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.
Not all pygmy rattlesnakes even rattle when you approach, unless you disturb them enough for them to consider striking.
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. Always be cautious of the edges of waterways when it comes to snakes.
The “cottonmouth” 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.
Even in our youth, bounties were paid for these rattlesnakes because they were so easy to find, and so large.
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.
We were surprised to encounter one in the Big Cypress Swamp while backpacking.
We hadn’t thought of this vast swamp as being rattlesnake territory. Enormous Burmese pythons are more of a concern 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 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 stripe 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.
Quick Look at all Florida Venomous Snakes
If you Encounter a Venomous Snake
The first rule of thumb when you encounter any snake is don’t approach it. Treat it with respect.
It is not always easy to make a quick judgment on whether a snake is venomous or not. A rattlesnake is the only one that will let you know.
Move out of its strike zone quickly. Make a wide circle around it to avoid it.
Most snake bites occur because someone attempted to handle a snake or got within the strike zone.
Most importantly, NEVER PICK UP A SNAKE.
If you are struck by a snake, call 911 immediately rather than attempt to treat it yourself.
Comparing Venomous to Non-Venomous Snakes
If you took a photo of the snake, it’s easier to do a comparison later on of what you saw. Venomous or not?
Pit vipers – venomous species – have a very distinct V shape and pits set between their eye and nose. Other snakes do not. Look closely at the head in your photo.
Here are some of the more commonly confused snakes. Coral snakes and king snakes have different color banding, but a similar shape, size, and pattern.
Coral snakes always have red bands next to yellow bands. King snakes do not. Coral snakes have black noses, and king snakes have red noses.
From a distance, it is very easy to mistake a common water snake for a venomous water moccasin.
Up close, the slit eye (versus round) and pit behind the nose is obvious.
The same goes for rattlesnakes: a slit eye and pit behind the nose.
Thanks to artist Kate Dolamore for the use of her sketches.
There is also an excellent guide to the above snakes – as well as many other harmless ones – from the Florida Museum of Natural History.
It includes many more illustrations and photos to assist in identification.
Venomous Snakes of Florida