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What are the Basics of Snake Identification?

Jodee Redmond
Jodee Redmond

Snake identification is an important activity for anyone spending time out of doors. By doing some basic research, it is important to be able to identify different types of snakes that are common in the area. Not all snakes are poisonous, and it is essential to pick out the venomous varieties from the harmless ones.

When trying to identify a particular type of snake, make note of its size and color first. Some varieties, like the rattlesnake, have a pattern on the scales, while other brown or black snakes don't have color variations. A coral snake has brightly colored rings around it, and scientists know that any animal that doesn't camouflage itself is likely poisonous. A green snake with yellow stripes going down its back is probably a common garter snake.

A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.

Some types of snakes have very distinct features that make snake identification very easy. A rattlesnake is easy to pick out because of the hollow beads that form on the end of the animal's tail. When provoked, the snake shakes the rattle, making a distinct sound that warns predators to back off.

If the snake's head is visible, it is possible to get some clues about what variety it is. Snake identification also includes making note of the shape of the animal's head. Vipers, a class of poisonous snakes, have a triangular shaped head. Pit vipers, such as the rattlesnake, have an indentation between the eye and the nostril. The pit helps the snake detect the heat signature of a nearby animal and gives the reptile an idea of its size and type.

A king snake.
A king snake.

Vipers are venomous and inject their victims with venom. If a person has been bitten by a snake, it is possible to tell what type it is by examining the wound carefully. A bite left by a viper will have two larger punctures made by the snake's fangs, as well as some smaller marks. A non-venomous snake bite leaves puncture marks that are all the same size.

A shed snakeskin.
A shed snakeskin.

The shape of the snake's pupils will also give some information about the type of snake it is. If it looks like a slit that is similar to a cat's eye, the snake is a poisonous one. A non-poisonous snake will have an iris that is round, like a human eye.

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Discussion Comments


@umbra21 - That's a good theory and it might work if someone is just going on a day trip through a place with snakes, but if you live around them you know it's possible you could accidentally get bitten one day. One time not shaking out a boot, or sitting on the wrong stone wall, or walking through the wrong clump of grass and you are in trouble.

And it's not true that all venomous snakes are colorful either. I was convinced that a tiny little brown snake in front of our toilet block was just harmless and almost went to move it when other students were getting too excited, until someone managed to identify it as a very dangerous viper.

That taught me never to take snakes for granted.


@bythewell - I recently read a travel book where the author went to a snake expert to ask for advice before going into the Amazon. Basically, the expert told him that if he got close enough to identify the snake, then he was doing it the wrong way. The best way to protect yourself from being bitten was to make a fair amount of noise and wear protective boots. You give the snakes enough time to get out of your way and that will save you from 90% of possible accidents with them.


One of my friends used to tell this story about how he was out with his boy scout troop and one of them was bitten by a particular kind of snake. They rushed him to the hospital and told them exactly what kind of snake it was, because they were boy scouts and they did actually know how to identify snakes.

But because it wasn't a common variety of snake in that area, the hospital didn't believe them and gave him the wrong anti-venom, which left him in pain for hours and basically enabled the original venom to damage his hands.

Snake identification is so important, but if you can possible get a picture or even the snake itself (dead, of course) that's even better. Snakebite isn't actually all that common in most places and hospitals aren't all that great at treating it.

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    • A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
      By: fivespots
      A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
    • A king snake.
      By: Eric Isselée
      A king snake.
    • A shed snakeskin.
      By: Ekaterina Fribus
      A shed snakeskin.
    • Size and coloring are part of the way to identify a garter snake.
      By: tdoes
      Size and coloring are part of the way to identify a garter snake.
    • Venomous snakes have heart or diamond shaped heads.
      By: S.Külcü
      Venomous snakes have heart or diamond shaped heads.