NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links

Illinois' Venomous Creatures Strike Back


Make no mistake about it, this land isn't safe. There's a vast array of venomous varmints in Illinois, from snakes that can kill to spiders whose bites render skin necrotic. Let's not exaggerate though: these critters are not the evil, horrendous monsters television and movies would have you believe. But they still could put you in a serious world of hurt, topped off with a pricey hospital bill. And there's only one surefire way to avoid them—stay indoors.

Don't worry, they're not out to get you—honest. Get the facts straight about the state's venomous inhabitants.

Yeah, right. You thrive in the outdoors so there's no way some button-sized bug is going to stop your fishing, hunting, canoeing or hiking treks. Get realistic and try to remember who's really afraid of whom. When was the last time a creature 100 times your size stomped through your home? There's nothing to fear as long as you know what's out there. The best line of defense is knowledge, so read on to learn a little more about the state's most common venom-packed critters.

Copperhead snake. (Photo by Scott Ballard.)


While there are numerous venomous creatures in Illinois, snakes are the best known—and least likely to bite you. To gauge a better understanding of snakebite rarity, you should know that nationwide only 2,000 people are bitten per year by venomous snakes, and less than 14 actually die. Face it, a snakebite seldom occurs, and when it does, it's usually because the snake was picked up, cornered or stepped on.

There are only four venomous snakes in Illinois: the timber rattlesnake, eastern massasauga rattle-


2  Outdoorlllinois

snake, copperhead and cottonmouth. All four are pit vipers and have a heat-sensing pit between the eye and nostril on each side of the face for detection of prey. Opposed to non-venomous snakes, who have round pupils, these all have elliptical, cat-shaped pupils.

Timber rattlesnakes, a state-threatened species, are known to reside in 21 Illinois counties, in heavily timbered areas and rocky bluffs along larger river systems. The state-endangered eastern massasauga is a pygmy rattler residing primarily in areas around Carlyle Lake in southern Illinois. The copperhead is limited to the southern one-third of Illinois (south of Route 16) and also up the Illinois River as far north as Rushville, preferring river bluffs with limestone or sandstone outcroppings. Lastly, the cottonmouth—also called the water moccasin—resides in the southern tip of Illinois, taking to swamps and wet bottomlands.

Scott Ballard, a snake expert and natural heritage biologist for DNR, warns that the only danger these venomous snakes pose to humans occurs when they are provoked, threatened or assaulted. However, snakes do view an accidental meeting with a size 12 an attack as well. So what do you do during a chance encounter with a venomous snake?

"Just leave it alone," Ballard advises. "No venomous snake in the United States is aggressive, and it will not come after you. If you're harassing it and it bites you, it's being defensive, not aggressive."


While most Illinois spider bites will causes nothing more than a little pain or itching, there are two that defy that rule: the black widow, whose bite can be fatal, and the brown recluse, whose bite causes necrosis of the tissue surrounding the bite.

There are two species of venomous black widows, both of which are found throughout Illinois in yards, fields or woods. They also are known to reside in wood piles, storage areas, garages and barns. Black widows live up to their name, and without quick treatment, their bite can lead to death. But don't expect to meet up with hordes of them anytime soon.

Brown recluse spider. (Photo courtesy of Diane Tecic.)

"Black widows pretty much keep to themselves," said Diane Tecic, a natural heritage biologist with DNR. "If you walk into their webs and seriously disturb them they may bite, but for the most part they really do avoid humans. If their web is disturbed they usually run back to retreat because they are not aggressive."

Plains scorpion. (Photo courtesy of Diane Tecic.)

The brown recluse is more frequently seen in Illinois than the black widow, as they are found in basements, dark corner areas, beneath rubbish or under piled wood and in storage areas. They also are more commonly found in southern Illinois. Tecic said people mainly get bitten when they aren't paying attention, reaching or rooting through storage areas to retrieve items. Some people react differently to the bite—they will just notice swelling, while still others must deal with necrosis in and around the targeted area. This must be treated, as without medical attention, the venom can cause the flesh around the bite to decay.

One particular venomous arachnid is the plains scorpion, so rare in Illinois that its sole residence is Monroe County. And it's generally hiding under rocks along the area's bluff line. The plains scorpion looks like a regular scorpion. It is about an inch and a half long; tan with a couple of stripes down its back. A sting usually results in a sharp pain and a red welt that disappears shortly with no long-term effects. Few people have an allergic reaction to the venom. They may experience swelling and itching of the throat and face, and a temperature that rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. In this case, medical treatment—especially for children— is required.

December 2000   3

Bald-faced hornet. (Photo courtesy of Diane Tecic.)


Centipedes? You bet. Centipedes, though not nearly as venomous as snakes, bear watching. They sting with a pair of claws located behind their head. However, the centipedes' jaws are weak and can rarely penetrate human skin. The rare individuals who are bitten may experience swelling at the location and pain much like that of a bee sting. Common centipedes can be found throughout the Illinois outdoors under stones, boards and beneath moist organic matter. When they are found in homes, they are often in damp basements, closets and bathrooms.


Insects considered venomous include members of a family lovingly called 'assassin bugs.' They provide people with fairly nasty toxic bites and are found in all different habitats throughout the state. One particularly recognizable species is the wheel bug. Often seen more toward the later part of the summer, this 1/2-inch long, gray-colored insect has a half of a wheel design on its middle section. It is sometimes seen on front door screens, but is more common in woods and in fields.

Also, all bees, hornets and wasps are venomous. They are found throughout Illinois, especially during summer months. These buzzing insects are known to be territorial, so stay clear of nests. They aren't looking to sting you unless provoked in some manner or when they feel threatened.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

If you happen to get bitten by a venomous snake, don't panic. Keep the bite area below your heart (if bitten on the hand do not raise your arm) and stay calm. Your life isn't a cowboy western movie either, so don't try sucking the venom out or performing other Hollywood attempts at first aid. Get to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.

For bee and wasp stings, there may be nothing more than pain or itching. If a stinger is left in the area, remove it by gently scraping the area with your fingernail. But

Wheel bug from the assassin bug family. (Photo courtesy of Diane Tecic.)

people can have an allergic or anaphylactic reaction, which can lead to breathing problems or lowered blood pressure. Some people may go into shock, which, if they are not treated, could lead to death. It's helpful to know what insects you may be allergic to. Allergic reaction signs vary, so seek medical treatment if you are unsure.

In situations where a sting or bite is a non-emergency, soap and water are effectively used for disinfecting the area. Ointments and creams like Calamine and Benadryl can sooth an irritated area and control itching. An oral antihistamine can help ease a mild allergic reaction. Discuss this with your doctor first and remember, if you're bitten call a doctor immediately if there is any doubt about your reaction. If you continue on your outdoor trek without getting attention and soon feel out of breath, experience cramps or any other abnormal symptoms, get to a hospital as soon as possible.

The great Illinois outdoors is home to all sorts of creatures, both venomous and non, so learn all you can about what's out there. Just remember, they're not out to get you. When these critters do bite or sting, it's often your fault. Try to stay out of their way and they'll usually stay out of yours.

Burke Speaker is a student at Southern Illinois University. He served as a summer intern with OutdoorIllinois.

4  OutdoorIllinois

|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to OutdoorIllinois 2000|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library