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When a snake is encountered in the wild, most people determine its species on visual characteristics such as size, color, scale structure, and other factors. In captivity or when viewed on a scientific excursion, a snake might also be identified by its behavior, preferred diet, and other more time-related characteristics. Learning to differentiate between snake species can be a valuable skill for anyone who might encounter snakes in the wild, and there are a few good strategies to use when accomplishing this task.
It's fairly easy to narrow down which snake species a snake found in the wild might belong to simply by considered where one saw it. Most snakes only live in certain areas, and being familiar with which snake species live in certain areas can narrow down the number of potential species considerably. When an unknown snake species is encountered in captivity, the breed may be more difficult to determine, but is usually known the owner. Unfortunately, the prevalence of escaped pet snakes may mean that a snake species unusual for the area may be encountered, although this is rare.
Size can also be a major and obvious way to differentiate between snake species. Some snakes are very small, while others are large, and this alone can often serve to identify the snake. Most snakes have a range that is common for its species, although there are certainly large and small outliers.
The next strategy most people apply involves the coloration of the snake. Many snakes have distinctive coloration, such as colored bands, saddle markings, or even a single plain color. These can sometimes be confusing, as in the difference between the harmless milk snake and the venomous coral snake, but attention to the relevant details, such as placement of the colors, can often serve to differentiate even vastly similar species.
Other physical characteristic, such as the sleekness of the scales, the size of the head, and the way in which the snake moves, can all be used in some cases to identify a snake species. In some cases, snakes may have very distinctive physical characteristics such as horns, a hood, or a rattle. The bodies of snakes may be skinny or relatively wide. All these factors give different snakes very unique appearances.
It is important not to approach an unidentified snake, although it is never a good idea to disturb even a non-venomous snake in the wild. The best policy is to simply leave all snakes alone, and to never approach a snake that is known to be poisonous. Identifying snakes in the wild can be a fascinating hobby, but it should always be enjoyed with safety and animal welfare in mind.