If Red Touches Yellow, You’re Reading the Wrong Book: Snake Advice

Several people on separate occasions have asked me about venomous snakes.  Mostly, how to identify dangerous ones and how to treat bites.  It’s a fair question, and one I like to clear up as there is a lot of misinformation out there.

The trouble begins with field guides.  Even the most professional ones tend to make the mistake of dividing their plates into one category for “venomous” and one for “nonvenomous”.  The danger is that they confuse the terms “venomous” with “deadly”.  Many snakes, even ones usually marked “harmless”, have venom.  The venom may be non-fatal or ineffective against most humans, but some people may be more sensitive to the toxins.  Even critically so.

Roadguarder.  Known to cause severe reactions in some people.  It's like saying bees are nonvenomous.
Roadguarder. Known to cause severe reactions in some people. It’s like saying bees are nonvenomous.

For snakes that are completely nonvenomous, like boas, their bite can still be dangerous.  Their mouths can be septic with bacteria, and the can do a lot of damage with double rows of teeth.  Infection is a real risk, venom aside.  Remember that boa constrictor I tangled with?  I washed out those cuts really well afterward.

This birdsnake ain't bluffing.  The bite packs quite a punch, venom or no.
This birdsnake is nonvenomous, but a bite from a three-meter-long snake still hurts.  Harmless, my ass, Field Guide to Costa Rican Reptiles!

Also, some books recommend checking the shape of the head to tell vipers (all venomous, most deadly) apart from colubrids (some venomous, few dangerous).  Vipers tend to have a more triangular shaped head with a definite neck, while colubrids have a more rounded head.  But this, again, is a generalization.  Plus, it can cause confusion with an even more dangerous family of snakes, the elapids.

"Can you see the head?" "No." "Well poke it until you see the head."
“Can you see the head?”
“No.”
“Well poke it until you see the head.”

This family includes coral snakes and sea snakes, rarely encountered and easily spotted.  They are usually shy and slow to bite.  But they have some of the deadliest venom on the continent.  And there are several mimics among colubrids.  Ever heard that “yellow touches black” rhyme to tell a coral apart from a kingsnake?  Forget it.  The pattern doesn’t apply here, and that misinformation will get you killed if you grab the wrong snake.

Turns out, this was the right snake.
        Turns out, this was the right snake.

As for treatment, let me be clear:  venom pumps DO NOT work.  Neither does cutting and sucking the wound.  It removes a negligible amount of venom and just causes more tissue damage.  Snakes inject venom with fangs like hypodermic needles.  Once it’s in your bloodstream, it’s in you for good.  Ok, you have maybe three to five seconds to squeeze out as much blood from the wound if it’s in an extremity, but your prime concern should be to get away from the snake, ID it, keep the wound low and get antivenom.  Don’t use a tourniquet or ice pack either.  Those just cause more necrosis.

My advice?  Don’t touch snakes unless you know, 100%, what it is, or more importantly, what it is not.  Don’t assume you know the rules.  Incomplete knowledge is worse than none at all.

"Can you see the head?" "No." "Well poke it until you see the head."
“Can you see the head?”
“No.”
“Well poke it until you see the head.”
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