Monday, December 26, 2016

Which would you rather encounter? Dangerous snake or dangerous human?

My husband Ralph and I were walking across a stretch of unruly riverfront in New Smyrna Beach when the distinctive red-yellow-black bands of a coral snake caught my eye.

“Stop!” I shouted to my husband, whose steps would have taken him directly into the snake’s path. Fortunately, Ralph heeded the seriousness of my tone, stopped moving and directed his eyes to where I was pointing.

The snake, one of only four species of venomous snakes in Central Florida, also must have picked up on my warning because instead of attacking, it silently slithered under one of the many broken palmetto fronds covering the ground.

Can you find the coral snake?
The snake hopes you can't.
It's doing its best to avoid detection by hiding beneath decaying vegetation

Although common throughout Florida, the Eastern coral snake, Micrurus fulvius, is a secretive creature rarely seen by humans. Most of its life is spent under logs, leaf litter and decaying vegetation.

During the 30-plus years I’ve been romping through untamed parts of the Sunshine State, I can’t recall ever encountering a coral snake. I have, however, seen non-venomous coral snake lookalikes like the scarlet snake and scarlet king snake. Both of those species mimic coral snake colors to divert attention from potential predators.

The harmless king snake is often mistaken for the venomous coral snake.
Although its coloring is similar,
it's a coral snake lookalike posing no threat to people.

As Ralph and I stood watching the small, brightly-colored reptile, we tried to recall the rhyme used to differentiate a coral snake from its imitators. “Red touches black, friend to Jack. Red touches yellow, dangerous fellow.”

“Definitely a coral snake,” I said as it slithered deeper into the underbrush.

“Should I kill it?” Ralph asked.

I said, “No. It’s not hurting or even threatening to harm us. We should just leave it alone.”

But seeing a potentially dangerous snake in an area similar to many wild areas we visit did make me realize how much more aware we need to be in the future.

There’s a fine line between being cognizant of potential danger and overreacting. When encountering a venomous snake, the initial reaction of many people — including my husband — is to destroy the threat.

Although the Eastern coral snake has the most deadly venom of any snake in North America, its relatively short fangs provide a poor delivery system to humans. It works better on lizards, skinks, frogs and other small snakes. A coral snake will do its best to avoid a human unless it’s stepped on or handled.

Since antivenin was released in 1967, only a few people have died from coral snake bites, including one man who didn’t seek treatment in 2009.

The University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife, Conservation and Ecology says, “The chance of dying from a venomous snakebite in the United States is nearly zero because we have available, high-quality medical care in the U.S. Fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year (7000-8,000 bites per year), and only one in 50 million people will die from snakebite (5-6 fatalities per year).”

Yet despite facts, the appearance of any snake, venomous or not, evokes an irrational dose of primal fear in many people. While I share a strong desire to be safe, I also understand the importance of respecting nature. For me, encountering a coral snake in the wild was both an exhilarating and sobering moment that heightened my awareness of the world at large.

Given the choice of confronting a brightly-colored venomous snake in the wild or a carefully-camouflaged human with poisonous intent, I’d choose the snake. A coral snake will instinctively slink into the underbrush to avoid interaction, but a person with malicious intent can, and often will, inflict harm on many with a single strike of virulent words or actions.

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