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They are back! Habu snakes and typhoons!

By: Daniel Szumlas

Date Posted: 2000-05-13

As spring is upon us, so is the season for typhoons and Habu snakes. Typhoon information is readily available in your local phone book, so typhoon safety information is not included here. However, information regarding Habu activity is not as easy to find. Now is the time to be aware of the dangers that Habus pose when our paths occasionally cross. Habus are coming out of their winter hiding places because their food sources (rats, mice, shrews, etc.) are becoming more active and abundant. We must take special precautions to ensure our safety while these dangers are "out there."

The venomous kinds of snakes present on Okinawa that we should be concerned with include the Okinawan habu, the Hime habu, and the Sakishima habu. A fourth snake, the Akamata, is not venomous, but it is very aggressive and bites readily when disturbed.

Characteristics of Dangerous Okinawan Snakes:

Habu snakes on Okinawa can be distinguished by the following characteristics:

Their color is either yellow-green with dark blotches that alternate on the back (Okinawa Habu), dark brown or gray with more dark blotches along the back (Hime Habu), or with yellow-orange marks that alternate on a dark-gray back (Sakishima Habu).

Heads are triangularly shaped. Eyes have elliptical (vertical) pupils.

Their faces possess a pit organ that looks like a large nostril between the eye and the true nostril. They use these pits to detect heat that is generated by warm-blooded animals, allowing the snake to "home-in" on its prey.

They have long, needle-like fangs that can inject a hemotoxic venom which increases bleeding and can cause tissue damage.

The Akamata has yellow/orange/reddish bands that alternate with dark patches. Akamatas do not have fangs, venom, pits, or triangular heads, and the pupils of their eyes are round instead of elliptical.
Habu Bites

Habu snakes are active at night. During the day they hide in heavily vegetated areas, in caves, tombs, rock piles, among tree roots, etc. All of these snakes will bite at any time of day or season if disturbed. If one were bitten by one of the habus and venom was injected, the symptoms would include the following:

Strong, throbbing pain;

Marks of the fangs with blood oozing from site;

Marked swelling. If no swelling is present within 10 minutes after the bite, either no venom was injected or the snake was not venomous;

Bruising of the skin around the bite;

For large amounts of injected venom the victim may have:

Nausea and vomiting

Disorientation

Low blood pressure

Irregular breathing

Emergency First-Aid:

If bitten, the following emergency first-aid measures should be taken:

1. Remain calm, or calm the victim. Many snake bites do not involve the injection of venom. However, if venom was injected, then it is important to reduce movement of the bitten limb as much as possible. Excitation increases the heart rate, causing venom to move through the body quicker than normal.

2. Apply a towel or cloth firmly around the bite site. This will slow the bleeding and also slow the spread of venom throughout the bitten area. Do not apply a tourniquet! A tourniquet can pool the venom in one area causing increased damage to surrounding tissues.

3. Immobilize the bitten limb, if possible. Keep the bitten area below heart level and immobilized using a splint or a sling. This will also slow the bleeding and the spread of venom.

4. Seek medical attention immediately. Due to the destructive nature of the venom, disfigured limbs or muscle damage may occur if medical treatment is not received quickly (within 2-3 hours). DO NOT attempt to make an incision or "suck out" the venom!

Use Caution Outside:

To reduce risks of snake bite, be careful when engaging in outdoor activities and in areas where snakes are likely to hide. Do not explore caves or tombs, especially during this time of year. Use a flashlight at night, and be very careful when stepping or reaching into areas where vision is limited. Remove piles of debris that rodents and snakes like to hide within, like rock or wood piles. Keep grass neatly cut and shrubs trimmed off the ground. Keep lights lit at night outside the home to help repel snakes.

It is time to pay strict attention to our surroundings and be aware that typhoons and Habus are out there…be aware, prepared, and safe. If snakes are seen or if action is needed in your area, call your local Provost Marshal’s Office (PMO) for assistance. For more information on snakes or other wildlife on Okinawa, contact the Preventive Medicine Department, Consolidated Preventive Medicine Unit, USNH at 643-7808.

Lt Daniel Szumlas Phd., is a Medical Entomologist with the 3rd Medical Battaliaon, 3rd FSSG and Consolidated Preventive Medicine Unit, USNH.

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