Arkansas is home to 6 species of venomous snakes. Here is what you need to know about them.

John Lovett
Fort Smith Times Record

As the weather warms up and people become more active outdoors, so do snakes.

While most kinds of snakes in Arkansas are non-venomous, there are six venomous snakes that need to be left alone. It is illegal to kill a venomous snake in Arkansas unless it is a direct threat because there is no hunting season for snakes in the state.

Lori Monday, a regional educator for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, says some of the old standby methods of identifying venomous snakes can mislead people and even put them at unnecessary risk.

“A common misconception is that all venomous snakes have slit or ‘cat’s eye’ pupils,” Monday said. “That may be true for Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, and Cottonmouths, but the Coral Snake which is a venomous snake native to Arkansas has round pupils. And if you’re close enough to tell what kind of pupil they have, you’re probably getting too close to the snake.”

There are about 7,000 people who are bitten by a venomous snake a year in the United States. On average, less than six of those people die from the bite. However, serious injury, including loss of a body part is more common.

“It’s just a good idea to know which ones are harmful and let them have their space,” Monday said. “Aside from the legal issue, getting close enough to kill or move the snake puts you in danger. In cases where the snake may be near a home or where it could cause a threat to people, you can call someone who is trained to handle and relocate these animals safely and humanely.”

Those who find a snake and need it removed from their home may call a nuisance animal service recommended by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission at https://www.agfc.com/en/wildlife-management/nuisance-wildlife/. A list of company's that handle snakes are listed by county under the Arkansas Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators tab.

Here are the state's six venomous snakes, and what to know about them.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

(Crotalus atrox)

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is seen on display, Saturday, March 27, at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Chaffee Crossing.

This large-bodied pit viper has keeled scales distinguished by bold crossbands, a rust-colored diamond pattern down the backbone with a large black-and-white rattler with three to seven bands that has given its nickname "coon-tail rattler." Adults average 30-60 inches in length, but some can grow up to 72-plus inches.

It is Arkansas' rarest venomous snake, according to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's "Arkansas Snake Guide."

They are found in the uplands of the Ouachita Mountains and southwestern Ozark highlands in Arkansas, either in open pine-hardwood forests or rocky outcrops. Diamondbacks are active from April to October, and even during nighttime hours during the summer months. They breed in the fall or early spring. Up to 25 young are born per breeding couple  between August and October. And they eat large numbers of rats and mice but also feed on rabbits and squirrels.

Timber Rattlesnake

(Crotalus horridus)

A Timber Rattlesnake is seen on display, Saturday, March 27, at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Chaffee Crossing.

These are found statewide in Arkansas. The head and body of the Timber Rattlesnake pit viper can be gray or yellowish-brown with 15 to 34 V-shaped black bands on the body. The tail is black and the origin of the nickname "velvet-tail rattler." Adults average 36 to 60 inches in length. According to the "Arkansas Snake Guide," researchers have observed radio-tagged, medium-sized adults in trees, presumably in search of prey.

The Timber Rattlesnake lives in both hardwood and pine forests, bottomland, rocky or brushy fields and hillsides. They are active from April to October and prowl at night during hot weather. They breed in the fall or early spring and hatch three to 16 young between August and October. They eat shrews, gophers, rodents, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, and birds.

Copperhead

(Agkistrodon contortrix)

A Copperhead snake is seen on display, Saturday, March 27, at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Chaffee Crossing.

The Copperhead is recognized by its rusty color and hourglass pattern along its back. However, these pit vipers can have gray, brown, or reddish crossbands with a head that is also either gray, brown or reddish. The belly is cream-colored with dark gray, brown, or black blotches. The young resemble the adults, except the tail is bright yellow or greenish-yellow. Adults can grow up to 36 inches in length.

