One thing is for certain: if you hike in Florida, or spend much of any time outdoors in Florida, you will see snakes. This is a good thing. Snakes eat rodents, which carry diseases.
The important question, however, is will they harm you? Odds are lower than you think, especially if you don’t pick up snakes. Which you shouldn’t.
Florida has six venomous species of snakes. Venomous means these types of snakes can strike and release toxins into your bloodstream. They can also “dry strike,” injecting no venom.
Other snakes, if you corner them, can also strike. But they only leave a nasty puncture wound.
A general rule of thumb to avoid getting hurt by a snake is not to get close to one. That goes doubly so now that we have a long list of non-native snake species thriving in the Everglades and Big Cypress.
In order of how likely you are to see them, these are the Florida snake species that can seriously harm you if you receive a venomous bite from them.
We’ve come across them while hiking through pine flatwoods, deeply shaded hardwood forests, and sandhills.
We’ve seen them lounging in the sun on paved trails, atop rotting logs, and tucked in behind rocks along the bluffs of the Suwannee.
While their coloration varies with size and age, they blend right into the leaf litter on the forest floor.
We’ve watched them stand their ground when we’ve gotten close. Their warning rattle is somewhat faint.
Pygmy rattlesnakes are the source of most venomous snake bites in Florida. Since they can be quite small, children often pick them up.
John still tells the story of how he bicycled home as a kid with a snake in a paper bag dangling from the handlebars, and dumped it out on the kitchen table when he got home.
“That’s a pygmy rattler!” his dad said, and threw it out the door.
That’s not to say you won’t come across them in other places, particularly at the bases of trees or up in the trees themselves near flowing water.
Cottonmouths are excellent swimmers. You can encounter them while swimming in a lake or spring, especially if you are near a natural grassy shoreline with leaf litter and cypress knees.
Their name comes from the white inside their throat that they exhibit when excited. They will coil up and open their mouth to show off their fangs.
There are several harmless Florida water snakes that look a bit like cottonmouths in both head shape and coloration. That is a defense mechanism for them.
The cottonmouth has a sharply angled head, as most pit vipers do, with a “pit” between its eyes and nostrils. It also has white stripes behind its eyes. Like cat eyes, its eyes have slits.
A diamondback rattlesnake can grow to a fearsome length. Five to six feet is not uncommon. The state record holder was eight feet long.
There are history museums in Florida that show off long diamondback skins and photos of men with dead diamondbacks as long as the men are tall.
These snakes also coil up before striking. Because of their size, their rattle is quite distinctive.
We’ve encountered them in pine flatwoods, sandhills, scrub, and other habitats where open sand is common. They are found in coastal habitats on barrier islands, including the islands of the Florida Keys.
I was surprised to encounter this one in the Big Cypress Swamp while backpacking. I hadn’t thought of this vast swamp as being rattlesnake territory. I was more worried about the pythons there.
We’ve been told by field biologists that you should avoid stepping off trail and into a palmetto thicket.
The bases of the saw palmettos are the diamondback rattlesnake’s favorite places to curl up and rest, especially during the winter, when they are seeking a place to stay warm.
Eastern coral snake
It doesn’t curl up and strike. Instead, to inject its venom, which is a neurotoxin, it must chew.
Chewing doesn’t happen easily since pretty much the only place on you that a creature can grab and chew on is between your toes or fingers. So don’t pick up a coral snake. Ever.
While most coral snakes are almost pencil-thin, we’ve encountered one that was as thick around as a small cottonmouth.
You’ve probably heard the rhyme “Red touches yellow, dead fellow. Red touches black, friend of Jack.”
What that refers to are the color bands on the coral snake. They are very similar to those seen on a scarlet king snake. But if the red and yellow bands touch, it’s definitely a coral snake.
We’ve encountered coral snakes both in upland areas – sandhills and scrub – and in wet pine flatwoods and prairies. It’s unlikely you’ll find them in a swamp.
We think we may have encountered one while hiking the Florida Trail along the Suwannee River, and another along the St. Johns River on the Wild Persimmon Trail at De Leon Springs State Park.
Timber rattlesnakes are only found in Northeast Florida, from the Suwannee River down into Volusia County. They prefer floodplain forests and other moist places.
They are smaller in size than the diamondback rattlesnake, with adults ranging three to five feet.
What distinguishes the timber rattlesnake from the diamondback is a reddish-brown stripe down its spine that disrupts a pattern of black chevrons that point towards the snake’s tail.
Like other vipers, they have a flattened, pointed head and eyes with narrow slits like a cat eye.
Full-grown, they can be two to three feet long. The juvenile snakes have a yellow tip to their tail.
We have only once heard of hikers encountering them. Their known range is from the Apalachicola River west to Pensacola.
If you encounter a venomous snake
Most snake bites occur because someone attempted to handle a snake or got within the snake’s “strike zone.” If you encounter a snake, treat it with respect. Make a wide circle around it to avoid it.
NEVER PICK UP A SNAKE. If you are struck by a snake, call 911 immediately rather than attempt to treat it yourself.
Here’s an excellent guide to identifying the above snakes – as well as many other harmless ones – from the Florida Museum of Natural History. It includes illustrations and more photos than we have above.
Venomous Snakes of Florida