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Snake Season: 7 Facts That Will Keep You Safe

With the arrival of warmer temperatures across North Carolina and other parts of the United States, many people are eager to spend more time outdoors. But they’re not the only ones looking to enjoy the sunshine.

Snakes typically emerge from brumation — a low-energy state that they enter during winter in order to survive colder temperatures — in March or April and remain active through October, largely because they rely on external heat for warmth. 

As snakes become more active in the warmer months, the potential for an encounter increases. Unfortunately, these encounters can result in negative consequences. Nearly 60,000 people in the U.S. suffer snake bites every year.

In the Q&A below, NC State professor Ivana Mali shares expert advice on how people can keep themselves —and snakes — safe this summer. Mali, who serves as The Ecology Wildlife Foundation Distinguished Scholar for Conservation Biology in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, specializes in herpetological conservation. 

What should someone do if they encounter a snake while outdoors?

If you’re a snake nerd like me, you would get excited, take some pictures and upload them to iNaturalist or HerpMapper. But I’m assuming this question is more for people that are scared or concerned. In that case, the shortest answer is do nothing. Walk around it, do not try to poke it, or agitate it. They’re not there to harass you; they’re just going about their business.

Are snakes typically aggressive towards humans? 

Snakes are not aggressive towards humans. The only time they might become aggressive is if someone tries to pick them up or disturb them. Even then, most of them are just trying to crawl away or get out of the situation. Even if they try to strike, I would not consider that an aggressive behavior but simply defensive.

What should someone do if they’re bitten by a snake? 

It depends on the species of snake. Most species in the Raleigh area are non-venomous. If you get bitten by a non-venomous snake, you may bleed just a little bit (depending on the size of the snake). All you need to do is wash the spot with soap. There’s no reason to be alarmed if you find a few teeth in your skin. Snakes have many teeth and lose them easily because they’re only superficially attached to the jawbone. Snakes also replace teeth throughout their life. Most snakes let go as soon as they bite, but on rare occasion that a snake doesn’t let go, it’s best to just try to gently pull its head from your skin. It doesn’t take a lot of force to remove a snake. This only happens to people that try to pick up a snake with their hands.

If you get bitten by a venomous snake, on the other hand, you should get to a hospital as soon as possible and let the professionals take care of it. No one should be handling venomous snakes unless they are trained and/or certified.

How can someone tell if a snake is venomous?  

There are two types of venomous snakes — vipers and elapids. Vipers such as rattlesnakes and copperheads have vertical pupils similar to those of cats and tend to have triangular-shaped heads, though the latter is often subjective because some non-venomous snakes like to mimic venomous snakes by making their heads triangular when threatened or disturbed. Elapids such as coral snakes have round pupils and are brightly colored with bands in a distinctive pattern of black, yellow, red.

Which snakes are most dangerous in North Carolina?

In the Raleigh area, people should mostly be aware of copperheads. These snakes are gorgeous and can blend in very well with their surroundings, so people should watch where they step. They usually try to stay away and mind their own business. Also, among all venomous snakes in North Carolina, they have the mildest venom. I’m not aware of any adult human mortalities caused by a copperhead. Coral snakes are highly venomous but very rare in North Carolina and can only be found in a few areas in the Coastal Plains.

When are snakes most active?

Most snakes are active at night because that’s when they prefer to hunt. However, there are a few snakes that are strictly active during the day. For example, coachwhips actually like very hot temperatures and are very fast. They will hunt lizards, snakes, small mammals, and birds and their eggs. Some snakes, like copperheads and water snakes, are active during the day and at night. But again, most species prefer to be active at dusk and night.

What steps can humans take to co-exist with snakes? 

It’s best to just let the snakes be. Snakes generally try to avoid humans. You don’t have to kill snakes that you find in your yard or neighborhood. If they’re non-venomous and truly in your way if you’re gardening, you can simply move them a little bit away from your working area. For copperheads or other venomous snakes, you can contact the Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology program. We will be happy to move them out of the way for you.

Why are snakes important? 

Snakes are a vital component of the ecosystems they reside in. For one, they keep the rodent populations in check as rodents are usually the main food source for many species. There’s a reason why the rat snake is one of the most common species in the Raleigh area. Snakes also prey on other wildlife such as raptors (hawks, falcons, kites, eagles, vultures and owls).