Practice Your Snake Identification Skills
As mentioned earlier, there are exceptions to every rule. There is unfortunately no single easy trick to telling a venomous snake from a nonvenomous snake. The only way is to know the venomous snakes in your area and ways to identify them. So, if you are really keen to bulk up your venomous snake knowledge then there are loads of resources to use to help practice identification skills. I highly recommend picking up a field guide local to your region to get familiar with your native venomous snakes!
If you dont have the time or desire to work on your wildlife identification skills, then you could be in luck! You may be able to find local social media groups that are specifically dedicated to helping non-snake lovers identify snakes in their back yards. There is even an dedicated to helping people get snakes identified.
How To Determine If A Snake Is Venomous
Most U.S. snakes arent venomous, but rattlesnakes, coral snakes, water moccasins and copperheads all have venom glands. A bite from a venomous snake can be dangerous, or even fatal. Thats why you need to know how to identify a venomous snake correctly.
Most, but not all, venomous snakes in America are pit vipers and have their characteristic physical traits. They have triangular heads, slit-like pupils, and heat-sensing pits near their nostrils. However, the coral snake is an elapid and looks completely different. They have red-yellow-black bands. There are also a number of lookalike snakes.
Identifying venomous snakes by eyes doesnt work for non-pit vipers, as is the case with the coral snake . However, scale and color formations can enable you to tell between venomous and non-venomous. Well start by looking at the different venom-producing snakes in the U.S.
What Makes Snakes Look So Different
All snakes have long, flexible, scaly bodies. But underneath their scaly skin, they possess muscles, bones, lungs, intestines, a heart and a liver, just like other vertebrates. To accommodate the long slender body, most snakes have many more vertebrae and ribs than do other vertebrates of comparable size. Additionally, most or their paired internal organs have been reduced , removed, or drastically repositioned to get a better fit. A snakes jaws are truly unique, allowing the animal to swallow prey much larger than the narrow mouth opening would deem possible. A snake can do this because the two halves of the lower jaw are joined by a stretchable ligament. The expandable gape enables the snake to engulf a large prey item rather like a stretchable stocking. Other structural features facilitate the process including the loose articulation and reduced number of the bones supporting the jaws, a protrusible glottis that permits breathing while the mouth is blocked by prey and sharp, back-pointing teeth which help manipulate and drive the victim irrevocably backward towards the stomach.
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The 4 Main Types Of Venomous Snakes In The United States
- Many nonvenomous snakes have evolved to look like coral snakes to avoid attack from predators. Coral snakes have some of the strongest venom globally, but its a challenge for them to bite humans, as their fangs cant retract.
- Cottonmouths keep their entire bodies on the surface of the water when swimming, which distinguishes them from other look-alike water snakes.
- Copperheads and cottonmouths can reproduce asexually through a process called parthenogenesis.
- The venom of a rattlesnake is strong enough to destroy tissue and prevent blood from clotting. About 8,000 people across North and South America are bitten by rattlesnakes each year, but with only about five fatalities per year.
We all want to avoid venomous snakes, especially the most dangerous ones that can easily take down a human with one quick bite. Venomous is not the same as poisonous, as poisonous implies a transfer of toxins from eating or touching. Venom must be delivered from the snake to a person through a bite.
The four main types of venomous snakes in the United States are coral snakes, cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlesnakes. This article will take a closer look at these four , so we can understand why theyre regarded as the most venomous snakes in the United States.
Factors Influencing Pupil Shape
The presence or absence of venom has no correlation with pupil shape, and venomous snakes feature a variety of pupil shapes. For many years, herpetologists thought that elliptical pupils were an adaptation that allowed snakes to see in the dark. However, a 2010 study by F. Brischoux, L. Pizzatto and R. Shine with the University of Sydney, published in the “Journal of Evolutionary Biology,” came to different conclusions. After comparing the pupil shapes, activity patterns, hunting styles and phylogeny of numerous snakes, the researchers demonstrated that ambush hunters typically have vertically elliptical pupils, while actively foraging snakes have round pupils. Vertical pupils afford better vision of animals moving in a horizontal plane at varying distances than round pupils do. Vertical pupils were also correlated with nocturnal species, though not as strongly as with ambush hunting modes.
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Cat Snake And Human Interaction
Because they have such widespread distribution, these snakes interact with humans quite frequently. They live in many areas close to human habitation. While their bites are painful, their venom is mild and not dangerous. No human has ever died from a bite from this group of snakes.
The threat level to these snakes depends on the species. Some species suffer from habitat destruction and hunting, while others have healthy populations.
If It Rattles Its Tail
If a snake rattles its tail, you should run for dear life.
Rattling is the first sign that youre encountering one of the most poisonous snakes.
Non venomous snakes make the rattling sound through hauling its tail across dry leaves.
Dont be curious to figure out whether or not the snake is venomous. Staying away is safer.
