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Home Features A guide to snakes of the Cumberland Plateau

A guide to snakes of the Cumberland Plateau

There are only two species of venomous snakes found on the northern Cumberland Plateau: The copperhead and the timber rattlesnake.

Snakes. There is perhaps no wild animal that strikes more fear in the hearts of humans than these misunderstood, legless creatures that slither along the forest floor.

Maybe the fear and distrust stems from the snake’s role in the Bible — it was the serpent that tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, resulting in the fall of man, and Genesis Chapter 3 begins, “Now the serpent was more subtle (cunning) than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made.”

Or, maybe it is because, as comedian Bill Engvall described the snake, “It can move, but it ain’t got any legs. That ain’t right.”

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Mostly, though, we’re afraid of snakes because it’s human nature to fear what we don’t understand. Hopefully, after reading through this guide to snakes of the Cumberland Plateau, you’ll have a bit more of an understanding about the snakes that share our forests and back yards, and the purposes they serve.

Snakes you won’t find here

First things first: There are several snakes that you won’t find in Scott County or on the Cumberland Plateau, though some people will swear otherwise. For one, you will not find cottonmouths (water moccasins) in this part of Tennessee.

Cottonmouths are venomous snakes that are especially feared in swamps and lowland areas. In Tennessee, their habitat is relegated to the western third of the state. Some people will argue that they’ve seen them in East Tennessee, but the TN Wildlife Resources Agency says they are not found this far east, although they’re relatively common in much of West Tennessee, including the Reelfoot Lake region.

One of the reasons for the confusion: Some water snakes found on the Cumberland Plateau, which are completely harmless, bear a strong resemblance to cottonmouths.

Another snake you won’t find on the Cumberland Plateau — or anywhere else in Tennessee — is the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. There are only two species of rattlesnakes found in the Volunteer State, and only one in East Tennessee: the timber rattler. The much larger eastern diamondback is found primarily in areas nearer to the coast — such as the eastern Carolinas, southern Georgia, southern Alabama, southern Mississippi, and parts of Florida.

Venomous snakes

There are only two types of venomous snakes found in East Tennessee and on the northern Cumberland Plateau: the timber rattler and the copperhead. Both can cause serious injury or death, but neither are aggressive and only bite when threatened.

Copperhead: The copperhead is the most common of the two venomous snake species found in Scott County. It is a pit viper that occurs across the entire state of Tennessee. The species that is found on the Cumberland Plateau is the Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). The copperhead is a heavy-bodied snake that — like other venomous pit vipers — is distinguishable by its large, triangular-shaped head, vertical pupils and the facial pits between its eye and nostril. They’re also distinguishable by the coppery-red color of their head and the dark brown “hourglass” crossbones on their back. Although the pattern is not completely dissimilar to several species of nonvenomous snakes, copperheads are the only snake with the distinctive hourglass figure.

Copperheads prefer forested areas and aren’t often found in open fields or pastures. They’re more often found on rocky, wooded hillsides with an abundance of logs, rocks and other cover. They’re occasionally found near stream edges. They feed primarily on mice but also feast on insects — especially cicadas — as well as amphibians, small birds and even other snakes.

Juvenile copperheads look much like their adult counterparts, except their tails have a bright yellow tip, which they wiggle to lure prey to within striking distance.

Timber Rattler: The Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is the largest and most dangerous of the four venomous snakes found in Tennessee (two of the four, pygmy rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, are not found in East Tennessee). The timber rattler is a large, heavy-bodied snake that is usually at least three feet in length and can grow up to five feet in length with a large, triangular-shaped head, vertical pupils, facial pits, and the characteristic rattle at the end of the tail, which the snake will shake vigorously to warn off predators — including humans.

Timber rattlers prefer forested areas, especially mature, heavily-wooded forests with rocky, south-facing hillsides. Locally, they’re most often found in the mountains of eastern Scott County, though they can also be found in the Big South Fork and other parts of Scott County — often around bluffs or rock ledges. They primarily feed on small rodents like mice, rats, chipmunks and squirrels.

A cool fact to know about rattlesnakes: a newborn — female timber rattlers give birth to a litter of five to 14 young in the late summer or early fall of every other year — has a single segment to their rattle, called a “button.” Every time the snake sheds its skin, it adds a new segment to its rattle (although the rattles sometimes break off, making counting the segments an inaccurate way of determining the snake’s age).

