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Number of snake bites rising in North Georgia
Copperheads are North Georgia Georgia’s most common venomous snake. - photo by Courtesy Department of Natural Resources

Half of Georgia’s 55 hospital-reported snake bites this year have been in metro Atlanta and North Georgia.

The state is coming off of its busiest year on record for snake bites in 2016, with 466 people bitten by snakes last year, and now snakes of all stripes are slithering into the open as the summer heat takes hold.

But that doesn’t mean you’re likely to be bitten or that you should hack the head from every creepy-crawly out there — for every person in the hospital with a snake bite, 241 Georgians are injured on the road.

Peter Gordon
Peter Gordon, education director of the Elachee Nature Science Center pictured on Monday, said the center has yet to see many active copperheads — North Georgia's most common venomous snake — in the area lately. There have been more than 50 venomous snakebites recorded in the state so far in 2017. - photo by Nick Bowman / Gainesville Times

“We’d like to think, if they’re lucky, (people) will come across one and see it and see how remarkable they are and, really from a distance, how harmless they are if folks don’t bother them or try to remove them or catch them or whatever. That’s where most bites take place,” said Peter Gordon, education director for the Elachee Nature Science Center.

Copperheads are the most common venomous snake in North Georgia. They account for most of the bites in the area and the state that result in a hospital visit, according to the Georgia Poison Control Center in Atlanta, which helps hospitals respond to bites and collects information on incidents each year.

“This is an ideal area for copperheads,” Gordon said. “The Northeast Georgia piedmont where we live just affords them great places to live — lots of rocks, lots of south-facing slopes where they can warm up and lots of things to eat and so forth.”

The timber rattlesnake, also called a canebrake rattler, is present in North Georgia but is becoming more rare, according to Gordon. While Lake Lanier and connected streams and rivers  make up a large portion of Hall County, he said it’s all too far north to support cottonmouths.

Only six of the 42 species of snake in Georgia are venomous, according to the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, which maintains a page on snake safety.

In the counties that make up North Georgia and the Atlanta area, there have been 28 bites reported to the Atlanta center this year, according to data manager Allison Jones.

The 2017 numbers “appear to be up from even last year,” said the Georgia Poison Center’s director, Dr. Gaylord Lopez.

Gordon said he thinks the state is seeing more frequent snake bites because of development in rural areas.

“Development is taking place where it could have been an ideal home for a venomous snake,” he said. “That’s kind of where natural history and cultural history intersect.”

Only about 1 in 5 snake bites ends up being treated with antivenin — most reported to hospitals are “dry” bites, in which a venomous snake bites but doesn’t inject venom, or bites from non-venomous snakes.

Corn Snake
A corn snake climbs up the hands of Peter Gordon, education director of the Elachee Nature Science Center, on Monday. The corn snake is one of the native species of snake that can be confused for the copperhead — Georgia's most common venomous snake. Corn snakes are nonvenomous and eat mostly mice and other small mammals. - photo by Nick Bowman / Gainesville Times

Often, it’s difficult to know what sort of snake was involved in a bite because the victim fled before getting a good look at or a picture of the animal. Treatment of a bite usually relies on symptoms: swelling in the area, pain, nausea, changes in blood pressure and others.

“Do we know what kind of snake was involved? Even when they don’t, we’ll presume venomous first and ask questions later,” Lopez said. “If we presume venomous, we go through a series of critical observation points to determine whether or not the patient needs antidote.”

Making identification more complicated are the look-alikes — there are at least two species mimic the scale pattern of the copperhead, the northern water snake and the corn snake.

Both the Savannah laboratory and Gordon recommend keeping dogs on a leash, staying educated about types of snakes and how to identify them, and remaining aware of your surroundings when out and about.

“Being aware is the biggest thing — and not being fearful, necessarily,” Gordon said. “... We understand that people kill snakes. We wish they wouldn’t. Indeed, these are important predators in our area and they’re here for a reason. They develop certain ways in which they deal with catching their food — they don’t want to bite us.”