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Texas Is Always Bragging About Having The Most The Biggest And The Best Of Everything How Do We Rank In Terms Of Snakes
Granted some Texans may be reluctant to brag about this one, but the Lone Star State is, undeniably, a cornucopia of snake diversity. Although the exact number of species is hard to determine, we boast a stunning 76 species of snakes. If you include both species and subspecies in that number, it gives you a grand total of 115 or more the highest number in all of the United States. The vast majority of Texas snakes are non-venomous and completely harmless. Only 15% of the total number are venomous and should be treated with caution and respect. The venomous varieties can be grouped into four basic categories: coral snakes, copperheads, cottonmouths , and rattlesnakes.
If You Encounter A Venomous Snake
The first rule of thumb when you encounter snake is dont approach it. Treat it with respect.
It is not always easy to make a quick judgment on whether a snake is venomous or not. A rattlesnake is the only one that will let you know.
Move out of its strike zone quickly. Make a wide circle around it to avoid it.
Most snake bites occur because someone attempted to handle a snake or got within the strike zone.
Most importantly, NEVER PICK UP A SNAKE.
If you are struck by a snake, call 911 immediately rather than attempt to treat it yourself.
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Venomous Snakes In The United States
First, lets go over the four venomous snakes that exist in the U.S.: rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths and coral snakes.
All are pit vipers except the coral snake. And the coral snake is arguably the most dangerous as it is the exception to many of the rules. We will come back to that in a minute.
Memorization: The 4 Categories Of Venomous Snakes In The Usa
If Rules #1 and #2 are too inexact for you or if you are not confident in your ability to spot differences in head contours from 10 feet away, your next best option is to memorize the overall appearance of each of the venomous snakes in the USA. Luckily, there are only 4 categories.
We have included pictures of the usual suspects below. Get to know them.
1. Coral Snakes | Covered. See Rule #2
2. Copperheads | Medium-sized snake 3-4 in length with a stout, wide body and broad head. They can be light brown or tan, with dark, irregular banding often resembling triangles. The thing that distinguishes the copperhead from, say, a northern water snake, is its distinctive neck.
Copperheads are hard to see. Their patterning makes them nearly invisible against the forest floor where they often live and they tend to freeze when approached. Their venom is mild, but rarely fatal. Luckily, copperheads are unique in that their first defensive strike usually includes no venom. But if you stick around, the second strike is almost never as kind.
There are two dead giveaways that you are looking at a cottonmouth rather than a copperhead, rat snake, northern water snake, etc The first is that a cottonmouth will do this.
But if any snake does that to you, lets just call it a day shall we? The second giveaway is if it is doing this.
Were looking at you, pygmy.
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Basic Information About Most Poisonous Snakes
Apart from the coral snake, all the poisonous snakes youll find in the USA are said to be pit vipers.
These include the cottonmouth, copperhead, and other rattlesnake species.
Usually, these snakes have big and fat heads and are generally fat and their pupils have slits.
Rattlesnakes have rattles at the end of their tails which makes them easy to identify.
Many times, if a snake is thin, chances are that its not venomous.
One thing you should remember is that: nearly all snakes come with triangular heads and many of them will have patterns and colors.
Therefore, these two characteristics wont necessarily help you identify a snake in case of an emergency.
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If The Reptile Has A Colorful Pattern
Many times, if a snake has solid colors, chances are its harmless.
On the other hand, if a snake is more patterned and colorful, you need to exercise caution.
Of course, not all overly patterned and colorful snakes are venomous.
A good example of this would be the black mamba commonly found in Eastern and Southern Africa.
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Real Tips On Identifying Venomous Snakes
When looking at a venomous snake, look for a big, broad head and elliptical pupils like a cat most non-venomous snakes have round pupils. Also, keep in mind that most pit vipers have a hole on their face for heat sensing. The hole is located between the eye and nose.
Another giveaway could be the snakes behavior. For example, cottonmouths/water moccasins will swim on water with their entire body above the water while harmless water snakes swim with only their head above water.
As I said earlier, the coral snake is the trickiest because it has a round head, round pupils and no heat-sensing hole. However, the coral snake is known for its colorful pattern of red, yellow and black stripes. The Scarlet king snake and Florida scarlet snake also have this pattern, so keep this rhyme in mind: Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, friend of Jack. In other words, if the red and yellow stripes touch, it is a coral snake. If the red and black stripes touch, it should be harmless.
Cottonmouth Venom And The Warning Signs
North America has one venomous water snake, and its the cottonmouth. This snake will bite both on land and in water.
The venom of cottonmouths destroys tissues, causing excruciating pain and swelling. These snakes arent as venomous as rattlesnakes, but theyre considered a bigger threat than copperheads.