Nonvenomous snakes

There are several species of nonvenomous snakes found on the northern Cumberland Plateau. All of them are completely harmless to humans and most pets, although some will prey on chicken eggs and baby chicks. Gartersnake: The Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is a medium-sized snake ranging from 18 to 26 inches in length that may very well be the most common snake found anywhere in Tennessee. The gartersnake’s coloration and pattern is highly variable, causing it to present with different looks. However, it typically has three light stripes, which can be white, yellow, blue, brown or green and run the length of the snake’s body. Typically, one stripe will run down the center of the snake’s back, while the other stripes will run along its sides. Not all gartersnakes have stripes, however.

Gartersnakes can be found almost anywhere, but they’re especially common near water. That’s because they feed primarily on frogs, toads, tadpoles, salamanders and fish. They’re commonly caught as pets. Females give birth in the late summer or early fall, and can have as many as 100 young.Red-Bellied Snake: The Northern Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) is a small snake, usually less than 10 inches in length, that occurs across most of the state. The Northern Red-bellied snake has three light spots on the nape of its neck. The snake is usually gray or reddish-brown, and may have four narrow stripes along the length of its body. The belly is usually red, but can also be yellow or orange. The head is usually darker than the body.

Red-bellied snakes eat slugs, snails, earthworms and other soft insects, and are usually found in moist woodland areas, under leaf litter, inside rotten logs or beneath rocks. They’re not especially common in Scott County. But where they are found, they’re usually found in abundance because they’re successful breeders. Females give birth to an average of seven or eight young (up to 21) during the late summer or early autumn.

Queen Snake: The Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata) is found across the eastern two-thirds of Tennessee, although it is not found in eastern Kentucky. It is a medium-sized snake that can grow up to two feet in length, with a creamy white or pale yellow stripe along the lower sides of its body. The body itself is usually light brown or gray. The snake has a yellow belly with four brown stripes.

The queen snake is an aquatic snake that prefers cool, rocky streams and rivers, and can usually be found beneath rocks or logs around bodies of water. The snake mostly eats crayfish but sometimes eats fish and tadpoles, as well. If there’s an absence of crayfish, there will generally be an absence of queen snakes. Females give birth to up to two dozen young in the late summer or fall.

Pinesnake: The Northern Pinesnake (Pituophis melanoleucus) is a large constrictor snake that can grow nearly six feet in length and has a light-colored body with dark brown to reddish blotches on the sides and back. The blotches usually resemble a saddle pattern.

Pinesnakes are usually found in well-drained, sandy soils, particularly in pine forests. They feed mainly on small rodents, as well as ground-nesting birds and their eggs. Females lay up to 12 large eggs (the largest of any North American snake) in the summer, and sometimes use communal nests. The young can be as much as a foot long when they hatch. Pinesnakes are secretive and not often seen, but they produce a loud hissing noise when they’re encountered. The Pinesnake is not particularly common in Tennessee; its status is listed as “threatened” by the TN Wildlife Resources Agency. The TN Dept. of Environment & Conservation considers it a rare snake.

Greensnake: The Northern Rough Greensnake (Opheodrys aestivus aestivus) is a very distinctive snake in Tennessee because it’s the only green snake found in the state. There are no other snakes here that can be mistaken for it. The green snake is a moderately-long but slender snake that can grow nearly three feet in length. It is light green with a white, yellow or pale green belly.

Greensnakes, which are also called vine snakes, are usually found in dense vegetation, especially near bodies of water, and are often found in overhanging limbs. They feed primarily on insects like grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, dragonflies and spiders. Females nest in leaves or rotting logs and lay up to 10 elongated eggs in the summer. Greensnakes are quite common, but aren’t often seen because they camouflage so well in the dense vegetation and because they hide out in the trees above ground.

Watersnake: The Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis) is one of the most commonly misidentified snakes found on the Cumberland Plateau. It is a large, heavy-bodied snake that can grow up to four feet in length, and while its coloration is highly variable, it can look remarkably like a copperhead or cottonmouth — especially a cottonmouth. However, if you’re close enough to examine the snake, you’ll notice its lack of a triangular head, slanted pupils or facial pits. Unlike the copperhead and the cottonmouth, water snakes are completely harmless.

