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Danger Zone, The (REGPCEC)

TopicOutdoor Skills - Outdoor Safety
Wildlife - Invertebrates/Insects
Wildlife - Reptiles
Botany - General
Participants will be introduced to common outdoor dangers in Arkansas. They will learn how to identify the animals and plants which can cause harm and how to handle exposure to them. Finally, participants will learn how these dangers are a vital part of the ecosystem.
Grade LevelK - 12
Recommended SettingIndoor classroom
LocationRick Evans Grandview Prairie Conservation Education Center, Columbus

Education Program Coordinator, 800-983-4219


Duration45 minutes to 1 hour
Suggested Number of Participants10 - 30
  • Identify dangerous vertebrates of Arkansas (snakes, alligators, snapping turtles).
  • Identify dangerous invertebrates of Arkansas (spiders, wasps, scorpions).
  • Identify common poisonous plants of Arkansas (poison ivy, poison oak).
  • Gain specific species knowledge of outlined outdoor dangers. (Number of species discussed will depend on time allotted.)
  • Touch on wildlife related diseases with human implications.
  • Discuss why these plants and animals are important to their ecosystems.


Key Terms*

Anaphylactic shock

Encephalitis (West Nile virus)

Environmental niche



Loreal pit

Lyme disease





Rocky Mountain spotted fever






AGFC American alligator brochure

AGFC American alligator species profile

AGFC Arkansas pocket snake guide

AGFC poison ivy brochure

American Alligator skull

“Amphibians and Reptiles of Arkansas”

Audubon reptile field guide

“Dangerous Wildlife in the Southeast”

“Encyclopedia of North American Reptiles and Amphibians,” (page 276)

Field manual of wildlife diseases in the southeastern United States

“Forest Plants of the Southeast and their Wildlife Uses,” (page 296)

Natural areas and native pollinators report

Poison ivy shadowbox


“Spiders of the World”

“Spotter’s Guide to the Nastiest Bugs in the Backyard”

The Danger Zone trunk

Venomous snakes of Arkansas Power Point


Spending time outdoors is enjoyable and rewarding. It is not, however, free of risks. Most outdoor dangers can be avoided by being aware and by staying alert. Knowing which plants and animals pose a threat is important.


