Herpatologist describes the copperhead as ‘sit-and-wait predator’
Copperhead bites usually aren't fatal to humans, according to John Simmons, a herpetologist who is the collections manager at the Kansas University Natural History Museum.
But the snake that bit Tonganoxie resident Sharon Hughes must have injected a lot of venom, Simmons said.
"If she got six vials of anti-venom, she got a pretty good dose of venom -- probably way more than normal," Simmons said, adding that most adults who are bit by a copperhead don't require anti-venom.
Simmons termed copperheads as "sit-and-wait predators."
"When they coil up they blend in with the vegetation," Simmons said. "They like wooded areas, curling up on fallen leaves they'll sit and wait for an animal to come along."
Venomous snakes regulate the amount of venom they inject, Simmons said, from the venom gland in the snake's upper jaw.
"Studies show they don't inject more than they need," Simmons said. "Venom isn't just to kill the animals they eat, it's also a digestive enzyme. It may inject more venom when it needs to kill a mouse because the venom helps them digest the mouse."
It's a different situation with a larger animal or human.
"In a defensive strike against a horse or a dog or a person, something they're not going to eat, they will inject less than a fatal dose," Simmons said. "Probably because they are intending to cause the animal some pain, but not to kill it."
But occasionally, a human will get a larger dose, such as what may have happened with Hughes, Simmons said.
"Sometimes a snake will inject all the venom it has to put a large load into a person, maybe when it's stepped on," Simmons said. "And the consequences can be very grave."
If someone is bitten by a snake, he said, the most important thing to do is to get them to a hospital for emergency medical care.