Experts: rattlesnake bite fatalities remain rare
Wil Taylor, a 1994 Slippery Rock University parks and recreation graduate and Jennings Environmental Education Center manager, is an expert on the endangered massasauga rattlesnake that has been spotted on the 300-acre Jennings property. Despite a recent rattlesnake bite fatality in another part of the state, Taylor said rattlesnakes do not chase people and will only bite to kill prey or when they are provoked. Taylor is shown here at Jennings with a fake rattlesnake that is used for instructional purposes.
August 4, 2015
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - While a Beaver County man's June death from a rattlesnake bite rattled up stereotypical fears, two Slippery Rock University rattlesnake experts - Wil Taylor, a 1994 parks and recreation graduate who directs Jennings Environmental Nature Center and Jack Layne, professor of biology - say fatal encounters are rare.
Taylor said culturally learned fears about snakes are mostly unfounded.
"All snakes are predators, because they eat other animals," Taylor said. "That doesn't mean they will come after you. What they do is coil up in a defensive position and try to get away from you. The only time they're going to bite you is if you come into contact and step on them or reach down and grab them."
A rattlesnake bite fatality hadn't happened in Pennsylvania for 25 years before a 39-year-old man was bitten at a campsite in Medix Run, Elk County in June.
The cause of death was anaphylactic reaction to a venomous snakebite, which is similar to someone having a fatal reaction to a bee sting. Not everyone dies from venomous snakebites.
Taylor manages the 300-acre Jennings center, which includes a 20-acre prairie that is one of the few remaining protected habitats for the endangered massasauga rattlesnake. He says rattlesnakes only bite and inject venom to kill prey or when they are provoked.
"People are bitten every year by venomous snakes, but rarely does it result in death," he said. "Venom is a way for the snake to get food. It is not a defense mechanism.
"We do suggest that you don't kick a snake or poke at it or anything," Taylor said. "Don't try to pick it up. Just leave it alone and you should be absolutely fine."
The snake that killed the local man was a timber rattlesnake. There are 21 species of snakes in Pennsylvania; two others are venomous, the massasauga rattlesnake and the copperhead, Taylor said.
Taylor said Jennings is working to preserve and increase the massasauga population in the prairie.
"We hope that a lot of people might be interested in coming to Jennings because of the snakes that are here," he said. "It's not every day that you get to see an endangered species or an animal that is as rare as this. The snake is really nothing to be concerned about."
Because of habitat destruction, Taylor said the massasauga survives at Jennings, a private property and a game commission property.
Layne, who said he lives right down the road from the man who died, said people occasionally get bitten by "molesting" a snake by picking at it with a stick it or reaching their hand into a snake's territory.
"Accidents are not 100 percent avoidable. There is always going to be that one situation where a snake might be concealed in a place and you accidentally get too close," he said. "A lot of times they won't strike unless you get too close or do something like step on it, or if you're not looking where you're putting your hand."
Layne, who studies reptiles and amphibians, said rattlesnakes have specialized salivary glands that contain venom. The hollow fangs move forward as a snake strikes - "it's literally like a hypodermic injection," Layne said.
He said venomous snakes, despite fears some people have, are valuable because they feed on rodents that are vectors for Lyme disease.
He said people should follow common sense to avoid a dangerous confrontation with a snake.
"Be careful you make sure you can see where you step," he said. "As you're moving through the woods, avoid brushy areas where you can't really see the ground. And also watch where you're reaching."
The massasauga rattlesnake is state-listed as endangered, but is not federally listed. It is limited to the wetter, swampy areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio, said Kathy Penrod, a naturalist resource management specialist for the U.S. Park Service.
"Most of the remainder of Pennsylvania is home to the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead," she said. "The timber rattlesnake prefers rocky slopes, sometimes called talus slopes; talus means loose rock; and often is seen when sunning itself on large rocks. The copperhead, in my experience, seems to prefer being closer to water sources and likes to swim."
Snakes are "cold-blooded" reptiles and must use the surrounding environment to regulate body temperature. Generally speaking, they will bask in the sun when it is cool or stay in the shade when it is hot. This is an adaptation that requires them to eat less than "warm blooded" mammals and birds.
Timber rattlesnakes are not extremely aggressive, and if encountered, backing away and giving them space can avoid a snakebite situation, she said.
"Rattlesnakes will slither away from you if you give them a chance. A person or pet should not get closer, because they will strike if threatened," said Penrod. "Backing away, or going out of your way around the snake, indicates you are not threatening the snake. I try to give them 15 or 20 feet if possible, an abundance of caution given with respect to the animal. A coiled position means that the snake already feels threatened and is ready to strike if necessary to protect itself."
There is a legal hunting season in Pennsylvania for timber rattlesnakes, and taking them out of season is against the law, she said.
Penrod said she was saddened to learn of the fatality.
"My thoughts when I heard the man died were that he was very sensitive to the venom, the snake's venom was very strong, or he moved around a lot or became over-excited after being bitten," she said. "Moving around spreads the venom throughout the bloodstream and body."
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