Is There Really a Snake Season in Oklahoma and Texas?




Most snake bites in Oklahoma and Texas occur between April and October. Most of the snake species in both states are not venomous. The three snakes to watch out for in Oklahoma and Texas are cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlesnakes, and in Texas, the Texas coral snake.

Snake season runs from April to October in Texas and Oklahoma. Forty-six snake species are native to Oklahoma, and seventy-six snake species call Texas their homeland. In rural areas like at many lakes, we love to play outside, enjoy nature, and splash around in the water. Like everything else in life, we want to lower our risk of harm in country living. *

In Oklahoma, only seven species of snakes are poisonous and potentially toxic to humans, the copperhead, cottonmouth, plus the rattlesnakes: western diamondback rattlesnake, western pigmy rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake, prairie rattlesnake, and western massasauga. All seven species belong to the pit viper family.

In Texas, the four species of venomous snakes are coral snakes, copperheads, cottonmouths (water moccasins), and rattlesnakes, but rattlesnakes in Texas include ten species of rattlesnakes. The coral snake belongs to the cobra family along with mambas and sea snakes.

Pit Viper Characteristics

The scientific name for the family that pit vipers belong to is Viperidae, and includes rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads that are common to Oklahoma and Texas. They range greatly in size, and usually have stocky bodies with short tails.

In Oklahoma and Texas, we have what we refer to as rattlesnakes, but we have several species of rattlesnakes. The western massasauga is a rattlesnake species. Texas recognizes ten rattlesnake species. In both states, the ecoregion determines what species of snake lives where.

Almost all pit vipers have a characteristic triangular-shaped head because they have large venom glands in their mouths with two heat-sensing pits beside the inside each eye on the outside of their nostrils. Most pit vipers have keeled (ridged) scales, vertically elliptical pupils, and patterns on their scales that camouflage them.

The pits beside the inside of the pit viper’s eyes are thermoreceptors, which detect minute temperature differences, which helps these snakes track and hunt warm-blooded prey. What a pit viper eats depends on its size. Pit vipers are typically nocturnal.


Copperheads and Rattlesnakes

Copperheads and rattlesnakes lay in wait for prey and sometimes hunt for birds, eggs, frogs, lizards, and small mammals like mice. They rely on their camouflage rather than an ability to slither around quickly. They are more likely to blend in with their surroundings if a predator approaches them then to slide away. But when they strike, meaning stick their fangs into a perceived predator or their prey, they strike lightning fast.

Copperheads and rattlesnakes are “ambush predators”. Pursuit predators chase to capture prey with speed, strength, and endurance. Ambush predators, also called sit-and-wait predators, trap their their prey with stealth, lure their prey, or patiently wait for their prey to stumble upon them in their camouflaged hideouts.

Copperhead Snake

Copperheads

Copperheads are more likely to bite than other snakes. Their venom is mild and rarely fatal to humans. Their name comes from their characteristic copper-colored heads. They are medium-sized and adults usually range from two to three feet in length. Copperheads are semi-social. They hunt by themselves, but they hibernate in groups with other snake species in dens and like to go back to the same den year after year.

Copperheads also join other snakes while sunbathing, drinking, and courting. They wander about during the daytime in spring and fall, but change to nocturnal habits during the summer. They love to run around on warm humid nights after a good rain. Whether hunting or sunbathing, copperheads typically stay on the ground, but will climb trees and low bushes.

Amazingly, copperheads even go swimming willingly at times. According to Animal Diversity Web (ADW), a database maintained by the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, scientists have hypothesized that copperheads migrate late in the spring to their summer feeding area, then return home to their dens in early fall.

Copperheads experience two mating seasons from February to May and late August to October. The males perform a body-shoving ritual in the presence of a receptive female. The losing male generally will never challenge again. The female may engage in a fight with an intended mate, but if he backs down, she rejects him.

Copperhead babies are born live from eggs that incubate inside the mother. The  mother will give birth from two to 18 babies in late spring or fall. Babies are eight to ten inches long and born with fangs and venom. The babies eat mostly insects. According to the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension Service, copperheads bite more people in most years than any other U.S. species of snake. (1, 2, 3)

Rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes

Rattlesnake bites are dangerous to humans, but rarely fatal. The highest concentration of rattlesnake populations live in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. Rattlesnakes are named from the segments of keratin that fit loosely inside each other that form their rattlers at the butt end of their body. Adults vary in length  from 1.6 to 6.6 feet, but can grow up to over eight feet.