Watersnakes are usually found in quiet waters, like ponds and lakes. But they are also found in more quickly-moving bodies of water, like creeks and rivers, and are commonly found in the Big South Fork River. They primarily feed on fish and amphibians. Females give birth to as many as 60 live young in the late summer or early fall. Watersnakes are extremely common in Scott County. They are quite aggressive when captured, and also discharge a foul-smelling musk from glands at the base of their tail to ward off predators.

Milksnake: One of the prettiest and most distinctive snakes found on the Cumberland Plateau is the Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum). This slender, medium-sized snake can grow up to three feet in length and has bright colors and a strong pattern. It typically has a gray or tan body with irregular brown or reddish-brown blotches with black borders.

The Milksnake prefers rocky forests and often live under rocks or logs. They feed on mice and other small rodents, as well as lizards, birds, eggs and even other snakes. Females lay a clutch of as many as 17 eggs in the summer. Milksnakes are relatively common in Tennessee, but they’re a secretive snake and not often seen. A fun fact to know about the milksnake is that its name comes from an old wives tale, which thought the snakes could milk cows.

Kingsnake: The Eastern Black Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) is one of several black-bodied snakes found on the Cumberland Plateau. It is found throughout Tennessee and is a shiny black constrictor that can grow up to four feet in length with yellow or white bands or speckles.

The kingsnake is found just about anywhere, including forests or fields, shrubby areas or heavily wooded areas, wetlands or urban areas. You can find one climbing in a barn just as easily as you can find one on a stream bank deep in the forest. The snake feeds on rodents, rabbits and a variety of other creatures. They’re especially beneficial because they’re one of the few snakes that will prey on venomous snakes. Females lay a clutch of eggs that can include more than two dozen. The snakes are very commonly found.

Hog-nosed snake: There is no snake that looks any more fierce, yet is more harmless, than the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos). Not only does the hog-nosed snake look scary, but it has the most elaborate defensive behavior of any snake found in Tennessee. This medium-sized snake grows up to three feet and has widely variable coloration and patterns, but is easily distinguished by its upturned snout. Some hognose snakes are nearly completely black, others have a lot of gray. Females are generally bigger than males, and juvenile hog-nosed snakes are more colorful than adults.

The hog-nosed snake prefers sandy or loose soil for burrowing, and can be found around farms, old fields, open woods and rocky hillsides — in other words, just about anywhere. They feed primarily on frogs and toads, as well as salamanders, lizards, and small mammals. Females lay up to five dozen white eggs in sandy soils during the summer. When approached, a hog-nosed snake will flatten its head and neck, hiss loudly and strike. It will also raise its upper body, roll over to play dead, even regurgitate and defecate to ward off prey. Because of its elaborate defensive behavior, hog-nosed snakes are often mistaken as a venomous snake and killed.

Gray Rat Snake: Also called a “chicken snake,” the Gray Ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides) is a large snake that grows up to six feet in length with a variable color pattern. Usually, the snake is gray or otherwise light colored with blotches of brown or darker gray on its back. The belly is usually white, fading to a black checkerboard pattern near the tail.

The gray rat snake lives in a variety of habitats, but prefers woodlands, field edges and can often be found around farms or near streams. They live in woodpiles, hollow trees, barns and abandoned houses. They feed on small mammals and birds, using constriction, and will eat bird eggs. Females lay up to 30 eggs, usually under an old log, stump or rock. Gray rat snakes are very common locally and across all of Tennessee. They’re excellent climbers and can often be found in trees.

Black Ratsnake: The Eastern Black Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) is one of the largest snakes found in Tennessee, growing up to six feet in length (the largest ever discovered was a whopping 101 inches long). The body is usually uniformly black in adults, but faint black stripes on a gray-black body can sometimes be found.

The black ratsnake can be found in just about any habitat, including farmland, hardwood forests, wetlands and urban woodlots. They’re typically found in back yards and other suburban settings. They’re frequently found in barns and old buildings because they feed on mice and other small rodents and frequent areas where these animals can be found in abundance. They also feed on small birds and their eggs. They’re particularly active just after sunset. Females lay a clutch of up to 19 eggs. Black ratsnakes are very commonly found in Scott County; in fact, they’re the most common large snake found here. A fun fact about ratsnakes: There’s an old myth that they cross-breed with copperheads and produce venomous offspring. There’s no truth to that old wives tale, however.

Corn Snakes: The Red Cornsnake (Pantherophis guttatus) is usually found south of the northern Cumberland Plateau, but can sometimes be found here, as well. It’s a long, slender snake reaching up to four feet in length with quite a lot of variation in its colorization and pattern. However, it often has red blotches outlined in black, with a gray to orange background. Its belly is a black and white checkerboard pattern, and the corn snake is one of the more distinctive snakes found in Scott County.

