What you should know about snakes in the Smoky Mountains
There is something primal about our fear of snakes. I suppose it’s the lack of legs or the possibility of a painful bite that reaches the core of our DNA. Once when I was young, my friends and I approached some overgrown grass. We were met by a hooded snake that rose up out of the grass and, in my memory at least, was nearly as tall as I was. I screamed, “Cobra!” and raced back home. But, over the years I’ve come to believe I actually met an eastern hognose, which is known to mimic a cobra.
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I mention the story because the eastern hognose is one of 23 species of snakes that live in the Great Smoky Mountains, and there’s a chance you might run across one while hiking. However, I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains over the years and haven’t seen many snakes. I suspect that part of that is simply because they’re so good at hiding. It’s likely that a few snakes have seen me.
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What types of snakes are in the Smoky Mountains?
According to the NPS, the following snakes are in the Smoky Mountains, and they are pictured above:
- Black kingsnake
- Black rat snake
- Corn snake
- Eastern earth snake
- Eastern garter snake
- Eastern hognose
- Eastern kingsnake
- Eastern milk snake
- Eastern worm snake
- Midland brown snake
- Mole kingsnake
- Northern black racer
- Northern brown snake
- Northern copperhead (venomous)
- Northern pine snake
- Northern redbelly snake
- Northern ring-neck snake
- Northern scarlet snake
- Northern water snake
- Rough green snake
- Scarlet kingsnake
- Southeastern crowned snake
- Timber rattlesnake (venomous)
- Queen snake
Are snakes in the Smoky Mountains venomous?
If you do see a snake in the Great Smoky Mountains, the odds are it will not be venomous. According to the National Park Service (NPS), there are only two types of venomous snakes in the mountains: the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead. While you should certainly be cautious – especially around fallen, rotting tree branches and logs – the likelihood of you encountering and being bitten by a venomous snake in the mountains is small. According to the NPS, there are no records of a human fatality due to snakebite in the park’s 100-year history.
How do I know if it is a rattlesnake?
Of the two venomous snakes in the mountains, rattlers are by far the more dangerous snake. The good news? They are fairly easily recognizable. They have a large, triangular head and vertical pupils. But if you’re close enough to see the pupils, you’ve done messed up. Their true tell, of course, is the rattle used to warn approaching potential predators to back off. Even baby rattlers will have a single button, which should be enough to identify the snake. You could run across the snake anywhere in the mountains, but their preferred habitat is mature, heavily wooded forests. They are often seen near fallen logs or sunning on rocks.
How do I know if it is a copperhead?
According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA), the northern copperhead is “a medium-sized, heavy-bodied snake (24-36 inches in length) with a large, triangular-shaped coppery-red head and vertical pupils. … [their] distinctive dark brown ‘hourglass’ crossbands are wide on the sides and narrow at the center of the back. The body color is variable but is usually light brown or gray.”
The copperhead will also rattle its tail when it feels threatened. The good news is, while a copperhead bite isn’t pleasant, a copperhead’s venom is significantly less dangerous than a rattler. They can be found anywhere in East Tennessee, but they prefer rocky, wooded hillsides with plenty of natural litter where they can hide while they hunt for prey.
What do I do if I’ve been bitten by a snake?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends taking note of the color and shape of the snake. Also, it is important to stay calm and avoid doing anything that would increase your heart rate and blood flow. (Probably easier said than done). Seek medical attention as soon as possible and apply first aid. Lay or sit down while keeping the bite below the level of the heart. If possible, call 911 or a ranger, or ask someone to get help if you have a long trek back. Basically, avoid doing anything you’ve ever seen in a movie. Have you seen a snake in the Smoky Mountains? Let me know in the comments below.