Sunday, 25 August 2019

Snakebites Hit Record Highs in Southern States as Suburbs Expand Rapid urbanization and heavy rains lead to more copperhead attacks -via Herp Digest


By Valerie Bauerlein, 8/519, Wall Street Journal

RALEIGH, N.C.—Venomous snakebites are on the rise in the Sunbelt this summer, with North Carolina, Georgia and Texas on track to set records. 

In North Carolina and Georgia, venomous snakebites have been rising for the past several years and are up more than 10% from a year ago, according to the states’ poison-control centers. In Texas, there were 415 reported snakebites in May and June, 27% more than the same period five years ago.

Copperheads represent the vast majority of bites in the three states, and most are in fast-growing suburbs of cities like Raleigh, Atlanta and Dallas. Reasons for the increase include rapid urbanization, as new neighborhoods spring up in what was formerly forest or farmland, and last winter’s record-setting rainfall, which drives snake activity, poison-control workers said.

“There’s no question as we build out more, we’re definitely inhabiting the areas where snakes reside,” said Gaylord Lopez, the managing director of the Georgia Poison Center.

Snakebites take place nationwide, but North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Florida represent a disproportionate 39% of the reported bites, according to a 2016 study of pediatric snakebites led by a University of Louisville epidemiologist. 

Copperheads are the dominant snake in all those states except for Florida, where snakebite activity has been average so far this year, according to Florida’s Poison Control Centers. Florida’s dominant snakes include the eastern coral snake and the cottonmouth.

Copperheads thrive in suburban environments because they have relatively small roaming areas, a strong homing instinct and a willingness to eat “whatever’s available,” from rodents to cicadas, said Jeffrey Beane, herpetology collections manager at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
Copperheads also camouflage themselves easily in underbrush or leaf piles with their tan scales and brown triangular markings, he said.

A copperhead recently bit David Weitz, a Raleigh optometrist, as he transplanted rosemary from a flat to a pot at his newly built home on the outskirts of the city. Dr. Weitz, who grew up in Virginia Beach, said he knew enough about snakes to wear gloves but had taken them off to handle the small plants. He said his hand swelled to twice its size, and he was hospitalized for two days while being treated with antivenom.When Dr. Weitz recovered, he said he snake-proofed his 2-acre yard by clearing out underbrush and removing dead logs. “When I walk around my yard, I have a stick with me,” he said. “I hit the ground with it so they scatter.”

Many people who grow up in the Southeast learn to recognize copperheads by their “Hershey Kiss” markings. But in North Carolina, nearly half of the adults were born somewhere else, according to the Census.

Michael Beuhler, an emergency-room toxicologist in Charlotte and the medical director of the Carolinas Poison Center said many of his snakebite patients moved from the Northeast and Midwest where snakes are less common.

“They don’t realize that snakes are part of the environment,” Dr. Beuhler said. “They’re part of the circle of life here.”

Wet winters tend to drive snake activity, according to Grant Lipman, an emergency-room doctor at Stanford University who conducted a 2018 study of 20 years of California snakebite data. He found that snakebites decreased after periods of drought and increased after periods of heavy rain.

This past winter was the wettest on record in the U.S., with 9.01 inches of precipitation, 2.22 more than the average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It is not completely clear why rain drives snake activity, Dr. Lipman said, but he theorizes that heavy rain causes flora and fauna to flourish, creating ready food sources for rodents who become food for snakes. Heavy rains can also drive snakes out of their habitats, according to Mr. Beane, the herpetologist.

To be sure, venomous snake bites are rare in the U.S. compared with other parts of the world. About 7,000 to 8,000 people in the U.S. are bitten each year and about five die, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most fatalities occur when a victim has an allergic reaction or is far from medical treatment when bitten, poison-control experts said.

It is difficult to get accurate data on the number of snake bites, which aren’t tracked by state or federal regulators. The state poison control centers, typically housed in medical centers, track snake encounters by incoming requests for help, particularly from medical professionals seeking help with antivenom dosing.

Mr. Beane and other herpetologists caution against identifying long-term trends from incomplete data sets collected over a relatively short period of time. He also said some people bitten by non-venomous snakes mistakenly report being bitten by copperheads.

To avoid being bitten, Mr. Beane said to clear away piles of leaves, wear shoes while outdoors and use a flashlight when out at night. He also said to leave snakes alone, because they typically won’t bother you unless you bother them.

Mr. Beane said he encourages the skittish to see the good in North Carolina’s abundant copperheads, from their “superb color and pattern” to their role in controlling the rodent and insect population.

“If not, I tell them to move to a place where they don’t occur, like a high-rise apartment,” he said.

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