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TX Press: For goodness' Snakes

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Posted by W von Papinešu on September 05, 2002 at 19:44:25:

AVALANCHE-JOURNAL (Lubbock, Texas) 05 September 02 For goodness' Snakes (Charles L. Ehrenfeld)
On a Sunday afternoon in June, Mary Ann Potts went out in the yard at her home to clean the kiddie pool for her 3-year-old son.
"I lifted it up to drain the water out, but I didn't check underneath it before I did it," Potts recalled.
What she did not notice was the rattlesnake that had been resting comfortably in the cool shade and shelter the plastic pool had provided the venomous reptile. Having been disturbed, the snake struck her on the upper portion of her right ankle.
"Within a couple of seconds, you feel the pain," Potts said. "I put my foot in our built-in pool to try to alleviate the pain with the cold water, but that didn't work. The pain is immediate, and it starts to swell immediately. You can't walk."
Her mother-in-law was outside at the time and ran into the house to get Mary Ann's husband, who smashed the snake's head with a 2-by-4 board. He then began driving his wife from their home 20 miles east of Floydada to seek medical treatment and was met by a Floydada Emergency Medical Services ambulance.
Potts was driven by ambulance to the airport in Floydada, where an emergency medical transport crew from AeroCare was waiting with a helicopter to airlift her to Covenant Medical Center.
"They started administering the antivenin at the hospital," Potts said. "I wasn't allergic to it, and it helped because they never had to cut me open. But my whole leg swelled up to my thigh. My whole leg had doubled in size."
The mother of three spent four days at Covenant Medical Center and had to be on crutches for a month.
"The ankle is still swollen," Potts said. "I still can't wear regular shoes. I'm in sandals. That's the only residual effect from it. I also was on pain medication for three weeks.
"You can't even tell where I got bitten. But if you look at it in a certain light, you can still see the fang marks. I was the lucky one. If it had been my 3-year-old, he could have been incredibly ill."
About 45,000 people are bitten by snakes every year in the United States. Of those, 7,000 involve poisonous snakes, and about 15 result in death. Of the poisonous bites in the United States, 55 percent are from rattlesnakes, 34 percent are from copperheads, 10 percent are from water moccasins and 1 percent are from coral snakes. Rattlesnakes account for 70 percent of the fatalities.
"In most cases, they (snakebites) are not that serious," said Dr. Charles Barton, medical director of emergency rooms for Covenant Health System. "They are cause for concern, but most are not life threatening. All cases do require medical attention."
Barton added that rattlesnakes do not always inject venom when they strike, and the amount of venom injected can vary.
When a lot is injected, "venom affects a variety of systems, but primarily cardiovascular, and also can cause tissue inflammation," Barton said. "Speed is a factor, both in terms of dealing with any envenomation and bites tend to become infected. They're a dirty wound that requires antibiotics and tetanus immunization.
"Antivenin, an antidote specific for the toxin produced by pit vipers such as rattlesnakes, is the mainstay of medical treatment. A bad snakebite may require surgery to compress the wound."
Vipers are the only snakes that have retractable front fangs, according to Lou Densmore, associate professor of biology at Texas Tech.
"Pit vipers are probably the most specialized snakes," Densmore said. "They hit you, inject and immediately pull out. The strike motion of a rattlesnake is among the fastest movements that any vertebrate can make.
"When a snake bites, it throws its fangs forward. They truly are like hypodermic needles. There's a modified salivary gland on the side of the head that is like a syringe. The fang is hollow, except for an opening at the end. There's a tube that runs from the salivary gland to the venom. They contract the salivary gland, and out comes the venom."
Pit vipers have a telltale pit located in front of the eye and below the nostril, Densmore said. The pit, a heat-sensing organ, allows them to locate and trail mammals.
"Using the pit, they can sense a warm-blooded organism before the warm-blooded organism sees them," Densmore said. "They can also use the tongue to taste where something has been and trail it."
Rattlesnakes primarily feed on rodents, but larger rattlers occasionally take a rabbit or a prairie dog, he added. Hawks, coyotes, road runners and eagles are predators of the snakes.
"Snakes don't find prey very often," Densmore said. "They have developed ways to take larger prey so they don't have to eat for a long time. They disengage the jaw at the back of the head, which allows them to swallow something that is much, much larger. They're a perfect killing machine for small mammals.
"Humans are not food. The vast majority of encounters between humans and rattlesnakes are interactions where the rattlesnake feels threatened. What the rattlesnake is doing is trying to defend itself. The rattlesnake is responding to you as if you were a predator."
Densmore said most rattlesnakes found in the South Plains region are 2.5 to 3.5 feet long, though the snakes rarely can grow to as long as 7 feet in extreme South Texas.
Rattlesnakes usually do not get out in the direct sunlight during midday. They move from a place of concealment, including a large bush that provides shade, a hole in the ground or wood pile, in the late afternoon to early evening, or early in the morning. They are primarily nocturnal hunters, Densmore said, often lying in wait for an ambush.
Densmore said rattlesnakes generally are seen in this area from late March to the end of October. Most rattlesnakes on the South Plains are Western diamondbacks, the more common and dangerous, though some prairie rattlesnakes can be found in sandy areas around Post, off the Caprock.
Whether a rattlesnake bite can kill a human can depend on the location of the bite and size of the snake, according to Densmore.
"The larger the snake, the more venom it is likely to inject," Densmore said. "If you take a fang directly into a vein, then you're in real trouble. The severity of the bite increases greatly. Also the distance from the heart is critical. The worst bites are to the torso or the neck."
People who are bitten should seek medical attention right away, Barton said.
"All wounds should be evaluated," he added. "I think some of the efforts to remove venom by cutting the wound open or sucking out the venom by mouth don't help that much. People should focus on getting to the emergency room."
Densmore said a western diamondback has eyes like a cat's eyes, with pupils that are elliptical, and its scales have a ridge down the middle (called keeled). It also has two white bars on the side of its face and alternating light and dark rings on its tale.
The snake is typically tan to reddish tan, with a diamond-shape pattern on top of its back. Densmore said a small rattlesnake is often confused with the hog-nose snake or, more frequently, the bull snake, which has somewhat similar tail markings but is lighter in color. Bull snakes imitate the sound of a rattler by forcing air through the mouth, making a rattling sound and shaking its tail at the same time.
"Around here, if it's three-feet long or over and making a rattle-like sound, if it's not a bull snake it will be a rattler," Densmore said. "The best defense is to regularly look down at the trail where you walk since a rattlesnake will not always rattle before it strikes.
"Also, always use a flashlight at night when walking in places where rattlesnakes have been seen."

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