness of the teeth
and anticoagulant properties of the snake saliva.
Reference to commercial products or businesses is made with the understanding that
no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the University of Arkansas is
To see references or print this information download our publication Native Snakes of Arkansas FSA-9102