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Posted 12/9/2013

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By Erica Skolte
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District

Halloween is the perfect time to talk about all things creepy and crawly, so safety technician Brian Meade arranged for a special presentation during his monthly safety meeting at the South Florida Operations Office (SFOO) in Clewiston.

Meade serves as a resource for team members who work in the Clewiston office and at the locks and dams along the Okeechobee Waterway and Canaveral Lock, ensuring compliance with all safety regulations.  

“I asked everyone what they’d like to learn about, and one of the employees suggested the topic of poisonous plants and animals,” said Meade.

Following briefings on respirators and Halloween safety, biologist Nicole Liette provided an overview of the many poisonous plants and animals in south Florida. Since many of the SFOO and lock employees spend a lot of time outdoors or in the field, it’s important for them to be aware of the poisonous species they might encounter during their normal duties in south Florida.

Liette covered all of the bases, starting with fire ants, bees and wasps, before moving on to scorpions, black widow and brown recluse spiders.

Liette also included poisonous caterpillars in her presentation, since some people experience severe reactions to the poisons released by the spines and may require medical attention. One treatment protocol is to place scotch tape over the affected area, stripping it off repeatedly to remove the spines. Ice packs help to reduce the stinging sensation followed by a paste of baking soda and water to neutralize the poison.

Of the 45 snake species that occur throughout Florida, 23 may be found in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of Lake Okeechobee. Of the 23, only four are venomous:  the coral snake, the aggressive Florida cottonmouth or water moccasin, dusky pigmy rattlesnake and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. The southern copperhead is found in a small area of the Florida panhandle, just west of Tallahassee, and the timber or canebrake rattlesnake is found in northeast Florida.

The venomous pit vipers, like rattlesnakes, the cottonmouth and the southern copperhead have large triangular heads, but the venomous eastern coral snake does not. The color pattern is the best way to identify this species. To easily remember the difference between the eastern coral snake and the scarlet kingsnake (a non-venomous snake), Liette advises to think about the two colors most commonly seen on a safety vest (bright red or orange and yellow) to remember which one is poisonous. Or, remember by using the “stoplight” phrase:  “yellow, red, STOP!”

The treatment protocol for an eastern coral snake bite is to head to the emergency room immediately for anti-venom, since the poison acts very quickly. Liette refuted some popular myths about venomous snake bites. She explained that application of tourniquets or ice worsens the damage, and that cutting an “X” and sucking out the venom is not recommended. Instead, call 911 immediately, keep the limb below heart level and head to the emergency room.

She also recommended keeping a distance from the diamondback rattlesnake, since the snake can strike at a distance of two thirds its body length.

Poisonous creatures also inhabit the water, including stingrays, catfish, urchins, stonefish, scorpionfish and lionfish, which have venom-coated spines, portions of which may be left embedded in a wound. The recommended treatment is to soak in hot soapy water for 30 to 90 minutes to deactivate the venom (no ice or cold water), and head to the hospital to remove foreign matter or treat severe symptoms.

Poisonous aquatic invertebrates include jellyfish, coral, man-of-war and anemones, which have stinging cells that eject a poison whip-like hair when touched. It is important never to rub, because it causes more of the nematocysts to sting. Rinse the area with sea water, vinegar or alcohol (not fresh water), then fix the remaining tentacles with shaving cream, flour or talc, scraping the matter off with a dull knife.

Liette also addressed poisonous plants, like poison sumac, which have toxins in the plant sap. Poison ivy and poison oak both have leaves in sets of three, and the poison oak has lobed leaves similar to an oak tree. Another good rule of thumb from Liette:  Never eat a plant you don’t know.

After the presentation, several employees shared their experiences with poisonous species, which underscored the need to know about hazards in the environment.

Calvin Grinslade, a civil engineering technician in the SFOO, spends much of his time outdoors. This summer during the wet season, Lake Okeechobee levels rose above 15.5 feet, and two-person teams inspected the dike on a weekly basis. Grinslade told the audience that that he has seen several Florida bark scorpions under rocks and in some of the monitoring well sleeves in the levee of the Herbert Hoover Dike. He also comes across aggressive cottonmouths along the interior of the dike and frequently sees black widow spiders (which he stays away from when he sees their unique spiky white egg cases). He has also seen the damage that a brown recluse bite can do.

Liette’s presentation underscored the important message to be educated, be alert and aware, and be safe.

For additional information on venomous snakes, visit:


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