Rattlesnakes create dens in rocky crevices. Rattlesnakes that live in cooler climates hibernate during the winter. Generations of rattlesnakes will try to use the same dens for 100 years. They are not exclusively nocturnal, but are more active at night during the hotter summer months. Rattlesnakes enjoy sunbathing on rocks and other open areas.

Rattlesnakes, depending on the species, mate in the spring and summer months. Males may engage in body-shoving combat when a receptive female is within close proximity. Females can save sperm for months inside before fertilizing the eggs. They carry the babies in eggs inside their bodies for three months, and the babies are born live. Rattlesnakes give birth every two years.

Rattlesnakes strike with their fangs extended. The keratin segments, or their rattlers, shake and are the warning sign that tells perceived predators to stay away. Every time a rattlesnake sheds its skin, it grows another rattle. Rattlesnakes hiss that sound a little like a cat hissing, but the sound of their rattlers rattling can drown out their hissing warnings.

Baby and juvenile rattlesnakes do not have rattlers, and adults can lose theirs. Their favorite cuisine is small rodents and lizards. They wait for their prey to stumble into their radar and strike quickly in five-tenths of a second. Their digestive process is slow, taking up to a few days, and rattlesnakes become lethargic during these periods and hide. (4)


Cottonmouth aka Water Moccasin

Cottonmouths aka Water Moccasins

Cottonmouths seldom bite humans, and only strike humans when provoked. They are semiaquatic and are at home in the water and on the land. When a cottonmouth perceives a predator, they open wide and display the solid white interior of their mouths, which gives them their name. Cottonmouths are considered large snakes with adults ranging in size from two to four feet.

A juvenile cottonmouth will ambush amphibian prey from open land near a water source’s edge, and adults forage in various habitats. The cottonmouth demonstrates a distinctive swimming behavior, with its body mostly on top of the water, its head fully erect out of the water, but almost parallel to the water’s surface.

Cottonmouths live in aquatic habitats like swamps, marshes, drainage ditches, ponds, lakes, and streams. Research indicates that they live for about ten years in the wild. They coil their bodies and open their mouths wide when threatened. Cottonmouths can also make themselves stink by spraying a foul odor from glands located at the base of their tails as a defense mechanism.

When humans are bitten by cottonmouths, which is quite rare, they usually feel instant pain and skin discoloration at the site of the strike and start swelling within five minutes. If humans are stricken with cottonmouth venom, it may lead to temporary and/or permanent tissue and muscle damage and possibly internal bleeding. Of the 7,000 to 8,000 people bitten each year by cottonmouths in the U.S., only five or six deaths occur.

During the cottonmouth mating ritual, males slither around and wave their tails to attract females away from other males. The males fight with each other over a receptive female. Mothers have a gestation period of five months, and the fertilized eggs incubate inside the mother. Ten to twenty babies are born live every two to three years.

A cottonmouth’s diet consists of fish, other snakes, baby alligators, small mammals, birds, lizards, amphibians, turtles, crayfish, and insects. Cottonmouths hibernate in colder climates in winter in burrows made by other animals or in habitats like rotting stumps. They slither on land or swim about year round during the day or night, but exhibit more nocturnal behavior in the hot summer months. They like to bask at the edge of a water source on logs, rocks, or branches. (5, 6)


Texas Coral Snake

Texas Coral Snakes

The only species of coral snake that is native to Texas is commonly known as the Texas coral snake. Its scientific name is Micrurus tener. Only this particular species of coral snake gave rise to the poem, Red Touch Yellow - Kills a Fellow; Red Touch Black - Venom Lack: Yellow Touches Red - You'll Soon Be Dead: Red Touches Black - Friend of Jack

The colors in this poem refer to the brightly colored rings on the Texas coral snake’s body. If the red rings touch yellow rings, this designates it as the poisonous Texas coral snake. This snake is shy, and sightings of one are rare. It is not typically aggressive and has a small mouth. The Texas coral snake’s bite is dangerous, but extremely uncommon.

The Texas coral snake’s venom will cause extreme pain, and sometimes death. It belongs to the cobra family, and has the second-strongest venom of any snake except for the black mamba of the same family, which has the deadliest venom. The Texas coral snake is considered less dangerous than a rattlesnake because it has a poor poison-delivery system.

