AUBURN, Ala. — Alabama is home to almost 50 species of snake, but only six of those are venomous snakes. Although deaths from snakebites are relatively uncommon in Alabama, it is important to know how to identify and avoid poisonous snakes. The six venomous snakes of Alabama include the Eastern coral snake, copperhead, cottonmouth, Eastern diamondback, timber rattlesnake and pigmy rattlesnake.
Majority of Alabama Venomous Snakes are Pit Vipers
The five remaining venomous snakes in Alabama are part of a snake classification called pit vipers. Armstrong said venomous pit vipers have a broad,triangular head, the heavy body relative to its length, the vertical pupils, and the single row of scales on the belly below the anal scales. Another characteristic of pit vipers is their hemotoxic venom that causes a breakdown of muscle tissue.
Copperheads are found throughout the state. These medium-sized snakes are characterized by their copper-red heads and distinctive hourglass-shaped markings. Their size averages between 2 and 3 feet. These snakes vary in color patterns, but the typical color is dark brown bands on a lighter brown background. Copperheads are more defensive if encountered at night than during the day, and will usually vibrate its tail rapidly and give off a strong, musky scent when disturbed.
While their coloration is typically a combination of tan and dark brown transverse bands, it is important to keep in mind that appearances may vary.
“Markings and coloration can vary greatly in snakes,” Armstrong said. “It is always risky to identify a snake based on a description alone.”
Cottonmouth snakes, also known as water moccasins, are a member of the same genus as the copperhead. Cottonmouths get their name for the white inside of their mouth that shows when the snake is feeling territorial or ready to strike. They typically live around water including rivers, lakes, streams, and swampland. Young cottonmouth snakes can be identified by the lighter background with dark-brown bands, and the adults generally appear darker brown to black. These large, heavy-bodied snakes can reach 30-48 inches in length. Because cottonmouths are common in all areas of the state, many nonvenomous water snakes are often confused with cottonmouths.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
Eastern diamondbacks are the largest venomous snake in Alabama. These snakes can reach a length of more than seven feet. These snakes are named for the dark brown diamond-shaped pattern that extends down their back. Eastern diamondbacks are primarily in the lower coastal plains of Alabama. These heavy-bodied snakes generally live in drier areas such as pine flatwoods, coastal scrub habitats, and sandy woodlands.
Timber rattlesnakes make their home in all areas of Alabama. They may reach a length of approximately six feet. Their coloring is a combination of yellow and dark brown markings, although Armstrong has encountered some that had gray with black markings. Their coloration makes it hard to detect them in forested areas.
As their name suggests, pigmy rattlesnakes seldom reach a length greater than two feet. These snakes are light brown or gray in color with dark brown or black blotches running along their back.
Eastern Coral Snake
Eastern coral snakes differ from other venomous snakes in Alabama in that they are not pit vipers. They have a black snout and have red, yellow and black bands—with touching red and yellow bands. Although not considered an aggressive species, the coral snake has the most toxic venom of any poisonous snake native to the United States. These snakes are only rarely seen and generally live underground in loose soils. Found primarily in south Alabama, there have been sightings as far north as Coosa County. Remember red touch yellow, kill a fellow.
Many people have heard the saying, “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. Red touches black, a friend of Jack.”
While Armstrong says there is truth to this saying, there are some modifications to help the public better identify snakes. Armstrong has created his own version of the old familiar poem: “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow; red touches black, a friend of Jack; black on snout, better look out!”
There are two nonvenomous snake species that have similar color patterns, but in these species the yellow bands touch black and not red.
Although snakes are interesting creatures, it is best to observe them from afar – whether they are dangerous or not.
“My advice is, if you are not sure what type of snake it is, leave it alone,” Armstrong said.
Dealing with Snake Bites
“Any venomous snake bite should be taken seriously,” Armstrong said. “The person who is bitten should seek immediate medical attention. Different individuals respond differently to the bites so it is better to err on the side of caution.”