There is an antivenom available, and while these bites usually arent fatal, immediate medical treatment is needed if youre bitten by a cottonmouth. Cottonmouths release less venom in self-defense than they do against prey, but that doesnt mean a bite should be taken lightly.
Cottonmouths dont go out of their way to attack humans as theyd rather run away. Only 1% of snake wound fatalities are attributed to cottonmouths.
Before it tries to bite, the cottonmouth warns its threat by shaking its tail, raising its head, and opening its mouth. Itll also release a musk thats unmistakably unpleasant.
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What Shape Are Venomous Snakes’ Eyes
Most people get that some snakes are dangerous and others are not, but not everybody understands how to distinguish between venomous snakes from harmless ones. Many inaccurate traditional guidelines exist, which could cause life-threatening mistakes for laypersons. One such mistaken guideline suggests that all venomous snakes have elliptical eyes however, round, elliptical and even keyhole-shaped pupils occur in venomous species.
The 5 Key Differences Between Venomous Vs Non
There are key differences that separate venomous vs non-venomous snakes. Besides the presence of venom, a venomous snake often has other distinguishable characteristics. For example, venomous snakes often have a rattle on the end of their tails non-venomous snakes will never have a rattle. Venomous snakes also have a different head shape and pupil shape when compared to non-venomous snakes.
Lets dive a little deeper into what makes venomous and non-venomous snakes so different.
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Which Venomous Snakes Live In The United States
Venomous snakes inject venom into their prey when biting them. Theyre often wrongly called poisonous snakes. Venom causes damage when injected into the skin, whereas poison caused harm when consumed.
While there are many species of snakes found in the U.S., all North American venomous snakes fall into one of four groups.
Comparing Venomous Vs Non
|Head Shape Triangular with pits||Rounded and without pits|
|Elliptical or vertical slits||Rounded pupils|
|Tail Shape Can end in a rattle or a different color||Tail tapers to a thin end no rattle|
|Coloring Brightly colored or very patterned||Often less colorful and one solid color|
|Method of Killing Venom|
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How To Identify Venomous Snakes
Of the 3,000+ snake species found worldwide, there are only just over 100 snake species found in North America. Of those species, only 21 are venomous. While all snakes have the capability to bite and cause infection, its the venomous snakes you should worry about. So when you spot a snake, its important to be able to tell the difference between the venomous and non-venomous ones.
How Do You Tell If A Snake Is A Copperhead
The copperhead snake head is indeed a coppery, reddish-brown color with some dots on the top. The snakes triangle-shaped head is large in proportion to its narrower neck. Copperheads are bulky snakes and reach up to about 3 feet in length in maturity. Their eyes have slit-like pupils similar to cats eyes.
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How To Tell If A Snake Is Venomous
Do you get a gut-wrenching feeling when you hear the sizzling sound of a tail? Or does your hand snap back when you see stripes slither in the grass beneath the garden hose? You’ve either been there yourself or seen it in a movie…looking at you, Indiana Jones! We can’t all be as fearless as Bindi Irwin, animal-loving daughter of famed conservationist Steve Irwin.
Instead of paralyzing fear, know how to ID the slinky creatures. It’s true most snakes, in fact, are not venomous. But it’s important to know which snakes can be harmful.
Of course, none of the below characteristics are dead-ringers for a venomous snake and there are always exceptionsso exercise caution no matter the snake’s appearance. In general, here a few characteristics to keep in mind:
Summary Of The 4 Main Types Of Venomous Snakes In The Us
|Deliver venom by chewing powerful venom, but non-retractable fangs limit delivery in biting humans||Causes terrible pain and swelling venom destroys tissue venom more toxic than a copperhead||Hemotoxin venom that destroys red blood cells few humans die, but venom causes extreme pain, nausea, swelling, tingling gives warning dry bite first||Bite defensively venom destroys tissue and stops blood clotting human death can result if antivenom not readily available|
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How To Recognize Venomous Snakes
While it may be difficult to distinguish certain features quickly in an emergency, there are several factors you can use to recognize a venomous snake. Typically, venomous snakes have triangular-shaped heads, pupils with slits like a cats, and thick bodies. Some venomous snakes are also classified as pit vipers, such as rattlesnakes and copperheads. These types of snakes have pits just behind their noses that they use to detect prey. While it can be hard to see from a distance, it is an easily distinguishing feature.
Using color to determine whether or not a snake is venomous can easily lead you astray. Snakes use color to blend in with their environments or to deter predators. Some snakes have patterns that can make them more easily identifiable, but these all vary from species to species.
Other Sources Of Information
Missouri Department of Conservation
- Information on snake identification is available in their Missouri Snakes publication,
- The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri, by Tom R. Johnson, is an excellent reference on Missouris snakes, turtles, lizards and frogs, available for purchase from
Field guides from other sources:
- A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America, by Roger Conant and Joseph T. Collins, is in the Petersons Field Guide series published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians is published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
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