The Texas coral snake is small, slender, and usually between 18 and 20 inches long. It is nocturnal and elusive; its fangs are weak and do not contract into its mouth. Coral snakes eat lizards and other small, smoothed-scaled snakes. The Texas coral snake is found in habitats that support moist vegetation or humid surroundings. They like to hang out in burrows, under rocks, and beneath rotting leaves.

In Texas, this snake lives in the Piney Woods of East Texas, the southern thorn-scrub portions, and in the oak-juniper woodland areas of the Edwards Plateau and the eastern stretches of the Trans-Pecos. They are most active in the spring and fall. They typically run and hide from predators.

Texas coral snake mothers lay seven to nine eggs in clutches in June and July. The babies hatch in two months and measure between six and ten inches long. They have one opening for their urinary, reproductive, and intestinal tract. They may make a popping sound by releasing air from this orifice when threatened. It is difficult to tell the Texas coral snake’s tail from its head. (7, 8)


How to Identify the Venomous Snakes of Oklahoma and Texas

These are direct excerpts from Dr. Maureen Frank, Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist at Texas A&M University’s Agrilife Extension, Oklahoma State University’s Cooperative Extension Wildlife Specialist, Dwayne Elmore, and Oklahoma State University’s Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Extension Forrester, Steven Anderson, respectively.

Copperheads

Dr. Maureen Frank, TX:

"The broad, alternating dark-and-light bands of copperheads (Agkistrodon contortix) look different from the patterns on other snakes, resembling an hourglass when viewed from above, with the thin section of the hourglass over the top of the back. There are three different subspecies of copperheads in Texas, so the exact coloration of these bands may vary. The body shape of copperheads is similar to rattlesnakes, but they lack rattles and have thicker bodies."

Dwayne Elmore, OK:

"The copperhead is a medium-sized snake, usually between 1-3 feet in length, with light and dark tan or chestnut-colored, hourglass-shaped bands that wrap all the way around the body. It is the only snake in Oklahoma with that color pattern. Juvenile copperhead snakes may have a yellow or green tip of the tail, but that goes away as the snake matures. A bite from one of these snakes will require a visit to the hospital, but is usually not fatal."

Rattlesnakes

Dr. Maureen Frank, TX:

"There are several species of rattlesnakes in Texas, with varying colors and patterns, but distinguishing rattlesnakes from other snakes is relatively easy, because they are the only snakes with rattles at the end of their tails. When threatened, a rattlesnake will vibrate the end of its tail to make a distinct warning sound. Rattlesnakes are adapted to a variety of habitats, including forests, rangeland, prairies, and developed land, and can be found throughout Texas."

Dwayne Elmore, OK:

"Contrary to the name, western diamondback rattlesnakes do not always have rattles. Although they can have a color variation, they will all have alternating dark and light bands on the tail and interlocking diamond shapes on their backs.

The timber rattlesnake also can have color variations. These snakes can be gray with black bands and an orange stripe down the back, or gold with black bands and a gold stripe down the back. Either combination will be completed with a black tail and extremely docile personality.

The prairie rattlesnake is identifiable by a black band close to the rattle and light stripes down the sides of its face. These two traits are constant while other color variations will exist.

The pygmy rattlesnake, which is very uncommon throughout most of the state, is small, but packs a punch. This gray snake has black spots with a red stripe running the length of its back. The pygmy’s rattle sounds like a mosquito buzzing.

The final rattlesnake species found in Oklahoma is the western massasauga. This snake has a row of dark brown blotches running the length of its back with three smaller rows of lighter colored blotches along each side.

Some of the snakes are hard to distinguish from others. But all venomous snakes in Oklahoma are pit vipers, with obvious heat-sensing pits between the eye and nostril, making their heads bulky and somewhat heart shaped from above.”

Cottonmouths

Dr. Maureen Frank, TX:

"Cottonmouths have wide bodies like copperheads, but are a dark brown color with dark patterning. On some individuals, the pattern may be difficult to see. Their appearance is similar to some species of nonvenomous water snakes, but note the difference in head shape. When threatened, a cottonmouth may open its mouth to show the white interior for which it is named. Cottonmouths are found in east Texas, along the Gulf Coast, and in the Hill Country."

Steven Anderson, OK:

"Cottonmouths are well known aquatic residents of the eastern one-third of the state and those counties along the southern boundary, west to Comanche county, and including southeastern counties of McCurtain, Choctaw, Pushmataha, LeFlore, Latimer, Pittsburg, Haskell, Bryan, and Atoka."