In Arkansas, the Copperhead can be found everywhere from pine-hardwood forests, and bottomland hardwood forests to rocky or brushy fields and hillsides. They are active between April and November and even get out at night to hunt in the warm summer months. Two to 14 young are born per breeding couple between August and September. They primarily eat rodents, but also eat frogs, lizards, small snakes and cicadas.

Young copperheads and cottonmouths use their yellow-tipped tail as a lure to attract prey, the "Arkansas Snake Guide" points out.

Cottonmouth

(Agkistrodon piscivorus)

A Cottonmouth in the grass and leaves outside the Tree Hill Nature Center in Florida on March 25, 2021. The Cottonmouth is also found in Arkansas' wetlands.
A Cottonmouth gapes its mouth in a defensive posture, showing the white lining that is the origin of the common name.

Also known as the Water Moccasin, the Cottonmouth is found statewide in Arkansas, but they are not very common in the upland streams of the Ozark Highlands and the Ouachita Mountains, according to the "Arkansas Snake Guide."

They open their white-lined mouth when threatened. These heavy-bodied snakes are olive-brown to black and their dark crossbands are barely noticeable until they are wet.  Their upper lip also is white, and they have a black stripe from snout to neck. The Cottonmouth's belly is mottled with black or brown and cream-colored blotches. The young are brightly banded like a Copperhead, but turn darker with age, with tail tips that are yellow to greenish-yellow. Adults average 24 to 36 inches in length.

The Cottonmouth will be most often found in a variety of wetlands, from swamps and oxbow lakes to sloughs and drainage ditches and streams. They are active from April to November, and even at night in the hotter months. Two to 15 young are born per breeding couple between August and September. These snakes eat fish, amphibians, lizards, snakes, birds, and rodents.

Western Pygmy Rattlesnake

(Sistrurus miliarius)

The Western Pygmy Rattlesnake prefers wooded habitat and cedar glades with prime areas being brush piles and edge habitats where the forest meets field. According to HerpsOfArkansas.com, they are more common within a couple of miles of major bodies of water, such as larger rivers and lakes; except the Mississippi River.

This small venomous rattlesnake grows to between 15 and 20 inches and is identified by a reddish stripe down the backbone with black cross-bands. The general background color is slate-gray. The top of the head has a spear-tip pattern. This feature, HerpsOfArkansas.com points out, helps to quickly distinguish it from a baby Timber Rattlesnake.

The tail is tipped with a very small rattle that some say sounds like a small insect buzzing, but the sound may only carry a short distance. The tail of the young Pygmy Rattlesnake, prior to developing rattle buttons, is a bright yellow or green and used to lure in prey such as frogs, lizards and small snakes. They breed in the fall and between four and 10 eggs hatch per breeding couple. 

This species is also known as the Ground Rattler, or sometimes simply as "pigs."

The Pygmy Rattlesnake is a small venomous snake found in some sections of Arkansas.

Texas Coral Snake

(Micrurus tener)

The vast majority of Texas coral snakes that are encountered are generally around 2 feet in length and have a girth roughly the size of a No. 2 pencil.

Certainly among the rarest of venomous snakes in Arkansas, the Texas Coral Snake is only found in southern Arkansas west of the Ouachita River and south of the Little Missouri River, according to the "Arkansas Snake Guide."

The yellow bands on this small but venomous snake make it stand out among the snakes found in Arkansas and lend to the old saying "Red touch black, venom lack. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow." These snakes feed on lizards and other small snakes.

Texas Coral Snakes prefer moist pine, hardwood, or mixed pine-hardwood forests with loose, sandy soils and pine straw, leaf litter, and logs for cover. They are active from late February to mid-November, in the early morning or at dusk when humidity is higher. They are also active at night after rains during the summer months. The females lay between two and 12 eggs in spring and they hatch between August and September.

The non-venomous Milk Snake has black and white bands between longer sections of red. The venomous Texas Coral Snake looks similar but has yellow bands touching black.