  1. Ask participants to define an outdoor danger. Record their responses on a dry erase board or large sheet of paper. If some of the animals and plants are not mentioned, record all that will be covered in the lesson. When discussing these, have all resources on hand. Tell participants they will receive a fact sheet to take back to their school.
  2. Introduce the first outdoor danger by reading the highlighted sections from Keith Sutton’s brochure (see materials list). Let the audience guess the subject: poison ivy. Show the participants any resources related to poison ivy and poison oak. Discuss where these plants thrive and how to avoid them, including the following:
    • Poison ivy and poison oak leaves have three leaflets. “Leaves of three, let it be.”
    • Poison ivy can appear as a ground cover, a shrub or as a vine growing up a tree.
    • Poison oak typically grows as a low shrub.
    • Poison ivy and poison oak produce the resin-like substance urushiol that can cause an allergic reaction.
    • Both plants grow “everywhere.”
    • Virginia creeper is often confused with poison ivy or poison oak. It has five leaflets instead of three and is a member of the grape family. It does not contain urushiol.
    • To prevent exposure, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts when walking in areas where poison ivy or poison oak is present.
    • If exposed to the plant or urushiol, immediately wash the affected area. If a rash appears, some over-the-counter medications may relieve symptoms.
  3. After using resources and discussing the appearance of the plants, emphasize that the best way of avoiding contact is to be aware of the surroundings and knowing how to identify them.
  4. Use all resources to introduce any of these: mosquitoes, ticks, bees, wasps, scorpions, fire ants, brown recluse and black widow spiders, hornets, wheel bugs, fleas, southeastern bloodsucking cone-nosed beetles, centipedes and chiggers. Ask why these insects would be outdoor dangers. Explain that mosquitoes, ticks and bloodsucking cone-nosed beetles can carry diseases and spread them to humans. Stings from bees, wasps, fire ants and scorpions are painful and can create an allergic reaction. The bite of a brown recluse or black widow spider can cause tissue or nerve damage, and chiggers cause itchy discomfort. Discuss the following preventive practices:
    • Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts while in an area with mosquitoes.
    • Apply bug repellent before going outside.
    • Watch for fire ant mounds.
    • Keep mosquitoes in check by making sure there is no standing water in buckets, bowls, old tires, etc. This water is the perfect habitat for mosquito larvae.
    • If you are allergic to bee or wasp stings, carry an antihistamine or EpiPen.
    • Know how to identify brown recluse and black widow spiders. A brown recluse is a low-lying, long-legged spider that is brown with a violin shape on the back of its cephalothorax, approximately the size of a quarter. A black widow is a glossy black spider with a large abdomen and distinctive red hourglass-shaped spot under its abdomen and is found in an irregular web.
    • Always check shoes, clothing and bedding before using them, especially if they have not been used in a while.
  5. Reptiles to be discussed could include all venomous snakes of Arkansas, the American alligator and snapping turtles. Use available resources to introduce each.
  6. Of the snake species in Arkansas, six are venomous. Five of these are pit vipers – copperhead, cottonmouth/water moccasin, western diamondback rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake and western pigmy rattlesnake. The sixth venomous snake is the Texas coral snake. It is important to learn how to distinguish venomous snakes from nonvenomous snakes. The following information will help identify the five pit vipers in Arkansas:
    • Cat-like pupils rather than round pupils, but not reliable due to pupil’s ability to dilate in low light, making them round.
    • Diamond-shaped head rather than a rounded head, but not reliable due to nonvenomous species’ ability to flare its head when aggravated.
    • A pit between the eye and nose is the best identifier.
    • Some rattlesnakes use a rattle sound as a warning.
    • A combination of the above can give you a positive identification.
    • The Texas coral snake, also referred to as the eastern coral snake, has the following characteristics:
      • Black nose
      • Body is banded in red, yellow and black bands which completely encircle it
      • Similar (round pupils, rounded head, color) to the scarlet and milk snakes, both of which are non-venomous. To remember the difference, learn the following chant and look at the nose: “Red touches black, friend of Jack; red touches yellow, harm a fellow”
      • Red and yellow bands touch on a coral snake, and on the other two, the red and black bands touch.
  7. It is important to stress that no snake is normally aggressive towards people. They usually strike when provoked, scared or surprised. For this reason, the following will help avoid an unpleasant encounter:
    • When hiking, hunting or outdoors, avoid stepping on or touching a snake that is camouflaged.
    • Be aware of where hands and feet are placed.
    • Don’t reach under a rock or log without ensuring there is no snake hiding there.
    • Wear leather boots that rise above the ankle. (Snake-proof boots are available.)
    • Leave snakes alone. Don’t try to pick them up or aggravate them.
    • Remember that snakes are not naturally aggressive and don’t go after humans. They only bite if they need to defend themselves when feeling cornered or threatened (fight or flight instinct).
    • Learn to identify snakes and their habitats.
  8. Use all available resources to begin your discussion of the American alligator. Ask if they have ever seen an alligator in the wild. Talk about the habitat range in Arkansas. Ask if there are also crocodiles in Arkansas.
  9. Discuss characteristics of alligators.
    • Males are larger than females.
    • A large male could reach 12 feet.
    • A large female could reach nine feet, weight could be 600 pounds.
    • The color of an alligator is dark gray to black.
    • Alligators have a broad, rounded snout.
    • With mouth closed, the large fourth tooth is invisible.
  10. Take time to emphasize the following:
    • State and federal laws prohibit importing, transporting, possessing, disturbing or taking threatened and endangered species or destroying their habitat. Fines can range up to $100,000.
    • Female alligators remain near the nest until hatching. She may aggressively guard the nest from predators, including humans.
    • Most alligator-human confrontations occur when human-accustomed alligators are provoked or teased or when humans did not stay clear of nests and apparently “tame” alligators.
    • Experts recommend a minimum of 20 yards’ clearance between you and an alligator.
    • Alligators primarily hunt at night but may attack prey from in the water, on the water or from the shore where they hide in vegetation or sun in the open. So be careful when walking along the water’s edge.
    • Feeding alligators is strictly prohibited.
  11. Show participants resources on snapping turtles, then discuss the following:
    • Any turtle can give a painful bite; however, two are of greater concern: alligator snapping turtle and common snapping turtle.
    • Large heads and large jaws that have stick-snapping strength.
    • Is not a threat unless provoked.
  12. After all the outdoor dangers have been discussed, point out that these are plants and animals that require caution, but they also play important roles in their ecosystems. Ask if the world would be a better place without plants and animals discussed today? Why? Ask for examples of how they are useful to other animals, including humans. Record their comments on the board. Make sure to point out their ecological importance with the following:
    • Poison ivy and poison oak fruits are consumed by many species of songbirds, primarily during winter. Woodpeckers and the northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker are fond of the fruits. Poison ivy is a moderate- to high-preference food for white-tailed deer and an important component in the swamp rabbit diet.
    • Mosquitoes are a key link on a huge food chain. They are eaten by hundreds of bird and fish. They are also important to insect-eating bats.
    • Spiders are an integral part of the food chain and are beneficial for keeping insects in check.
    • Bees are pollinators. As stated in “Natural Areas and Native Pollinators,” the ecological service they (pollinators) provide is necessary for the reproduction of up to 90 percent of the world’s flowering plants. This includes at least two-thirds of the world’s crop species whose fruits and seeds provide 15 to 30 percent of the foods and drinks we consume.
    • Wasps are pollinators, and wasps help keep spider and scorpion populations in check.
    • Snakes eat rodents, including mice and rats, which carry diseases and are responsible for millions of dollars of agricultural damage.
  13. Conclude that, while these plants and animals may pose a minimal threat, knowledge can ensure an enjoyable outdoor experience. This allows humans to coexist with them and plants and animals to contribute to their environment.
  14. Pass out ecological importance handout(s) to teacher or leader and participants
  • Identify three types of dangerous vertebrates of Arkansas. (snakes, alligators, snapping turtles)
  • Identify three dangerous invertebrates of Arkansas. (spiders, wasps, scorpions)
  • Identify common poisonous plants of Arkansas. (poison ivy, poison oak)
  • Give examples of wildlife-related diseases with human implications.