Texas Coral Snakes

Dr. Maureen Frank:

"These snakes have a very different appearance from pit vipers, with slender bodies, small heads, and alternating rings of bright red, yellow, and black. Texas coral snakes are typically less aggressive than pit vipers, but have extremely potent venom. They are usually found in forested habitats, including wooded suburbs. Texas coral snakes are similar in appearance to some nonvenomous snakes, but the order of the colored rings can be used to distinguish them. “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow” can help you remember that if red and yellow rings of color are together on a snake, it is a Texas coral snake. Another way to remember the warning coloration is to think of a stoplight, where yellow means caution and red means stop. If red and yellow touch, take caution and stop; don’t touch the snake! Texas coral snakes are found throughout most of the state except the panhandle and the western sections of the Trans-Pecos."

Protect Yourself, Family, and Friends from Snake Bites

From University of California Davis (12):

1. Wear boots and long pants when hiking to help block rattlesnake venom.

Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking in areas where you cannot clearly see where you are placing your feet. Wearing hiking boots and long pants offer an extra layer of protection from unexpected encounters with a rattlesnake.

2. Stay on trails when hiking, away from underbrush and tall weeds.

Snakes can rest almost anywhere that is hidden from view and enables them to hide from predators, avoid extreme temperatures, and hunt for prey. Because trails tend to have fewer hiding places for snakes, they offer a level of protection for you. Brush offers protection for snakes. Stay on trails to avoid potentially disturbing a rattlesnake in hiding.

3. Do not touch or disturb a snake, even if it appears dead.

Snakes use their hidden position to strike and kill their prey by surprise. Don’t mistake their apparent stillness as a safe opportunity to investigate. Even freshly killed snakes may still be able to bite.

4. Always look for concealed snakes before picking up rocks, sticks, or firewood.

Since rattlesnakes are often well camouflaged and wait quietly for prey, they can be difficult to see. Piles of rocks or logs, patches of dense shrubs, and expanses of tall grasses are just few of the places where snakes may seek shelter. Carefully inspect logs or rocks before picking them up or sitting down to avoid accidentally disturbing a rattlesnake.

5. Never hike alone in remote areas. Always have someone with you who can assist in an emergency.

Having a hiking partner is important to help in a crisis, especially in a situation where you or your hiking partner is bitten by a snake. If safe to do so, have your hiking partner photograph the snake so that identification can be made to aid in treatment.

6. Teach children to respect snakes and to leave them alone.

Curious children who pick up snakes are frequently bitten. Teach them always to give snakes the right of way to prevent snake bites.

Bitten by a venomous snake? Here’s what to do.

From Untamed Science (13):

Even with the necessary precautions, there’s always the possibility that you’ll still fall victim to a nasty bite. Fortunately, most venomous bites in North America are not life-threatening. Keep to the following pointers, and you’ll most likely be just fine:

Call emergency services as soon as possible. The biggest error you can make is waiting for symptoms to appear; do this, and it may be too late! Many deadly bites come as a result of individuals refusing to seek medical services.

Minimize your movement and loosen your clothing, removing any constricting jewelry.

Avoid taking painkillers or any stimulants.

Do not use snakebite kits, suction devices, or similar.

Keep the wound at heart level until further advised by a medical professional.

You should only put pressure on the wound if bitten by a coral snake.

Only take a photo of the snake if you are at a safe distance. (13)

*Different sources cite different specie numbers. I took these statistics from the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Sources

1.  https://www.livescience.com/54023-vipers.html

2. https://www.ncwildlife.org/Learning/Species/reptiles/cottonmouth

3. https://www.livescience.com/43641-copperhead-snake.html

4. https://www.livescience.com/43683-rattlesnake.html

5. https://www.livescience.com/43597-facts-about-water-moccasin-cottonmouth-snakes.html

6. https://srelherp.uga.edu/snakes/agkpis.htm

7. https://www.livescience.com/43938-coral-snakes-colors-bites-farts-facts.html

8. https://www.inaturalist.org/guide_taxa/776634

9. https://texnat.tamu.edu/files/2019/02/2019-Frank-Snake-ID-WFSC-023.pdf

10. http://www.dasnr.okstate.edu/Members/sean-hubbard-40okstate.edu/how-to-id-a-venomous-snake

11. http://agrilife.org/fisheries2/files/2013/10/Introduction-to-the-Snakes-of-Oklahoma.pdf

12. https://health.ucdavis.edu/welcome/features/2018-2019/07/20180710_rattlesnakes.html

13. https://untamedscience.com/blog/avoid-venomous-snakes/




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