Spiders and snakes you should know
A guide to help you better identify—and hopefully avoid—these venomous creatures of Kentucky
A burning, itching pain in my forefinger awakened me at 3 a.m. one Sunday. The muscle and joint pain I was feeling seemed to be due to more than Saturday’s chores. Upon closer inspection I saw a red, blistering sting of some kind on the joint near the tip of my finger. “Oh, well, it’ll be gone by tomorrow,” I thought to myself.
Still with a painful finger on Monday morning, I decided to take a look with a magnifying glass. To my surprise I saw two fang marks about 1/16th of an inch apart. Obviously I had been bitten by a spider and didn’t even know when. In backtracking my day, I remembered digging through a cardboard box full of old clothes in the basement. Was that where it happened?
A couple of hours of research about spiders left no doubt in my mind. I had been bitten by a brown recluse (Loxosceles reclusa), also known as the fiddler or fiddleback because of the violin-shaped marking on its cephalothorax (the head and mid-body where the legs attach). One of its favorite places to hide is in cardboard boxes full of rags or clothes.
Over the next few days, my finger started healing. In most cases that’s the outcome—a painful blister and maybe some muscle pain and it’s all gone within days. It’s only in rare cases that brown recluse bite victims undergo amputations or sustain massive degenerative tissue wounds, although their bites are known to cause some bad wounds that can get infected, so always seek medical attention if you even think you’ve been bitten.
My own experience led me to write this article about Kentucky’s venomous creatures—which have poisonous fluid capable of being injected into humans.
Kentucky’s other dangerous spider is known for eating its mate. She is the black widow (Latrodectus mactans), North America’s most venomous spider. This shiny jet-black spider is identifiable by the red hourglass marking on its underside. (The male black widow is rarely seen, perhaps for fear of getting eaten, so it is typically the female with the red spot on her back that you are most likely to encounter.) It hides in dark places such as woodpiles and under clutter in the yard, garage, or basement. A bite from this spider affects the nervous system, causing symptoms that include abdominal pain, tremors, nausea, difficulty breathing, and chest pain.
Other than these two spiders to watch out for, you should know that only four out of 32 snake species in Kentucky are venomous. Those four are all pit vipers, meaning they have heat-sensing pits located between the eyes and nostrils. They’re recognizable by their triangular-shaped heads and elliptical-shaped pupils, similar to a cat’s eyes.
As an outdoorsman, I am very good at spotting these slithering creatures of the woods. Well, that’s what I thought until I almost stepped on a copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) while hiking. There he was with his tell-tale, copper-colored head and dark hourglass-shaped bands, all coiled up looking at me. And there I was with my face white as a sheet, eyes as big as saucers, and a boot frozen in the air. Instead of striking, the snake lay motionless until I backed away—and I breathed a very big sigh of relief. If I had been bitten I might have experienced symptoms such as intense pain, severe nausea, swelling, and throbbing.
The timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) can have a variety of color shades—brown, greenish, and almost black with darker bands across the body. I’ve never seen one in the wild, but I bet they’ve seen me. They’re normally nonaggressive toward humans, and hide in rocky outcroppings and ledges, probably watching me as I pass by. They have a heavy body and can grow up to 5 feet long—an intimidating sight. But they’d rather scare you away than strike. They’ll do so by rattling their tails and puffing themselves up to look even larger. But sometimes, by accidentally stepping on one or attempting to pick one up, folks get bitten. Symptoms include extreme pain, swelling, anxiety, profuse sweating, nausea, and possible heart failure if left untreated.
The pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius streckeri) reaches only 5-20 inches in length. This little spotted snake is found in western Kentucky, primarily around wetlands. The danger here is the small size of the pygmy rattlesnake, making it hard to see and easily stepped on. Although its venom is hardly enough to kill a human, pain and intense bleeding at the bite site warrant medical attention.
Another resident of western Kentucky’s wetlands is the western cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma). This snake gets its name from the whitish color of the interior of its mouth. Also known as the water moccasin, the western cottonmouth is a semi-aquatic snake, living in and out of the water in swampy areas such as Murphy’s Pond in Hickman County, thought to have one of the highest populations of cottonmouth snakes in the country. This snake will stand its ground, ready to strike if it feels threatened. If bitten, symptoms include extreme pain, rapid swelling within minutes of the bite, nausea, chills, and increased heart rate. Bite victims should get to a hospital as soon as possible.
There is good news: deaths as a result of being bitten by any of our venomous spiders and snakes are rare, even with all the awful symptoms mentioned above. You may feel like dying, but likely you won’t as long as you seek medical treatment. Admittedly, I did not go to a doctor when I realized I had been bitten by a brown recluse spider, but in hindsight I probably should have. Again, don’t do what I did—seek medical attention if you think you’ve been bitten.
• If bitten by a poisonous snake and no help is available, don’t panic and run. Calmly walk to keep the venom from spreading more rapidly. Seek medical attention as soon as possible, but realize you will likely survive.
• Reducing clutter in and around the house will reduce spider and snake habitats.
n Wear gloves if rummaging around in cardboard boxes of old clothes and other old materials.
• Do not capture or try to remove snakes or spiders from your home, yard, or other habitats. If necessary, seek the assistance of a paid service, such as a pest or wildlife control for snakes or extermination service for spiders. (The Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources is not responsible for removing these creatures on private property.)
• It is recommended that you not kill spiders and snakes if they are not harming you or invading your property. Back away and leave them alone to do their work in nature.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: More about Kentucky’s spiders and snakes
To read more about Kentucky’s dangerous and other common spiders and snakes, go to “spiders and snakes."