Last week, we featured an article on how to avoid some of America’s most common and dangerous predatory mammals—namely bears, mountain lions, and wolves. This week, we’ll be continuing the same theme, but thinking a little smaller. While the three large predators we focused on last week can certainly pose a threat to survival in the wild, smaller unseen species can be equally dangerous, if not statistically more so.
Remember the 2012 study we cited from the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine Journal? Of the 1,802 animal-related fatalities recorded between 1999 and 2007, 643 were attributed to “venomous snakes and lizards”, “venomous spiders”, “scorpions”, and “hornets, wasps, and bees”. Note that this doesn’t even include non-venomous species of spiders, scorpions, or snakes. It’s also a third of all recorded animal-related fatalities—that’s nothing to scoff at.
So, let’s break down those four categories. First, you have the venomous snakes and lizards. There are only two venomous lizards native to the North American continent—the Mexican beaded lizard and the Gila monster—and only a tiny population of Gila monsters can be found in the United States. The odds of encountering and being attacked by a Gila monster are infinitesimal, so we’ll be omitting them from our discussion and focusing solely on venomous snakes. In our next category, we’ll be combining the two arachnids, spiders and scorpions, as their behaviors and defense strategies are similar. Finally, we’ll talk about aggressive stinging insects—hornets, wasps, and bees.
Appearance: Several types of venomous snakes can be found in the United States, with the four most common being the rattlesnake, the cottonmouth (aka water moccasin), the copperhead, and the coral snake. The first three are classified as pit vipers, and have broad heads with heat-sensing pit organs located between the eye and the nostril. All pit vipers are venomous, so if you see a triangular or diamond-shaped head with openings near the nostrils, keep your distance. Copperheads and cottonmouths are found primarily in the southeastern third of the U.S., but rattlesnakes are found in virtually every state except Alaska.
All varieties of rattlesnake have rattles on their tails (hence the name) and often have a mottled pattern of tan, brown, and black scales. Cottonmouths have a thick brown to black body, and a light “cotton”-colored mouth. Copperheads are usually tan to copper in color, and have a repeating hourglass pattern on their backs.
The coral snake is in its own category, with a slender head and tri-colored bands. You’ve probably heard some variation of the saying “Red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, venom lack.” This can often help identify coral snakes in North America, thanks to their touching bands of red and yellow coloration. However, it’s not always true, so don’t go handling snakes with red-on-black bands (or any other unknown snake, for that matter). Coral snakes are found primarily in the southern coastal states.
Behavior: Pit vipers are typically nocturnal, and most human encounters take place at dusk or dawn. Pit vipers are also ambush predators, and hunt by waiting for prey to approach them—therefore they pose a great threat to humans who stumble upon them at close range. Rattlesnakes (the most common pit vipers in America) may rattle their tails before striking, but cottonmouths and copperheads have no such defense mechanism. Generally, a coiled stance, a raised head, and direct eye contact indicates the snake is preparing to strike.
Coral snakes have extremely potent venom, but are also a minimal danger to humans, with only one reported fatality in the U.S. since 1967. They are generally reclusive, and spend most of their lives under leaf cover, underground, or in some cases, in slow-moving bodies of water such as swamps. You probably won’t ever see a coral snake, but if you do, it will likely be trying to avoid you.
Avoidance Strategy: Snakes prefer resting in cool, dark places most of the day, so be very cautious when moving through thick undergrowth, or when overturning stones or logs. Extra caution should be taken at sunrise and sunset during warm months, as most snakes are active under these conditions. Stick to paths and areas with good ground visibility, and avoid tall grass or brush when possible. Snakes such as the Western Diamondback are experts at camouflage, and can easily hide in plain sight. Most importantly—practice situational awareness, and look and listen carefully before you move.
Defense Strategy: If you see a snake, leave it alone! Never approach within 6 to 10 feet. Carrying a walking stick is wise, as it may enable you to strike and stun the snake if it gets too close. If you spend a lot of time in snake territory, invest in some protective gaiters—they might save your life. Firearms such as shotguns can also be highly effective, but be certain to destroy the snake’s head.
Appearance: The two most dangerous spiders in the United States are the black widow and the brown recluse. Bites from both spiders can cause anaphylaxis, tissue necrosis, infection, or very rarely death. Black widows are widespread throughout the states, and have a distinctive black body with a red hourglass marking. Brown recluses, also called fiddlebacks after the dark violin shape on their thorax, are beige to brown with only six eyes. Recluse spiders reside mostly in the southeast and midwest.
