Of the 45 to 48 various species of snakes found in Oklahoma, only seven of those species are poisonous, but not all species of snakes can be found in all areas of the state.

MIAMI – Snakes love summertime in Oklahoma. Around Ottawa County reports of snake sightings and encounters the past few weeks has risen. Snakes have been spotted in urban and rural area windows, garages, crawling on cars, in pools, around streams, lakes and ponds, creeping across roadways and lawns, and even inside homes.

With 45 to 48 species (depending on referenced taxonomy) of snakes inhabiting the state, Oklahomans are sure to encounter a snake, and for some, this is a wonderful wildlife experience, but for others a nightmare.

Of the 45 to 48 various species of snakes found in Oklahoma, only seven of those species are poisonous, but not all species of snakes can be found in all areas of the state.

The word herpetology, the branch of zoology concerned with the study of amphibians, is derived from the Greek word herpeton, which means “creeping thing.”

Oklahoma herpetologist Richard Butler, a Summer Academy Instructor at Oklahoma University manages an “unofficial” herpetology website, www.okherp.com, dedicated to herpetology education and the conservation of Oklahoma’s native species.

“Without an actual scientific investigation the best I can come up with is we had a mild winter and mixing that with an early spring we’re going to have an early hatch,” Butler said to explain the increase in snake sightings. “ You will have early emergence from the hibernating snakes. They’ve got a lot of stuff to eat and they’re going to hang around where there’s going to be a lot of food.”

With the early spring and good water supply came an abundance of tadpoles, frogs, mice, birds and crayfish that snakes, all carnivorous, love to feast on. Small snakes also feed on insects.

Most non-poisonous snakes lay eggs hidden in debris, under rocks or logs, and the poisonous vipers give live birth to baby snakes. Snake populations can be controlled by removing tall weeds, brush, and rubbish that provide potential cover.

“The egg layers are the ones you want to have around. Venomous snakes, specifically around the Miami area, you’re going to have Timber rattlesnakes, Copperheads, and Cottonmouths and those are livebearers, they actually give live birth before emerging,” Butler said. “So right now we’re seeing a lot of juveniles.”

Butler said young Copperheads and Cottonmouths can be identified by their yellow-tipped tails.

After egg laying or giving birth, the snakes are seeking food to restore energy and to store fat for the next hibernation cycle. Depending on species, egg layers produce from one to 44 eggs in a clutch and can give birth from five to 85 snakes in a litter.

“They don’t want to mess with people,” Butler said. “In fact, they want to stay away from us. If they feel like they can’t get away, or they’re trapped and don’t have an escape route, the only way to defend themselves is to bite. They’re not aggressive, they only bite whenever they are being threatened, if you’re trying to kill them, hurt them, or trying to pick them up, that’s when you’ll get bit.”

Butler said most bites occur when a snake is on the defense and to avoid injury it’s best to give them space.

“The best thing to do is give the snake an escape route,” he said. “Just admire it from a distance. Don’t try to pick it up or try to shoo it away. If the snake is somewhere you feel it is a threat to your family, your children or a pet, then call and have a trained professional remove it, but don’t try removing it yourself without training. If you’re outside, you’re fishing, walking around, admire it, stay far enough away from it that you’re not going to be in strike range, take photographs of it and let it go on about its way.”

Butler said most times the snake will move on and be gone in five minutes if left alone. He said it’s believed snakes don’t have a keen sense of hearing at all because they have no ears or developed ear canals and have poor eyesight. Snakes have a keen highly developed sense of smell associated with their tongue which captures odor chemicals transferred to the Jacobson’s organ the lies in the roof of the mouth.

“Whenever they feel it’s safe to come out, that’s when they will come out. If you keep moving they’re going to stay hidden, if everything is calm and there’s not a whole lot of vibration taking place, like when they get in a tire well or engine on a car frame, when you try to poke at it, the snake will stay hidden,” he said.

Butler suggests leaving the car or location alone overnight and chances are the snake will come out to go after food and find another place to hide.

“Snakes actually do a lot more good than they do harm. In fact, if you look at the statistics on how many people are bitten by them, and compare that to statistics of chances of getting a disease or virus from some other animal, it is greater from a rodent than you can get from a snake,” he said.

