While the odds are very low that you will be bit by a venomous snake in Kansas, that’s little consolation for anyone who ends up with a bite. Of the 42 species of snakes in Kansas, there are only four native venomous snakes you might encounter: the prairie rattlesnake – found in the western half of the state; the massasauga rattlesnake – found in the eastern two-thirds of the state; the timber rattlesnake – found in the eastern fourth of the state; and the copperhead, found in the eastern third of the state. Cottonmouths are very rare in Kansas. Just two specimens of the northern cottonmouth have been recorded in the Spring River drainage in the far southeastern corner of the state. Western diamond-backed rattlesnakes were introduced, but are not widespread and have been recorded in only a few central-Kansas locations.
All venomous snakes found in Kansas are pit vipers, meaning they have heat-sensitive pits in front of each eye to help locate prey. Their venom is hemotoxic, causing internal bleeding and tissue damage.
Snakes are active during the warmer months between late March and November – the same time when people are most active outdoors. Most snakes are found in rural or semi-rural areas where there is suitable habitat and prey. They may be found in woodlands and shrubby areas; brush, log or rock piles; around water; in tall grass; around rocky outcrops or ledges; or even under ornamental shrubbery and gardens. Kansas’ venomous snakes feed primarily on rodents, but their diet may also include insects, frogs, toads, lizards, small birds and other snakes. Snakes cannot regulate their body temperature internally, so when it’s hot, they may be more active at night, retreating to shady areas or under rocks and logs during the day. When it’s cooler, they tend to be more active during the day.
Hiking, camping, fishing, or hunting may put you in areas where you could encounter a snake, so be snake-savvy and snake-aware. Venomous snakes are generally shy and aren’t looking for a fight, but they will bite in self-defense if you step too close, step on or provoke them. Learn how to recognize them. They are well-camouflaged, so watch where you walk, and don’t go barefoot or wear flip-flops or sandals, even on established trails or around campgrounds. Instead, wear sturdy leather shoes or boots. To help protect your legs, wear long pants or jeans rather than shorts. Special snake chaps and tall leather boots are available if you’ll be working in brushy areas where you suspect venomous snakes live. Wear leather gloves when handling brush, and never reach into an area you can’t see. Don’t try to handle or tease a snake.
Snakebites in Kansas are rarely fatal and effective treatment is available. If you think you’ve been bitten by a venomous snake, stay calm to slow the spread of the venom. Keep the site of the bite quiet and below the level of your heart. Call 911 or get to a hospital as quickly as possible, but do not try to drive yourself.
It is not necessary to catch or kill the snake because a single type of antivenom is used to treat all pit viper bites in the U.S. Do not apply a tourniquet or ice, and never attempt to cut the bite marks and suck out the venom. Do not drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages.
There are usually one or two puncture marks. If the snake injected venom (they can choose whether to inject venom and about 25 percent of bites are “dry”), there may be burning pain along with redness, and swelling around the bite that may progress along the limb. Nausea and vomiting can occur. Your vision may be affected and breathing can become labored. Other symptoms may include increased salivation and sweating and numbness or tingling around your face and limbs.
Nationwide, venomous snakebite deaths are rare, but bites can be very painful and cause serious tissue damage. Always seek immediate medical attention if you think you have been bitten. Learn about our venomous snakes so you’ll know where they live and how to recognize them. A great resource is the online Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas hosted by the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University: http://webapps.fhsu.edu/ksherp/default.aspx. There you’ll find color photos, descriptions, life history, range maps and a calendar of peak activity.
You can reduce the risk of venomous snakebite by learning all you can about snakes and our wild areas, taking a few simple precautions, and being aware at all times.