How to Tell if Snake is Venomous / Poisonous

11.09.2009 - The above photo is of a harmless garter snake - yet many people see this snake and assume that it's dangerous. Very few people seem to be able to properly distinguish a venomous snake from a harmless one. As a wildlife removal specialist, I'm privy to the wildlife opinions of many people. I hear, on a daily basis, just what people think of the wild creatures all around us. It seems that no single type of animal is more misunderstood than snakes. The primary misconception is that snakes are dangerous and must be feared. In addition, snakes are constantly misidentified. I've heard far more incorrect identifications in my lifetime than correct. Of course, most of these misidentifications declare snakes to be poisonous. And then such snakes must be killed, of course.

First of all, I will point out that the snakes are venomous, not poisonous. Venom is an active mix of peptide toxins and nucleases, which interact with proteins. To be classified as a venom, it's actively injected, such as via snake fangs or a bee stinger. A poison is any kind of toxin that can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin that makes one sick.

Next, I'll examine the primary myths that I hear over and over again, which lead people to believe that they've spotted a venomous snake. First up is....

"But it had a triangular head!" - Lame. Pretty much all snakes have triangular heads. Some don't but then again, some venomous snakes don't either! One of central Florida's four venomous species, the Coral Snake, does not have a triangular head. Look at the above photo. What a triangular head! What a mean look! What a harmless snake! It's a garter snake, the most common snake in the United States.

"But it rattled its tail!" - Yes, many species of snakes rattle their tails when they are threatened. It's a very common snake behavior. Rattlesnakes have developed noisy tails to take advantage of this habit, and thus make a loud warning. But the harmless snakes that rattle may hit dry leaves or debris, and you'll hear a noise. It does not mean it's venomous. Look at the tail - do you see big, round rattles on the end of a fat snake? No? You only see a thin, tapered tail with nothing on the end? Not a rattler then.

"But it had a pattern and/or bright colors!" - Many people assume that a pattern, perhaps like the Diamondback Rattler, means that the snake is dangerous. No, of course many, many snakes have patterns, and several actual venomous snakes have no pattern. Same for color. Some venomous snakes are colorful, some not, and vice versa.

The truth, of course, is that there's no simple way to identify a venomous snake by observing certain characteristics. To be honest, the best clue might be snake thickness - most venomous snakes in North America are pit vipers, which happen to be fat snakes. Outside of red. black, and yellow coral snakes, if the snake is thin, it's probably okay. But of course, most water snakes are fat, so this clue doesn't always apply. The best way to identify a snake is to take a few minutes to look at photos of venomous snakes in your area - just perform a web search for "venomous snakes of [state]" and you'll see photos. But of course the very, VERY best way to avoid a snake problem, is to leave every snake alone. If it's dangerous, you don't want to mess with it (most snakebites occur during attempts to handle or kill snakes) and if it's harmless, you'll want to leave it alone, because it's good to have around!

Do it yourself: Visit my How To Get Rid of Snakes page for tips and advice.
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