Do's and Don'ts if bitten

Tyler Hardy of Philadelphia, Mississippi, said the burning and swelling caused by the copperhead snake bite on his head Jan. 15, 2020, began spreading within minutes of the bite.

In the rare event of being bitten by a poisonous snake, here are Arkansas Game and Fish Commission herpetologist Kelly Irwin's recommended do's and don'ts for snake bites.

• Remain calm: Remember that more people die from bee stings each year than from venomous snakebites.

According to HerpsOfArkansas.com, using information obtained from MedScape between 30 and 120 people die a year in the U.S. from bee stings.  There are about 1 million bee sting cases in the U.S. annually. Meanwhile, an average of 5.5 people in the U.S. die each year from a snakebite and there are about 7,000 cases a year.

•  Remove shoes, jewelry, and tight clothing from bitten area.

•  Wash the bite site with soap and warm water or rubbing alcohol to remove any excess venom.

•  Be prepared to treat for shock and possibly administer CPR.

•  Get the victim to the nearest medical facility as soon as possible. The best snakebite first aid is a set of car keys.

•  Do not attempt to capture, handle or kill a venomous snake. More people are bitten during these activities than in any other situation.

•  Do not make cuts or incisions on or near the bitten area. This could lead to damaged nerves, tendons, or blood vessels, potentially causing more damage than the snakebite.

•  Do not apply a tourniquet or constriction band. If tied too tight, it could cut off the blood flow and cause more damage than the snakebite.

•  Do not give the victim food, drink, alcohol, or other drugs. This can cause complications in the successful treatment of the bite.

•  Do not attempt to suck the venom out with your mouth. You could have a cold sore or an open wound in your mouth that would allow the venom to get into your bloodstream.

Snake Prevention

To reduce the potential presence of snakes on your property, and out of your house, the "Arkansas Snake Guide" notes it is better to simply maintain a tidy space and weatherize your house.

Irwin says it is better to simply maintain a tidy space and weatherize your house. Over-the-counter snake repellants "do not work," Irwin said. Limited the snake's habitat and food source is the only way to decrease snakes on private property.

If a snake is on your property, Irwin recommends granting a pardon if possible. He tells a story of finding a Copperhead coiled up at the entrance to his garage. He swept it out of the way and it hasn't returned.

• Keep your lawn and surrounding grounds mowed short and trim around all building foundations. Snakes do not like to move over open ground, which makes them vulnerable to predators.

• Remove piles of logs, brush, rocks, or other debris on the ground. This provides cover for snakes and animals that snakes feed on. If you reduce the presence of cover and food, then you reduce the potential presence of snakes.

• Make sure your home is well-sealed. Replace worn weather stripping around doors. Use caulk, mortar, and spray foam in a can to seal up cracks in the foundation and around plumbing, heating/cooling, and electrical ducts.

• Minimize mulch and low-growing flower or plant beds immediately around the house. These can provide cover for snakes and the animals that snakes feed on.

• If you live in the country, with nearby natural habitat, the potential for snakes to be around your home and outbuildings is increased, so be prepared for possible snake encounters. Urban dwellers have the least likelihood of encountering snakes.

Other tips

A colorful garter snake is another reptile often found in gardens. This harmless snake is a welcome visitor.

Whether your working in the yard, hiking, hunting, or fishing, there are a few tips offered in the "Arkansas Snake Guide" to prevent being bitten by a venomous snake.

• Be alert. Snakes are naturally camouflaged and blend well into their surroundings.

• Watch where you place your hands and feet.

• Wear heavy leather work gloves and leather boots or brush chaps if you plan to be in heavy brush.

Leave snakes alone and they will leave you alone. Snakes are just afraid of humans and humans may be of snakes, the "Arkansas Snake Guide" states. If given a chance, they will move away from human activity.

Snakes are not naturally aggressive and will not "attack" unsuspecting humans, the guidebook adds. They will defend themselves by biting only if they feel threatened.