Water moccasins and the ARPP

By Mary Hudson

Early one afternoon during the May/June season, Bruce Allbritton and John Davidson were excavating down in the bottom of the railtrack, about 18-20 feet down, at the Sloth Hole Site. The weather was fair, and underwater visibility was about one meter, pretty good for Sloth Hole. Bruce was using the trowel and the dredge hose on the pit wall, while John held the light. After noticing that Bruce was waving the trowel, John moved in for a closer look, just in time to see a snake wrapped around Bruce's forearm! No sooner did this scary sight register, when the snake disappeared instantly up the dredge hose! Both divers, wide-eyed and shaken, made a rapid, yet controlled ascent to the surface, to see what had happened. Their first image upon surfacing was an empty, rocking screendeck ... and a lot of commotion! Apparently, the screendeck crew wasted no time in abandoning ship, and jumped onto the screendeck anchored alongside.

The snake had jettisoned from the dredge hose onto the screen, then bounced into the water, where it swam under the screendeck, across the water in front of the still shaken divers, and onto the bank, very close to the anchored pontoon boats, where it stayed. This snake was no weenie; even though it was probably as scared as everyone else, it still stayed its ground.

The snake, incidentally, was a cottonmouth water moccasin. Its scientific name is Agkistrodon piscivorous conanti. Known to be an aggressive snake, it is found throughout Florida, with a range extending north to Virginia and west to Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. Its habitat encompasses wetlands and waterways, such as streams, springs, rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes, swamps, sloughs, reservoirs, retention pools, canals, and even roadside ditches. Occasionally it can be found rather far from the water, and has been found in trees and bushes. Cottonmouths feed primarily on fish, frogs, mice, rats, and other small mammals.

Often, cottonmouths are confused with water snakes, non-poisonous snakes who share the same habitats. These harmless water snakes are often killed out of fear and ignorance. Actually, cottonmouths are also often killed for the same reasons. Except for self defense or positive identification in the case of snakebite, it is best to leave all snakes alone. Snakes help keep the environment in balance. For instance, a shortage of snakes means an increase in the mice and rat population, which brings on epidemics of disease often fatal for humans. Also, picking up or attempting to kill a snake can be one sure way of being bitten.

The cottonmouth moccasin, when threatened, coils and opens its mouth wide, displaying its fangs and exposing the white interior of its mouth and throat, thus the name cottonmouth. The adults are dark colored, almost black, and are heavy-bodied. They range in size from 20-48 inches, with a record of 74.5 inches (over 6 feet.) Juveniles are brightly colored with reddish brown crossbands which contain many dark spots and speckles, and have a sulfur colored tail, which is held erect and wiggled like a caterpillar to attract prey within striking range. The pattern darkens with age, so adults retain only a hint of the banding or are uniformly black. Both adults and juveniles have a broad, dark facial stripe which camouflages the eye. The juvenile cottonmouth is often confused with copperheads because of their similar appearance. However, copperheads do not have the distinctive dark band over the eye, and the crossbands of the copperhead contain no spots and speckles. Further, the range of the copperhead in Florida is primarily in the panhandle, mostly along the Apalachicola River and its tributaries and in the western tip of the panhandle.

Cottonmouths are members of the pit viper family, which also includes Copperheads and Rattlesnakes. Pit vipers have several characteristics which distinguish them from non-poisonous snakes:

In the past, snakes were rarely encountered by members of the ARPP. The 1996 May/June season, however, contained several incidents of water moccasin contact with ARPP members during routine endeavors. The notion that the noise of the motorized equipment and the presence of so many people would keep snakes away has been abandoned in a reality check, especially concerning the brazen and bold water moccasin described above. The very real possibility arises that someone may be bitten. In light of this realization, it is prudent to consider the implications of such a scenario. Education about pit vipers, what happens to a person who has been bitten, and emergency medical procedures in the field must be addressed for everyone's safety. The following information is contained in Protocol For Emergency Room Procedures And Hospital Management of Snakebites, written by Maynard "Snakeman" Cox, herpetologist and world-recognized poisonous bite expert.

Statistically, about 48,000 people a year bitten in the United States. Of these, about 8,000 are from poisonous snakes and an average of 10 people a year die because they are cared for improperly. Worldwide, about 40% of the time people are bitten by poisonous snakes no venom passes and 85% of the time only enough venom passes to make the victim sick. 15% require critical care in the acute phase of the poisoning Proper medical management is still not well understood by many people.

In the Florida series, about 10 people per year were bitten by a cottonmouth while reaching over the side of a boat to pull up a string of fish. Cottonmouths inflict most of their bite under the water, on top of the water, or near the water.

The height of snake season is between April and October, peaking between July and August. Snakes are generally less active at temperatures less than 50-60 degrees, or greater than 80 degrees. 70-77% of all bites occur between 9:00 AM and 9:00 PM, peaking between 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM. Anatomically 60% of all bites occur to the lower extremity 38% to the upper extremity, and 2% to unidentified sites.

The cardinal signs and symptoms of pit viper envenomation include: burning pain (the commonest, earliest sign), puncture wound (50% of the time accompanied by a bloody ooze), swelling, skin discoloration, nausea and vomiting, minty, metallic, rubbery taste in the mouth, sweating, chills, numbness and tingling of the mouth, face, scalp, and wound site, ecchymosis and production of blebs and blisters, erythema and edema progressing from the wound site, weakness, vertigo, haematemesis epistaxis, muscle fasiculations, paralysis, shock, convulsions, loss of sphincter control, melena haematuria, and renal shutdown. Envenomation may include some or all of these symptoms, depending on the severity of envenomation.

Death can occur up to several days following the bite, or in as little as two hours. In pit viper envenomation the average death occurs in two days. If the bite is inflicted in an artery, vein, lymphatics, or a nerve, death will occur in 30 seconds to 10 minutes. If the victim does not die within the first 10 to 30 minutes, you have excess of 12 hours to get to proper medical help; in most cases, severe complications or death will not occur if proper medical protocol is followed.

Maynard recommends the following:

A.  Do not apply a tourniquet !
B.  Do not cut and suck !
C.  Do not apply ice !

1. Treat for shock.
2. Wash the wound with soap and water.
3. Call 911 or transport to the nearest medical facility.
4. Call Maynard at (904) 272-6398

Snakebites from poisonous snakes are extremely dangerous. Following proper emergency medical procedure in the field and prompt transport to proper medical care in a medical facility is essential. Avoiding being bitten in the first place by leaving snakes alone is good common sense. In the event that contact with a poisonous snake is unavoidable, as in Bruce's case, non-aggressive action is best. Bruce did not strike or aggravate the cottonmouth that was wrapped around his forearm, and luckily, the snake went up the dredge. Luckier still, the snake bounced off the screen into the water and no one topside was hurt. Additionally, although both Bruce and John were frightened by the snake, they did not bolt up to the surface. Being good divers, they kept their wits about them and tried to ascend in a controlled manner. Adding the complication of being bent to a possible snakebite would not bode well.

Hopefully, there will be no incidents of snakebites at the ARPP. Respect for our fellow snakes and using caution when around them will aid in avoiding such misfortune.

In the event a snakebite does occur, we know what to do, and more importantly, what not to do! Let's Dive!