There is something primal about our fear of snakes.
I suppose it’s the lack of legs, the cold, reptilian eyes and the possibility of a painful death that reaches past our individual experiences to a deeper place in the DNA of our species.
It doesn’t take much of a reading of our ancient myths to understand that the serpent has held, and often terrified, our collective memories since we began recording our history on rock walls and inside pyramids.
My first snake encounter
I can remember my first encounter with a snake. I was five or six, old enough to have watched “Riki Tiki Tavi” in class at school.
There was a neglected vacant lot at the end of our block and the grass had grown wild and high. As we approached the grass to enter, 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.
Since the pet I was walking was a prissy whippet and not a mongoose, I screamed, “Cobra!” and raced back home where my parents dismissed my out-of-breath report as fanciful ramblings.
It is admittedly unlikely that a deadly viper from India had made its way to Northern Indiana, but since it was the early 80s, I haven’t ruled it out. It was a wild time, man.
Thanks to Google, however, over the years I’ve come to believe I actually met an eastern hognose, which is known to dramatically hiss and puff out its head and neck to mimic a cobra’s hood.
Are there snakes in the Great Smoky Mountains?
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 and, well, I thought I might save you just a bit of my embarrassment.
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 is likely I’ve walked right by a variety of snakes and never known they were there.
Are snakes in the Smoky Mountains poisonous?
Even 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 extremely small.
In fact, according to the NPS, there are no records of a human fatality due to snakebite in the park’s 100 year history.
Still, here are a few things you need to know about snakes in the woods.
Is it venomous?
As we’ve established, probably not.
But, if you’ve been bitten by a snake, you’re likely not interested in running the probabilities. You’d like a good hard answer.
Is it a rattler?
Of the two venomous snakes in the mountains, rattlers are by far the more dangerous. 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.
Where do rattlers live?
It’s important to note that you could run across the snake anywhere in the mountains, but their preferred habitat is mature, heavily-wooded forests with south-facing hillsides.
They love bluffs or ledges. They are often seen near fallen logs or sunning on rocks.
Is it 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.”
“Distinctive dark brown ‘hourglass’ crossbands are wide on sides and narrow at the center of the back. The body color is variable, but is usually light brown or gray. Belly is usually gray to pink with darker blotches. Facial pits occur on each side of the head between the eye and nostril and a little below.”
Fun fact, 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.
Fatalities from copperhead bites are extremely rare. They can be found anywhere in East Tennessee, but they prefer rocky, wooded hillsides with plenty of natural litter in which they can hide while they hunt for mice, small birds and insects.
What do I do if I’ve been bitten by a snake?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends taking a note of the color and shape of the snake. 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 a partner to get help you if you have a long trek back.
What shouldn’t I do if I’ve been bitten by a snake?
Basically anything you’ve even seen in a movie.
Don’t try to catch or kill the snake, as that could lead to more bites. Do not apply a tourniquet. Do not slash the wound with a knife.
And for the love of all that is holy, don’t try to suck out the venom. That doesn’t work and it’s just gross.
Do not apply ice or immerse the wound in water. Don’t try to numb the pain by drinking alcohol, and don’t drink anything with caffeine.
I’ve seen a snake. Should I try to kill it with fire?
While killing things with fire is a funny internet meme, it’s not very practical in real life.
Also, you shouldn’t act as a serpent judge, jury and executioner. Most snakes are harmless and good for the communities in which they live.
They feed on mice, rodents and other disease carrying vermin that are usually significantly worse than snakes. Most importantly, in the national park, killing animals without proper license and approval is very much illegal and will get your butt thrown in the pokey.
What other types of snakes are in the Smoky Mountains?
According to the NPS, the following snakes are in the Smoky Mountains:
- 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
Have you seen a snake in the Smoky Mountains? Let us know in the comments.