Southern Illinois has a vast amount of hiking, backpacking and outdoor environments. There are massive bluffs to mysterious natural shelters and even caves, cypress-infested swampland to barrens like none other. But like any area in the country, there are dangers present on the trails that take the form of wildlife. Sure, bears and wolves haven’t been in the region for many years and there is no real evidence of mountain lions. Bobcats are present but chances are, you will likely never see one. Southern Illinois lacks many of the species of wildlife that become a constant hazard for people hiking and backing through the forest and woods surrounding the region.
However, there are snakes present in southern Illinois hiking areas. Some snakes that are present are venomous ones as well. Some of the poisonous snakes that are in southern Illinois are dangerous enough to cause death in people and animals if bites are not treated by the appropriate healthcare professionals. And while there isn’t many venomous snake bite reports in southern Illinois, it doesn’t mean that the poisonous snakes are not around. They are around and if you get to close, you could get bit. Don’t let the snakes scare you away from hiking southern Illinois though, there are basic and easy steps to take to avoid coming in contact with venomous snakes altogether.
The 3 Main Venomous Snakes in Southern Illinois
There are three main types of venomous snakes that are found to be present in the forest and woodland areas of southern Illinois. These snakes include the Copperhead, Cottonmouth and Timber Rattlesnake. The chances of seeing any of these snakes are slim to none but occasionally, you might find yourself in the cross-path of one of these snakes. It is important to know how to spot and identify these snakes so that you can take appropriate steps to ensure your safety while being around them.
The Copperhead Snake
The Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) is a poisonous snake that is a part of the pit-viper family. This is probably the most abundance of venomous snakes found in the southern Illinois region. This snake is often found around rocky areas, bluffs and along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the region. Illinois wildlife authorities describe the Copperhead to be, “Back yellowish brown or rusty brown with 10-20 reddish brown hourglass-shaped, dark-margined cross-bands that are narrow across the back and wider on the sides. Belly yellow to brown with brown blotches near the edges. Top of head red-brown. Thin dark line extends from eye to angle of jaw. The sulfur yellow tail tip of newborn darkens with maturity.” Some Copperhead snakes can grow up to 4 feet in length. Copperheads are usually confused with other related looking snakes that are often non-venomous. However, if you see a snake matching this description, it would be best to keep your distance altogether. (Photo Credit: GA-Kayaker GA-Kayaker)
The Cottonmouth Snake
The Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), also a member of the pit-viper family is often known as the water moccasin snake around these parts in the southern portion of the State of Illinois. These venomous snakes are often found around bodies of water such as lakes, sloughs and swampland. These snakes can reach up to five feet in length and are described by Illinois wildlife officials to be, “Juveniles and young adults have 12-18 dark cross-bands on an olive or dark brown back and a dark stripe from snout through eye and upper lip. With age, adults become uniformly dark olive or black. Belly tan to gray and heavily marked with black. The sulfur yellow tail tip of newborn darkens with maturity.” These snakes are often confused with the Northern Water-snake which is non-venomous but as always, try to avoid getting too close to this type of looking snake altogether. When approached, the cottonmouth will usually get in a defensive position and open its mouth to ward off predators whether it is other animals or humans. (Photo Credit: Greg Schechter Greg Schechter)
The Timber Rattlesnake
The Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), another member of the pit-viper family is an infamous snake found in the southern Illinois region. This snake is often found deeper in the forest regions of the Shawnee and around rocky areas and bluffs. As infamous and feared as this snake it, chances are, you will never see one. These snakes try to avoid people more than people try to avoid them. They are not as scary as you might think, either. If they detect your presence, they won’t usually become aggressive and try to attack without warning like many rattlesnake species. They will instead, usually try to slither away and get somewhere safer to remain undetected, even without setting off their rattle. But nonetheless, they are still a type of rattlesnake and still deadly if you are bitten by one. These snakes can grow nearly 6 feet in length and are described by the wildlife officials to be, “Back gray, light yellow, or greenish white with 20-25 black, jagged crossbars or blotches. Sometimes an orange or rust stripe down mid-back. Head clearly larger than slender neck. Dark stripe behind each eye. Tail tip uniformly black in adults. Belly pink, white, cream, or gray, with dark stippling toward sides.” (Photo Credit: Peter Paplanus Peter Paplanus)
How to Protect Yourself from Venomous Snakes in Southern Illinois
First and foremost, it is important that you don’t let the thought of venomous snakes found in our wooded and forestry areas scare you away from getting out and exploring. As stated above, it is going to be very rare for you to even witness one of these venomous snakes to begin with. However, you should still consider safety precautions when out in the trees and on the bluffs to protect yourself to the best of your abilities. The following tips were created as guidelines to help keep you safe and sound from the many poisonous snakes found in our region:
- Always keep on the lookout for snakes as you hike or backpack. While snakes will usually detect your presence and slither away, humans still occasionally come into contact with them. If you come onto a snake, give it plenty of room and let it move away from you or safely walk around it.
- Never taunt a snake. Don’t try to get dangerously close so you can see the snake. If the snake is curled up and its head is bent up, this is usually a strike position and a warning that it will attack you if you get too close. Never try to pick the snake up or even touch it with a stick. Leave it be.
- Never kill a snake. The woods and forest is the snake’s domain more so than it is your own. Regardless of your thoughts about snakes, killing the snake is not helping the local habitat and in some instances, killing a snake is against the law especially in natural areas where all wildlife is protected.
- Never hike off the trail and if you do, be very watchful of snakes. In most common cases, snakes that are present will be off the trail. Trails that get used frequently will likely see fewer snakes but it doesn’t mean that snakes are not out there around you and the trail.
- Dress appropriately. Tall hiking boots and pants should be worn to help prevent a snake bite from interacting with your bare skin. Wearing shorts will expose bare skin that could easily become target of a snake bite.
- Carry a snake bite kit and learn how to use it. If you or another person in your group is bit by a venomous snake, getting to a hospital as quickly as possible is highly recommended in terms of life saving efforts. However, a snake bit kit, when used correctly, may help delay sudden death or extreme injury of someone who has venom inside of them. It is now said that snake bite kits are ineffective and will likely create more problems than good. However, carrying an epi-pen might be ideal in case an allergic reaction occurs after a bite has happened.
- Use common sense and know your area. In most cases, the trailhead information sign will explain if there are any venomous snakes in the area you plan to be hiking in. Read it and all of the advice that the information statement gives you. Use some common sense and keep your eyes open and you should be fine.
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Update: 10/25/2017 - Changed several "poisonous" terms to "venomous" to reflect accuracy. Also updated information concerning the "snake bite kits" effectiveness.
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Venomous Snakes of Southern Illinois Hiking Areas
Read about the 3 most common venomous snakes found in the southern Illinois woodland and forest regions.