SPNI: Difficult to discern between poisonous and harmless snakes

The Vipera palaestinae, a venomous viper species found in the region, is the most common poisonous snake in Israel.

June 30, 2013 04:11
3 minute read.
A vipera palaestinae

A vipera palaestinae 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As the summer sun continues to draw Israelis to beaches and hiking trails, they should be aware for stealthy creatures potentially undulating in their environs, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel reminded the public on Thursday.

Snakes recently returned to the headlines after a traveler tragically died from a poisonous viper bite during a Kinneret trip. SPNI zoologists are therefore eager to provide the public with a stronger awareness toward the presence of potentially venomous snakes – though identifying whether a snake is poisonous requires a detailed memorization of all of Israel’s individual snake species.

Due to Israel’s unique location among three different continents as well as a variety of environmental factors, the country has about 40 species of snakes living within its bounds, of which nine are poisonous, according to Shmulik Yedvab and Dr. Boaz Shacham, zoologists for SPNI.

In comparison, they explained, only 50 species of snakes reside in all of Europe.

During the winter, because snakes are cold-blooded, they spend most of their time laying dormant, the zoologists said. But as the weather begins to warm up, they begin feverish eating activity in preparation for mating.

The Vipera palaestinae, a venomous viper species found in the region, is the most common poisonous snake in Israel and is typically found closest to humans – due to a hunger for mice and rats that live near residential buildings, the zoologists explained. While the viper does not have the most poisonous bite of Israel’s poisonous snakes, it is considered the country’s most dangerous due to its proximity to residential areas, they said.

It is difficult to identify whether a snake is venomous or not. Despite rumors, a triangular head is not necessarily a sign of a poisonous snake, as there are non-poisonous species that bear the same form, like the Coluber. Likewise, there are many poisonous snakes with wide heads, like the Black Desert Cobra.

This cobra also contradicts the commonly held belief that a black snake is not poisonous.

“You have to know each one of them by themselves. There is no one [rule of thumb] for identifying them,” Yedvab told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “Unless you’re a zoologist, or familiar with all the poisonous snakes, it’s best to not touch it. If you see a snake give him his space and walk backwards.”

It is crucial to give all snakes the respect they desire and allow them to feel relaxed and safe in the human presence, the zoologists explained. Despite the hot season, there are still relatively low chances of receiving a fatal or severe injury from a snake, particularly because snakes do not seek out human interaction and only bite as a last resort.

”Snakes are not trying to hunt people,” Yedvab said. “We are not their usual play items. We are too big – they are afraid of us.”

On hikes, travelers should wear boots and long pants, travel on well-lit trails and avoid placing their hands under rocks, the zoologists said. In residential areas, it is important to avoid approaching areas with scrap metal disposal areas or other objects that could harbor hidden snakes like uprooted weeds, they explained. Meanwhile, rodent control also reduces the food supply – and thereby the presence – of snakes. People are only likely to get bitten if they either catch a snake on purpose, mistakenly bump into one or accidentally disturb one on a rock, Yedvab said.

If bitten, the victim should be immediately evacuated to a hospital, and to control the spread of venom it is important to fixate the affected limb as if in a cast, the zoologists explained. When possible, a photograph of the snake will be helpful to doctors treating the case, they added.

There are typically dozens of poisonous snake bites each year, but rarely do these cases end in death, as hospitals and travelers are more prepared, Yedvab said.

“People are more aware of how to avoid snake bites,” he added.

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