Corn snakes can be found in a variety of habitat, including woodland areas, agricultural areas, and on rocky hillsides. They’re most abundant in habitats with pine trees. They feed primarily on small rodents, as well as tree frogs, lizards, small birds and bats. Females lay up to 30 eggs in the summer. These snakes are relatively common, but seldom seen because of their reclusiveness.

Ring-necked Snake: The Northern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii) is perhaps the single most common snake found in Scott County. It’s a small snake, reaching up to 15 inches in length, with a black or dark grey body and a distinctive yellow or orange band around its neck. It has a bright, yellow belly.

Ring-necked snakes prefer moist areas and spend much of their time underground or hidden beneath logs, rocks or leaf litter. They feed on earthworms, insect larvae, salamanders and even small snakes and lizards. Females lay only a few eggs each year. These are secretive snakes that often remain hidden, but they’re so common that they’re seen fairly often, especially when moving piles of cinderblocks, sheet tin and other items that trap moisture and create good hiding places.

North American Racer: The Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor) is one of two black racers found in Tennessee, and it occurs throughout East Tennessee. It is a large, slender snake that can reach up to five feet in length, with smooth scales and a body color that is usually black with a dark gray or dark blue belly.

The black racer is usually found in open areas, such as old fields, pastures and forest edges, and they’re known for their ability to speed away from the threat of harm. They feed primarily on insects, frogs, birds, other snakes, small rodents and bird eggs. Females lay up to 36 eggs in the summer. These snakes are commonly found in Scott County.

Wormsnake: The Midwestern Wormsnake (Carphophis amoenus helenae) is found across much of the western two-thirds of Tennessee, including the Cumberland Plateau. It is a small, shiny, smooth snake that looks much like a worm. It is generally less than a foot in length, with a small head and tiny eyes.

Wormsnakes prefer to hide out under rocks, old logs, leaf litter or other debris, and are usually found in hardwood forests. They eat earthworms, grubs and other small insects. They’re common, but seldom seen because they’re very secretive and spend much of their life underground. Females lay up to 12 eggs each summer.

Other snakes not pictured here: Other snakes that you might encounter in Scott County that aren’t described above include the Northern Scarletsnake, which looks much like a milksnake but is very secretive and less frequently seen; the Yellow-Bellied Kingsnake, which is not often found on the Cumberland Plateau but can be found in the valley locations of Tennessee; the Midland Brownsnake, a small snake that is usually brown with black spots; and the Earthsnake, which is very similar to the wormsnake both in terms of its appearance and its secretive nature.

Other snakes not found here: Some non-venomous snakes of Tennessee that you won’t find on the northern Cumberland Plateau include the Ribbonsnake, the Southeastern Crowned Snake, the Diamond-backed Watersnake, the Southern Watersnake, the Plain-Bellied Watersnake, the Mississippi Green Watersnake, the Coachwhip, and the Red-bellied Mudsnake. Many of these snakes are primarily found in West Tennessee, which has a far greater variety of snakes than the Cumberland Plateau or East Tennessee.

Understanding venomous snakes

While the two venomous snakes found on the Cumberland Plateau — copperheads and timber rattlers — pose a threat to humans, fatal bites from either snake are very rare.

Copperheads: Copperheads are the most likely to bite of any venomous snake found in North America, but their venom is relatively mild and the bites are rarely fatal for humans.

Not only are copperheads more common than other venomous snakes in North America, but they don’t give warning signs like other snakes — such as rattlesnakes — and they tend to strike more readily if they feel threatened. For that reason, more people are bitten by a copperhead than by any other snake in the U.S.

A copperhead bite typically causes temporary tissue damage in the immediate area of the bite, and the bite is painful, but rarely fatal. That’s because the venom of the copperhead is considered the least potent of all pit vipers. Children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are the most likely to have strong reactions to the venom. Nevertheless, any copperhead bite is considered a medical emergency, and persons who are bitten should seek medical attention.

It is estimated that more than 2,900 people are bitten by copperheads each year in the U.S., and the case-fatality ratio is only about 0.01%. The last person to die of a copperhead bite in Tennessee was a 26-year-old man who died in Chattanooga in 2011. He was reportedly handling the snake in an attempt to determine its sex when he was bitten. He had previously been bitten by a copperhead, which may have made him hypersensitive to the snake’s venom.