Butler’s theory is many people are scared of snakes due to lack of education and human primal instincts that can be overcome.

“There’s a most basic natural primal instincts to fear snakes based on being able to avoid snakes while foraging for food in our earlier hunter/gatherer era,” he said. “We have kind of a basic instinct to fear snakes and we also have the ability to rationalize and reason and use logic and get over that.”

Religious stigma is also associated with snakes from the Biblical account of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, according to Butler.

“There’s a lot of ideas handed down generationally, such as ‘the only good snake is a dead snake,’ or every snake is harmful,” he said. “In reality, most of our snakes are harmless, extremely beneficial and not going to hurt anything, but it’s been passed down from generation to generation that snakes are bad.”

Butler said his own family taught him to fear snakes but he was always fascinated by the creatures.

“I’ve just always been active in the outdoors since I was a child, ” he said. “I think it was the strong desire for exploration and adventure that causes fear in most people that just causes fascination with me. Once you get past that initial fear then you realize these are actually really awesome animals. They hunt by scent, they flick their tongue in the air and pick up scent particles, they move around on their bellies using their ribs and muscles, they’re quiet and they can move very fast, they’re extremely efficient hunters. They’re amazing animals and they are even capable of some affection.”

Butler said he has pet snakes his students and children handle.

“If you didn’t know any better you’d almost think that these snakes are entirely affectionate because they climb up on your face and they flick you with their tongue,” he said.

The seven poisonous species in Oklahoma include the Copperhead and Northern cottonmouth, and five species of rattlesnakes; the Prairie rattlesnake, Timber rattlesnake, Western diamond-backed, Western massasauga, and Western pygmy rattlesnake.

Although there are exceptions to every rule, in general, poisonous snakes can be identified by their physical characteristics.

Butler said, “The only snakes we have in Oklahoma that are going to cause any potential problem at all are Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, and Cottonmouths- they belong to the pit viper family. All pit vipers have elliptic pupils and like cat-slit eyes, that tells you they’re primarily nighttime hunters. Their heads are larger because they have such large venom glands. Pit vipers have a pit on their face right by their nostrils, (which acts as a heat sensor to find prey) if you have binoculars or are at the zoo you can see those pits pretty well.”

“But if you’re looking at the characteristics of the pit and the slit eyes on a wild snake – you’re too close. It can strike,” he said. “If it’s a four-foot snake, you stay more than four feet away. The best I can tell people is once you learn to identify the venomous snakes and their characteristics you can pretty much rule the rest of them out. The best way to avoid bite is to stay away from them. Know they are there in wooded areas or creeks or ponds and when you go outside watch your step.”

All experts agree if bitten it is best to seek immediate medical attention.

Non-venomous species found in Oklahoma include the Broad-banded watersnake, Bullsnake, Coachwhip, Common gartersnake, Diamond-backed watersnake, Eastern hog-nosed snake, Flat-headed snake, Graham's crayfish snake, Great Plains ratsnake Kansas glossy snake, Lined snake, Long-nosed snake, Marcy's checkered gartersnake, Northern red-bellied snake, Northern rough greensnake, Northern watersnake, Orange-tipped ribbonsnake, Plain-bellied watersnake, Plains black-headed snake, Plains gartersnake, Plains hog-nosed snake, Racer, Ring-necked snake, Rough earthsnake, Scarletsnake, Speckled kingsnake, Texas brownsnake, Texas nightsnake, Threadsnake, Variable groundsnake, Western black-necked gartersnake, Western milksnake, Western mudsnake, Western smooth earthsnake, Western ratsnake, and Western wormsnake.

“Just remember that these are wild animals. If you see somebody like me pick up a snake, don’t necessarily try to mimic those behaviors. You can learn from them but at the same time if you’re not well trained, you don’t know how to avoid being bitten, or do certain things you are putting yourself at risk,” Butler said. “Like a fox or a deer you see in the wild, sit and watch and admire then, take pictures. Then you can admire them for the beautiful creatures they really are and for what they are designed to do.”

An Oklahoma herpetology website www.oksnakes.org offers information and photos to help identify each species.

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.