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Archive for Thursday, July 4, 1996

SNAKE SHOW PUTS REPTILE MYTHS TO REST

July 4, 1996

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Snakes alive! Herpetologists take the worries out of reptiles.

The snakes that are carefully tagged and placed on the research shelves in Kansas University's Natural History Museum have given their lives for science.

The snakes who inhabit trees, wood piles and rivers around Lawrence are very much opposed to giving up their life for anything, especially a pesky human predator.

"Snakes don't like humans," museum collection manager John Simmons said. "They'll go out of their way to avoid them."

But sometimes the avoidable becomes unavoidable when campers and hikers take the path less traveled and head into uncharted territory.

"If you see a snake, the best general rule is to leave it alone," Simmons said. "Most will get away from you very quickly."

Snakes common to eastern Kansas include the nonvenomous rat snake, garter snake, coach whip, hognose and prairie king snakes. Timber rattlesnakes and copperheads are the only venomous snakes commonly found in this area.

"You're most likely to encounter a venomous snake at dusk or dawn in a wooded area or near a wood pile," Simmons said. "Most snakes found in town are nonvenomous."

Venomous snakes are easily identified by their ellipitical eyes, Simmons said.

"They have an elliptical pupil, like a cat," he said. "All others have round pupils. That doesn't work everywhere, but it works around here."

The old adage about looking for a triangular head misses the mark, too.

"That doesn't work because most snakes, when scared, will flatten their head and hiss like a venomous snake," he said.

The best education is to head to a nearby zoo or museum and take a look at a live version of area snakes, Simmons said.

"We want children to get acquainted with snakes," he said, "because snakes contribute to a balanced ecology and eat rodents."

For city dwellers who think they have little chance of meeting up with a slithering neighbor, Simmons has more news.

"They're everywhere," he said. "It's a good thing they aren't neon because the ground would glow. They're here but you just don't know it."

Herpetologist Joe Collins has researched snakes from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains. His book "Peterson Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of East and Central North America" is a complete guide to where snake species live.

"Snakes sort of try to keep things in check," he said. "They keep the rat and mice population down to a dull roar."

Collins travels with a pair of tongs and a live box in the trunk of his car in case he gets a call to remove a snake.

"I got a call about a month ago from some people who live out in the country," he said. "They had a snake under their porch. They thought it was a copperhead, and it was."

Collins said he removed the snake and sent it to an undisclosed location for return to the wild.

His best advice for hikers at area wilderness and water areas: Dress appropriately.

"Always wear loose pants," he said. "And wear some really good hiking boots. If you're going to go out in the country or walk around ponds, be careful where you put your hands and feet. With this heat, every snake is nocturnal, which means they'll hunt for food at night. That's the most critical time in needing to know where they are. They'll be nocturnal for the rest of the summer."

For people who get close enough to get bitten, staying calm is the first priority. Chances are high the bite is benign. If the snake is nonvenomous, wash the wound and hands before bandaging.

"We get probably 20 snake bites a year," Lawrence physician Mark Praeger said. "If you get bitten (by a venomous snake), the first thing is not to panic and get to the nearest medical facility."

Once there, most venomous wounds can be treated with supportive treatments including antibiotics, Praeger said.

"A rattlesnake bite can be fatal, but it's unusual," he said. "There are about 14 deaths a year by rattlesnakes, and there are many thousands of venomous snakes bites a year. The deaths are usually in remote areas or people who never go to a doctor. Anyone who gets treatment should live."

Lawrence Memorial Hospital keeps antivenin on hand, but it is rarely used, Praeger said.

"I try not to use it," he said. "It has to be given carefully and in intensive care after the patient is skin tested because it has horse serum, which can be fatal. It's very rare to have to treat with antivenin."

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