Rattlesnakes: The bite of a timber rattlesnake is more dangerous than the bite of a copperhead, because the snake’s venom is more lethal. The timber rattler is listed by some sources as the No. 2 deadliest snake in North America. However, it has a mild temperament, and its characteristic rattle gives ample warning. Because it rarely bites, deaths from time rattlers are also incredibly rare, even though the snake is more deadly than a copperhead.

The last person to die of a rattlesnake bite in Tennessee was a 46-year-old woman in 1955 who was bitten on the arm while handling a rattlesnake during a religious service in Savannah, Tenn. Her brother, a well-known snake handler, was bitten on both hands during the same service but survived.

The last person to die of a timber rattler’s bite anywhere in the U.S. was a 71-year-old man in a South Carolina wildlife refuge in 2016. He collapsed and died within 15 minutes of being bitten, but it was reported that he may have had an undisclosed medical condition which contributed to the severity of his reaction to the bite. Prior to that, two people died from timber rattler bites in 2015 — one a 60-year-old man who was bitten during a religious service in Kentucky and died after refusing treatment; the other a 39-year-old man who was bitten during a camping trip in Pennsylvania suffered cardiac arrest en route to the hospital.

Venomous or nonvenomous? While several species of nonvenomous snakes can be mistaken as venomous — especially water snakes and the hog-nosed snake — there’s a fairly easy way to tell the difference, since all venomous snakes found in Tennessee are pit vipers which share the same tell-tale characteristics. Venomous snakes tend to have a larger head, which is triangularly shaped. They also have facial pits between their eye and nose. And, the most telling sign of all: the shape of their pupils. In Tennessee, any snake with a round pupil is non-venomous, while any snake with a slanted pupil is venomous (this doesn’t hold true in all parts of the world).

In case of emergency: So what should you do if you’re bitten by a copperhead or rattlesnake? Experts recommend removing any jewelry or watches, in case swelling occurs; keep the area of the bite below the heart to slow the spread of the venom through the bloodstream, and remain as still and calm as possible to avoid causing the venom to spread through the bloodstream more quickly. You should not attempt to lacerate the bite site and “suck out” the venom (including with a commercial “snakebite kit”), and you should not attempt to apply a tourniquet. These ineffective treatments can cause a more concentrated reaction from the venom, which can require amputation or result in disfigurement, and it can also waste precious time when medical attention could be sought.

Symptoms of a venomous snakebite can include redness, swelling and tissue damage around the bite site, abnormal bleeding or hemorrhaging, low blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, profuse sweating, weakness or numbness in the face or limbs, and, rarely, anaphylactic shock. It should be noted that both copperheads and rattlesnakes can “dry bite,” which is to say they do not actually release venom when they strike. In fact, up to 50% of bites may be “dry bites,” which cause swelling at the bite site but few other symptoms. Because it’s impossible to know in the immediate aftermath of a bite whether it’s a dry-bite or whether venom was injected, medical attention should always be sought as quickly as possible.

Snake-bitten far from help: So if you shouldn’t lacerate a snakebite or use a commercial snakebite kit in an attempt to remove the venom, what should you do when you are bitten deep in the backcountry — such as while hiking in the Big South Fork or ATV-riding in the Cumberlands?

First of all, remain calm and remember that death from a snake bite is exceedingly rare. Of around 45,000 snake bites reported in the U.S. each year, only around 10 result in deaths — and those are usually among the very young, the very old, or those with underlying medical conditions.

Secondly, follow the same instructions as above: Remove jewelry and watches in case of swelling. If the bite is on an extremity, immobilize it and keep it at or below heart level. Try not to put the arm in a sling, as this can cause the venom to concentrate, causing more tissue damage.

Third, gently clean the wound to minimize infection, and apply a sterile or clean dressing if you’re carrying a first aid kit.

Fourth, seek help. If you’re bitten and you have cell phone reception, call for help. If you have no reception, you can walk out, but take frequent rest breaks. If you’re with someone who’s bitten, you can carry them if possible. Otherwise, make sure they’re comfortable and stable, then go seek help. If help is far away, you can walk the patient out, taking frequent rest breaks.

Independent Herald
Contact the Independent Herald at newsroom@ihoneida.com. Follow us on Twitter, @indherald.
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