Beware of poisonous snakes in North Carolina

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By Susan Brown, County Extension

I moved to Brunswick County last year and I have seen more poisonous snakes in the last three weeks than I ever saw the entire time I lived in Raleigh.
Snakes are seen most often in the spring and fall as they search for food or move to and from hibernation areas. North Carolina snakes, in general, emerge in late March or early April and go into hibernation in October.
Most land snakes are much more active at night. Most people are bitten while trying to kill or handle a snake. Snakes are often frightened by people and try to move quickly in the opposite direction.
Snakes range in size from a few inches to more than 8 feet in length. There are many more non-venomous snakes than venomous. About 37 species of snakes are found in North Carolina. Six of the 37 species are venomous and are found in coastal areas of North Carolina. They are copperheads, rattlesnakes, coral snakes and cottonmouths.
Snakes do not see well, and they have no middle ear so they do not hear sounds like we do. They can detect movement through changing color patterns and through vibrations. Snakes can see shapes but not in detail. They find their food through their sense of smell. Snakes smell through an organ on the roof of the mouth called the Jacobson organ. When a snake flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, it collects scent particles from the air.
Many times people kill snakes, such as the black rat snake or black racer. I know these snakes look intimidating but they serve an important purpose in our ecosystem. They do not harm humans and help to keep the rodent and insect population down. The presence of a black rat snake may deter a copperhead or other venomous snake from taking residence in your yard or garden.
Copperheads inflict about 90 percent of all venomous snakebites in North Carolina. Only one death from a bite has been recorded in North Carolina. Fortunately, though their bite may be very painful, it is rarely fatal. As a general rule, no snake, venomous or not, wants to bite you.
Copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes are all pit vipers. They have a heat sensitive pit on either side of their head between their eye and nostril, which they use to detect prey. Pit vipers have long, hollow fangs that fold up against the roof of their mouths when not in use and their venom primarily works by destroying blood and tissue.
The coral snake is a member of the family, which includes cobras, and they do not have a heat-sensing pit. Its fangs do not fold up, but are shorter and fixed in place. The venom of coral snakes affects transmission of signals through the nervous system.
The good news is that the chances of running a rattlesnake or coral snake are extremely low. They are very rare and in some cases, even endangered. Use good judgment when working around woodpiles and heavy debris.

SUSAN BROWN is a horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Extension Service. Call 253-2610 or e-mail susan_brown@ncsu.edu.