( One of Nature's ways of saying "Do not touch"!)
In a previous post on the Three Sisters of Itch, I mentioned that Jon Young strongly suggests becoming knowledgeable about the plants and animals in your area that pose a hazard to you. It is a wonderful suggestion for at least two reasons; first, it is good to know what can hurt you, and second there are fewer things out there that are hazardous then are benign or helpful. So in this posting we are going to explore a little about some of the things in our environments that we should be aware of while exploring what is out there. This is by no means an exhaustive list, it is a primer of some of the more common, and potentially harmful plants and animals that you might encounter outside.
Let's start with the animals. A general concept is that most of the animals you see in the wild are just that, wild. Just because they are cute, does not mean that they star in a Walt Disney movie. Megafauna like Deer, Coyote, Elk, Moose, Bison, Raccoons, Porcupines, Bears, Armadillos, Horses, Cattle, and Mountain Lions, to name a few, should be treated with great respect and caution. They are wonderful animals that should be viewed from a distance and not annoyed. Ever year people are mauled or killed by some of these animals because the people wanted to get close to animals that are wild. As a result, most of the "offending" animals are killed by authorities for the actions of the people injured.
First a bit on terminology. Animals-snakes, spiders, and many insects have venom, and are venomous. Plants can be poisonous. Now onto some of the wee-beasties that might cause you some harm. But first a quick side note, Shorttail and Common Shrews like the unknown number of insectivorous mammals are venomous. It is in their saliva, but the concentration is not strong enough to be a concern for humans. and Armadillos have been known to carry leprosy on their skin. So, do not pet the Armadillos!
The Reticulate and Banded Gila Monsters. These lizards, along with the Mexican Beaded Lizard, are the only venomous lizards in the world. The venom from these lizards is very potent. There are very few recorded attacks by these lizards in the wild. The recorded ones are from lizards kept in captivity, and up to 25% of those bites have been fatal. There is no commercial antivenin available.
I found 26 species of Rattlesnakes in doing research for this posting! While all the species are venomous, many will not cause death in humans. The bites will really hurt and medical attention should be sought. The Eastern Diamondback is considered to be the most dangerous rattlesnake in North America and considered potentially lethal. Rattlesnakes do NOT always rattle before they strike. Learn if they are in your area, and learn about their habits.
There are three species of Cottonmouths, or water moccasins, in America. They are the Eastern, Florida, and Western Cottonmouths. The venom of the cottonmouths is very destructive and has caused limbs to be amputated. A good general rule is to avoid all unknown water snakes within the geographic ranges of the Cottonmouths. Seek medical attention if you are bitten by a Cottonmouth.
I found 5 species of Copperheads that you might encounter and they are the Southern, Northern, Osage, Broad-Banded, and Trans-Pecos Copperheads. There are no reported deaths of healthy adults from Copperhead bites. Young children, adults with weak hearts, and the elderly have been killed by Copperhead bites, but these are rare. The bites are painful, and Copperheads can be aggressive. You should seek medical attention if bitten by a Copperhead.
There are 4 species of Coral Snakes in America. The Eastern, South Florida, Texas, and Arizona Coral Snake. They are venomous, and medical attention should be sought if bitten. Having said that, the only recorded Coral Snake bites have come from people handling the snakes. The Scarlet Kingsnake, and other sub-species of Milk Snake, can be confused with Coral Snakes because of the similar colors. The phrase "Red on yellow kills a fellow. Red on black, venom lack" is a way to remember to help determine if the snake you are looking at is a Coral Snake or a Milk (King) Snake.
Virtually all spiders have venom. That is how they kill their prey. But the Black Widow is the most venomous spider in the world, and we have it here in North America. They tend to live in dark areas and under debris. If you are bitten by one seek medical attention as there is an antivenin.
The Brown Recluse spider is a wide spread spider which can be found in houses. The bites are rarely fatal. The bites are painful and can develop into a large, deep area of dead skin cell tissue. The wound may take months to heal and can leave a scar.
There are about 1500 known Scorpion species in the world, with only 25 having lethal venom. Here in the states we have about 70 species of Scorpions. The Sculptured Scorpion of Arizona is one of the Scorpions that does have potentially lethal venom. So seek medical attention if you are bitten by a Sculpted Scorpion.
Many insects like the Saddleback and Io Moth Caterpillars have a mild venom in the hairs on their bodies which produces an irritation or itchy area if you contact them. Similarly, bees, wasps, and hornets have venom but are usually non-fatal unless the person being stung is allergic to "bee" stings. It can be a life threatening situation for someone who is allergic.
There are many plants out there that will cause you stomach ailments if you eat parts of them. Many are benign, many have medicinal properties. All grasses are edible. They may not taste great but they are edible. Here are some common plants that can cause some harm, or death to humans. Plants can be tricky. Some poisonous species look very similar to species that are really tasty. So, exert caution if you get into using wild edible plants.
Pokeweed is a tall , stout, large rooted perennial which has gorgeous purple-black berries that are inedible. While children have died from eating the berries, it is actual the roots that are the most poisonous.
"I drank what?", are the last words Socrates is reported to have uttered after being poisoned by drinking hemlock according to Plato. Both Poison and Water Hemlock are poisonous, especially the roots and seeds. Poison Hemlock root can resemble wild carrots and Water Hemlock can resemble wild parsnip. In both cases one bite of the roots can kill an adult. If you have these it in your area, learn what it looks like. It is actually rather pretty and delicate. The Hemlock plants are very different from the Hemlock Tree whose needles can be brewed into a vitamin C rich tea.
Stinging Nettle has turned many a romp through the woods and fields into a painful and itchy experience. Stinging Nettle often grows in disturbed soils and moist thickets. The stinging usually last about an hour, but can last for days, and is not deadly. Nettle tea is actual very nice to drink and the fresh leaves can be collected and steamed like spinach. The cooking makes the chemical mixture that causes the itching to become inert. It is very tasty.
Make sure you can identify the Three Sisters of Itch in your area! Poison Sumac, Ivy, and Oak can cause a great deal of misery for folks who react to the oils on these plants. Also never burn any of the three sisters as the burning releases the oils into the smoke and then you can inhale the oils into your airway and lungs.
Mushrooms are a whole other deal. Many mushrooms are wonderful to eat. Others will kill you with one bite. Collecting mushrooms is a huge cultural tradition around the world. Here in California the arrival of the winter rains means that the woods will soon be full of dedicated mushroom hunters looking for a variety of edible fungi. And every year there are deaths around the country from people eating misidentified mushrooms. The Death Cap (Cup) Amanita phalloides is responsible for the majority of deaths from eating mushrooms in the United States and is often called the deadliest mushroom in the world. The Death Cup is a rather attractive white mushroom that looks very innocent. Eating one however can kill you in a few days. It does this by shutting down your kidneys in 2-3 days. So, when it comes to eating mushrooms, you NEED to be 1000% sure of what you are going to put into your mouth. I suggest stick to cultivated mushrooms unless you really dedicate some time into learning about mushroom identification.
So, that is it for a crash course on some of the things out there that can cause us harm, pain, or even death. I write this posting not to discourage you from your continued exploration and enjoyment of the natural world, but rather to inform you about what is out there. By learning about the things out there that can cause us harm, you are giving yourself and your children knowledge. With this knowledge, you can explore the natural world and keep yourself safe at the same time. The knowledge will also help dispel fear about the "unknown" things out there. It is a great way to help fight Nature Deficit Disorder. Have a blast learning more about our amazing world out there!
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