MGA Faculty Q&A With Kirby Swenson: Venomous Snakes In Georgia

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Tuesday, April 2, 2024 12:00 AM
Categories: School of Health and Natural Sciences | Pressroom | Faculty/Staff

Cochran, GA

Kirby Swenson volunteering at Science Night at Bleckley County Elementary School and, on the right, an image of a Copperhead with telltale “Hershey Kiss” markings.

Snake activity in Georgia, often referred to colloquially as "snake season," typically ramps up in the spring and extends through the summer months. We talk to Kirby Swenson, associate professor of biology, about what kinds of venomous snakes are found in Georgia, how they contribute to the state’s ecosystem, and what we should do to stay out of their way.   

Can you provide an overview of the venomous snake species found in Georgia? 

There are six species of venomous snakes in Georgia, three of them rattlesnakes: Eastern Diamondback, Timber or Canebrake, and the pygmy rattlesnake. Next are Copperheads and Cottonmouths, which are closely related species. Last is the Coral snake, which is very different from the others. The others are vipers, all of which have large fangs that fold against the roof of the mouth when the snake closes its mouth. Coral snakes are the American relative of cobras and have fixed fangs, which means they do not fold and are always extended. This means that their fangs are much smaller than the vipers. No, Coral snakes can't spread their heads out like cobras. 

What are some key characteristics that help identify venomous snakes from non-venomous ones in Georgia?

This is a complex question and really is best answered with images. The short answer is if it has a rattle, it's clearly a rattlesnake and you should leave it alone. If it has red, black, and yellow stripes, it could be a Coral snake and you should leave it alone. Copperheads are a bit more difficult to identify, but when you look at the pattern on the animal's side, it is shaped similar to a Hershey's Kiss. Cottonmouths have similar patterns as Copperheads when they're young. Unfortunately, as the animal ages, the pattern becomes obscured, and they typically turn a dusty brown or black.

It is important to note that many people call Cottonmouths "water moccasins.” This is not a good name because the average person will call ANY snake in the water a moccasin. What they're trying to say is, "A venomous snake in the water," which is a Cottonmouth. Nine times out of 10, the snake a person has seen in the water is a harmless water snake, of which there are at least five species in Georgia. They are not venomous and will only bite when threatened. If you're ever unsure as to whether a snake is dangerous, your best bet is to leave it alone, or encourage it to leave with a spray of water from the hose.

Are there any particular regions or habitats within Georgia where venomous snakes are more commonly encountered?

That depends on the snake. Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads are common in wooded areas.  Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes are more common in sandy areas as one gets closer to the coast.

Pygmy rattlesnakes are found in similar conditions as the Diamondback. These snakes are tiny compared to their relatives. They typically don't get much longer than 12 to 18 inches. Their venom is medically significant (which means you should go to the hospital if you get bitten); however, it is very rare that people even see one of these, much less are bitten by one. 

Cottonmouths are typically found near water since they specialize in eating fish. Coral snakes are more common in swampy areas such as the Okefenokee and similar places.

How do venomous snakes contribute to the ecosystem of Georgia?

Venomous snakes are very valuable to the individual ecosystems in which they're found. Snakes in general are great at eating rodents. This is why they're very frequently found around agricultural areas. Anywhere there is grain production or storage, you're going to find rodents. Anywhere there are rodents, you're going to find snakes. Some of those snakes will be venomous. All snakes benefit people by reducing the rodent population.

I would like to ask the reader to think back and try to remember how many cases of house fires, crop damage, and property damage they've heard about that were caused by rodents. Now do the same thing and ask yourself how much property damage, how many house fires, and crop damage are done by snakes. Squirrels chewing into wiring in houses and cars causing fires, rats and mice eating millions of dollars of grain in the US each year, invading homes and urinating and defecating everywhere they go.  Also ask yourself how many people are sickened or die each year due to diseases that are spread by rodents. Rodents can cause 70 different diseases like hantavirus, bubonic plague (yes, it's still around), and monkeypox, just to name a few.  A hantavirus outbreak in the Southwest in 1993 infected nearly 30 people and killed 13, a 50% mortality rate . Snakes carry no diseases humans can catch. 

Roughly 7,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the U.S. Of those, 5-6 people die, usually because they did not seek immediate medical attention. Most of those bites occur on the hands or arms which means the person was trying to catch or attack the snake. Roughly a third of bites occur on the feet and legs, indicating the person may not have been aware they were near a snake. The other 70 percent knew the snake was there and did not leave it alone.

What precautions should residents and outdoor enthusiasts take to avoid encounters with venomous snakes in Georgia?

Always be aware of your surroundings when you're hiking, on a nature walk, or even just working in your yard. Don't stick your hand somewhere you can't see, like under a bush or in a pipe or hole. The snakes don't want to have anything to do with us. As a matter of fact, they are terrified of us. We are huge compared to them and can easily kill them. A snake that bites isn't mean or angry, it's fighting for its life. It is trying to defend itself. 

Rattlesnakes and Cottonmouths will warn a predator to not come any closer. The rattlesnakes will rattle, and the Cottonmouth will open its mouth to show the white lining inside. If a person hears that heart-stopping rattle, stop. Do not take another step. Look around and attempt to locate the snake. Once you've found the source of the rattle, back slowly away from the snake. The snake will let you leave and will not chase you. Remember, the snake is terrified you're going to try to kill and eat it. It is telling you it is prepared to fight for its life and it only wants you to leave it alone. 

If you find a venomous snake in your yard, remember you can spray it with the hose to convince it to move on. Though, if you are finding snakes on your property or in your house often, there's a reason the snakes keep showing up. They're looking for food (rodents) and they've found them at your house. Adress the rodent situation and you'll quickly discover you no longer have a snake problem. 

Most importantly, if you're not sure if a snake is venomous, leave it alone. If it's a harmless snake like a rat snake or water snake, leave it alone and let it do its job, eating rodents and other small animals. If it's a venomous snake, leave it alone and let it do its job of ridding us of damage-causing and disease-spreading animals like squirrels, mice, and rats.

Snakes are our friends. Live and let live.