Scorpions are found throughout much of the U.S., but the highest concentrations are in the southwestern states. No scorpion in the U.S. has venom powerful enough to kill a healthy adult on its own. However, scorpion stings have the potential to cause anaphylactic shock, necrosis, or infection if left untreated. The 2- to 3-inch light brown Arizona bark scorpion is the most venomous species native to North America.
Behavior: Black widows can be identified by their erratic, tangled web patterns, and are usually found in cluttered dark areas. Brown recluse webs often form bunched-up cave-like shelters in dry wood piles and tree bark. Both spiders will generally try to avoid human contact, and only bite as a last resort.
Scorpions are ambush predators, often hiding underground or under rocks as they wait for prey to approach. These arachnids are more active and mobile at night during the warm months, but tend to hibernate during the colder months. When threatened, they may raise their claws and stinger before striking.
Avoidance Strategy: Since both spiders and scorpions favor dark corners, crevices, and cluttered spaces, avoid reaching into or touching these areas. If you’re gathering wood or bark for a fire, you may want to use a knife or hatchet to dislodge it before handling. Most bites and stings occur when humans unknowingly surprise these arachnids, so give them fair warning before disturbing their habitats, and they’ll likely avoid you. Remember, you look like a predator to them, and they’ll only defend themselves if it’s absolutely necessary.
Defense Strategy: Wearing gloves, shoes, and covering exposed skin will dramatically limit your risk of injury. Unlike snakes, most arachnids won’t be able to penetrate fabric. Avoid sleeping on the ground or near fallen logs or other debris. Always check unattended clothing, blankets, and shoes before putting them on, and if a black light is available, use it—many arachnids will glow under UV light.
Spider bites and scorpion stings to healthy adults who receive modern medical treatment rarely result in death. However, in a survival situation, antivenom and professional medical care may not be available. So, care must be taken to avoid necrosis, anaphylactic shock, or infection from bites. Carry an epi-pen or other epinephrine source in case of allergic reactions, and be aware that even if you’re not allergic to bees or wasps, you may still be allergic to arachnid venom.
Appearance: Honey bees are commonly seen throughout North America, although their population has been dwindling rapidly over the last decade. Honey bees are generally not aggressive to humans, unless defending a hive. However, some varieties such as the “Africanized” or “killer” bees found in the southern U.S. may be more aggressive than others. Bees can typically only sting humans once, as it causes their barbed stinger to be torn out and remain in the skin, leading to their death.
Wasps and hornets differ from bees in that they can sting repeatedly without dying. There is only one true hornet species in the U.S., and most “hornet” sightings are actually wasps. Although many types of wasps are solitary and not aggressive, yellowjackets and paper wasps often do sting humans. Wasps are found in almost every state.
Behavior: Most honey bees only sting in defense of the hive, and will pursue victims for approximately 30 feet. However, Africanized bees may be much more aggressive and can pursue victims for ten times that distance. Individual bees can release pheromones that attract other members of the colony, so if you see a few aggressive bees, more could be on their way.
Yellowjackets are extremely aggressive, and can be identified by their bright yellow-orange stripes and rapid side-to-side flight pattern before landing. Paper wasps are darker in color, and highly territorial around their paper-like nests, but generally only sting when their nest is disturbed.
Avoidance Strategy: Avoid any visible insect hives whenever possible. Watch for concentrations of bees or wasps entering and exiting an area repeatedly, as this may indicate a hive. Cover as much skin as possible, and do not leave ripe fruits, drink containers, or other food waste outdoors near your camp site. Never try to swat or crush bees or wasps, and avoid rapid movements around them.
Defense Strategy: Bees, wasps, and hornets killed 509 people in the United States between 1999 and 2007, primarily because of repeated stings leading to and anaphylactic shock. However, many repeated stings in a short period can kill, even if you’re not allergic. Getting tested for insect sting allergies ahead of time could save your life, and it’s wise to carry an epi-pen (or two) as well as antihistamines such as Benadryl. If stung or pursued, leave the area, and immediately seek shelter in a car or enclosed space. Brush away bee stingers with your fingernail (don’t squeeze), and use a cold compress and elevation to reduce swelling.
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