snakes1 300WESTERN Ky. (5/16/13) – As summer approaches and more people are enjoying the outdoors, it is important to know what you are looking for, in case you come across a venomous snake.
According to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, of the 32 species that live in Kentucky, only four are venomous. Ranging in sizes, some are slender and masters of camouflaging themselves, while others display vibrant colors. These snakes can be found living anywhere, from your backyard to deep inside the woods. Depending on their diet, some species may eat mice, birds, insects, toads and even other snakes. Despite their bad reputation, snakes can be very beneficial to our environment. Not only do they eat what we would consider pests, but they are also widely used in medical research.
Kentucky’s four most venomous snakes are the Copperhead, Western Cottonmouth, Timber Rattlesnake, and Western Pigmy Rattlesnake. When first encountering a snake, especially if you are not familiar with them can be a little tricky. However, there are ways to be able to distinguish between venomous and nonvenomous snakes.
All venomous snakes belong to a group called ‘Pit Vipers.’ This reference comes from the small pit-like opening located on each side of the head between the eye and nostril. Venomous snakes also have vertical pupils, whereas nonvenomous snakes are round. On a venomous snake, the scales underneath the tail will be in a single undivided row instead of a few distinct rows a nonvenomous snake would have. Venomous snakes also bare live young, therefore, any eggs that are encountered, are not venomous. There are other techniques such as; triangle head shape and a vibrating tail. The problem with that is some nonvenomous snakes are also able to imitate that characteristic (flatting their heads to make a triangle-shape) and rattlesnakes aren’t the only snakes that can vibrate their tails when they become alarmed.
Copperheads can average in length, from 8-40 inches and vary in general coloration from a reddish brown (coppery-red) to brown. One of the best ways to identify them is by the chestnut cross bands that are wide on the sides of the body and narrower across the back. Copperheads mate in the spring and their young is born live in late summer early fall. Copperheads are commonly known to live all across the state of Kentucky but have been seen more frequently in the western parts of Kentucky in places closest to water.
The Western Cottonmouth can average in length, from 8-46 inches and are typically a dark heavy-bodied snake. With the lack of obvious markings, it can make identifying this snake in a field a little harder, but a cottonmouth will often stand its ground in an open-mouth threat, that reveals the whitish interior of the mouth. Cottonmouths do have a scale above their eyes that slightly sticks out and almost always swims with its head completely out of the water. Cottonmouths have a limited distribution in Kentucky and are mostly found in the western part of Kentucky in or around water.
The Timber Rattlesnake can average in length, from 8-60 inches and is the state’s largest venomous snake. It too, is a heavy-bodied snake with dark and sometimes V-shaped cross bands on a gray, brown, yellow or greenish background. An obvious characteristic is the rattle on the tip of the tail. Timber Rattlesnakes typically do not rattle their tails unless they feel provoked. This species is mostly found in wooded areas of Kentucky. They mostly prefer south and southwestern parts that face slopes with rocky outcrops and bluffs. These snakes are very secretive, nonaggressive and their main defense is to lay motionless on the ground, relying on their color pattern to camouflage them. Timber Rattlesnakes are also long-lived and can survive up to 25 years in the wild. However, these snakes are undergoing a severe population decrease throughout their range. Kentucky is one of the few states that there is a healthy population of Timber Rattlesnakes.
The Western Pigmy Rattlesnake can average in length, from 5-20 inches and are a light grayish brown with dark spots on its back. It also has a faint “rusty” stripe that appears down its back and a skinny tail with a very small rattle that sounds like insect buzzing. These snakes also have a limited distribution in Kentucky and are mostly known to reside in parts of Calloway, Trigg and Lyons Counties. There isn’t much known about their habits, but they are also known to live near the water and feed off small rodents and small snakes.
Although snake bites are very rare, if you happen to be one of the unlucky few to get bitten, remain calm and seek professional medical care as quickly as possible.
For more information about Kentucky snakes, you can visit the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources at
Amber Mena
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