Anaphylactic shock – physical state induced by venom or toxin


Encephalitis (West Nile Virus) – acute brain inflammation commonly caused by viral infections or a parasite


Environmental niche – habitat supplying the necessities for an organism or species to exist; an organism’s or population’s function within an ecological community


Hemotoxin – poison that causes massive cellular damage around a bite or sting


Leprosy – communicable disease carried by humans and the armadillo, characterized by skin lesions and tissue destruction


Loreal pit – sensory organ on a snake that detects heat


Lyme disease – an acute inflammatory tick-born disease caused by spirochete bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi); usually characterized initially by a spreading red skin lesion, fatigue, fever and chills; if left untreated may later cause joint pain, arthritis and cardiac and neurological disorders


Neurotoxin – poison that affects the central nervous system after a bite or sting


Parasite – organism living in or on another organism


Poison – a substance that through its chemical action usually kills, injures or impairs an organism


Rabies – acute viral disease of the nervous system of warm-blooded animals, usually transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal


Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever – transmitted by ticks, an acute disease characterized by chills, fever, prostration, muscle and joint pains and a red to purple eruption


Shock – profound depression of vital body functions associated with reduced blood volume and pressure; usually caused by severe crushing injuries, blood loss or burns


Tularemia – infectious disease caused by a bacterium (Francisella tularensis), found mostly in wild rabbits and rodents


Urushiol – active chemical in poison ivy/oak


Venom – poison transmitted to prey or an enemy chiefly by biting and stinging