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The cicadas are coming

And they’re bringing copperhead snakes. Here’s what you need to know.

This month, billions of Brood X cicadas – which emerge every 17 years – will flood the sidewalks, parks, yards, and streets of 15 states in the eastern and southern US. But the harmless (and harmonious) insects won’t be the only new creature making an appearance on the block: copperhead snakes, who see the bugs as an easy and plentiful treat, will also be out in full force.

"Why would such a well-armed predator bother to dine on cicadas?" asked writer Andy Gluesenkamp in a 2016 issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. "For the same reason we eat fast food: It's cheap and easy. Cicadas can occur in high densities, and they offer no defense of their fat-and-protein-filled bodies other than a crunchy exoskeleton."

David Wheeler, director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, puts it this way: “I think of them as cicada McNuggets.”

So more cicadas mean more copperhead snakes hunting for snacks. Which could be interpreted to mean a higher likelihood of human – snake interactions. But this shouldn’t be a great cause for concern. As a recent op-ed in The Washington Post notes, the arrival of cicadas has never coincided with any reported increase in snakebites. The copperheads will mostly show up at night, between nine and midnight, when the cicada larvae come out from the soil. Also, copperheads are not aggressive and like to stay hidden in tall grass or leaves or near bodies of water. Sara Ruane, a herpetologist and professor at Rutgers-Newark told NJ.com, “Unless you’re out at night, marching around in the woods, you’re probably not going to encounter one.”

If you are out at night, however, make sure to bring a flashlight and keep an eye out: copperheads are reddish-brown in color (hence their name), and like other species of North American pit viper, have triangular heads, eyes like slits, and a pit between their nostrils and eyes. A walking stick can be helpful because it will let a snake know you’re coming. Step on logs and rocks rather than over them, and stay clear of long grasses, bushes, rocks, and other places where snakes might hide.

If you do see a snake, don’t approach it, touch it, or otherwise molest it in any way – simply back away slowly.

Copperheads account for most of the snakebites in the Southeastern US. While their venom is typically mild and rarely results in death, if you or a companion gets bit, immediately call 911 and/or find directions to the nearest hospital. Ideally, the victim should rest, keep the wound at or above heart level, and wait for an ambulance. Do not use tourniquets or attempt to cut or apply suction to the bite site. Do not apply ice or shock treatments, or take NSAIDs (e.g., Advil, Motrin, and other anti-inflammatories; Tylenol is ok).

Only one of the FDA-approved antivenoms has been studied in a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial as a treatment for copperhead envenomations. The study showed that even patients with mild- and moderate-severity copperhead envenomation experienced improved recovery of limb function at 14 days if treated with antivenom. The treated patients also had lower pain scores and substantially less opioid use throughout recovery.

For more information, check out our Snakebite 101 blog post here, or download BTG’s SnakeBite911 app, which provides life-saving tips, tools, and resources for outdoor enthusiasts and first responders.