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‘Tis The Season…For Habu Snakes To Hibernate!

By: LT Daniel Szumlas, Ph.D.

Date Posted: 1999-12-17

The season when our holiday activities increase is upon us once again. It is also the time of the year that Habu snake activities tend to increase as well. However, Habu snakes are not looking for holiday sales or gifts - they are seeking hibernation sites. Since summer is over and “winter” season is nearly here, the hibernation season for many animals has arrived. Even though we do not have a very cold winter on Okinawa, the insects and other animals that depend upon warmer weather for food decrease in abundance. Likewise, the snakes seek hibernation sites for protection before becoming active again in March and April. We are more likely to see snakes at this time of the year because they are moving and searching for protective hibernation sites.

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. Elevate and immobilize the bitten limb, if possible. Elevate the bitten area above heart level and immobilize it 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.

‘Tis the season to be happy 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, Ph.D., is a Medical Entomologist with the 3d Medical Battalion, 3d FSSG, and Consolidated Preventive Medicine Unit, USNH

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