Recognizing Poisonous Snakes — A Beginner’s Guide

Many people find snakes alarming. And although they can be fun to observe, some snakes are famously poisonous, while others, like the green anacondas, aren’t venomous but still pose a significant threat. And if you’re the adventurous type, or you live in an area where there’s a reasonable chance you might encounter a snake—it’s essential to learn how to distinguish venomous snakes from harmless ones.

We’ve got a few valuable tips below—use them if you find yourself in a jam and need to quickly decide if the snake you’re staring at is venomous. However, even if you learn to do this well, remember that the animal kingdom is full of dangerous exceptions to almost every rule.

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to see if a snake is venomous without coming close to it, which means you might be in danger anyway, depending on the snake’s size. Because of this, always try to avoid snakes in the wild regardless of whether they look poisonous; stay as far away from them as you can, and simply assume that all snakes you come across are venomous and dangerous. And if you can, it’s always better to ask an expert and have them determine the type of snake you’re dealing with.

Most Common Venomous Snakes

Naturally, the venomous snakes you may encounter will vary depending on where you live. However, we’ll go over the four most widespread types in the United States:

With the exception of the coral snake, the other three fall into the “pit viper” family of snakes. And the coral snake is, according to some experts, the most dangerous of the four—mainly because its existence doesn’t follow many of the rules of other venomous snakes.

Recognizing Snakes—Common Misconceptions

Throughout human history—and especially in modern society—people have promulgated many myths and misconceptions about the differences between non-venomous and venomous snakes. It’s no wonder why; snakes are one of nature’s most intriguing and terrifying creatures.

However, that’s precisely what makes snake myths dangerous. Believing the right thing in this regard can mean the difference between life and death. With that in mind, we’ll first cover some of the most common wrong ideas about snakes.

The main one is the belief that all venomous snakes have distinctively triangular heads. This is far from the truth; in practice, many snakes have this kind of head shape and are not all venomous. Of course, staying away from any snake with this particular head shape would still help you because the safest course of action is to stay away from all snakes in the wild.

On the other hand, you may have heard that dangerous venom-carrying snakes have a distinct pattern or scale color. This is another common misconception; plenty of harmless snakes come in distinct colors and patterns. And conversely, some dangerous venomous specimens are incredibly subtle and don’t have a visible pattern at all.

Also, some people claim that you can recognize a venomous snake by a distinct tail shake as they approach. That’s false as well; the rattlesnake is the only venomous snake that does this, and you’ll find plenty of other dangerous snakes that don’t.

Recognizing Venomous Snakes — Real Tips

Okay, so we’ve covered the false, unreliable methods you should avoid when identifying a snake. Now, let’s get to the good stuff; ways you can actually see whether a snake is venomous.

For starters, take a look at its head. With a venomous snake, you’ll likely see a broad, large head. Also, its pupils will be thinner and elliptical, similar to a cat’s. On the other hand, non-venomous snakes’ pupils generally come in rounder shapes.

Speaking of the head—bear in mind that pit vipers (or at least most of them) have heat-sensing holes in their heads, usually located somewhere between the nose and the eyes. Since most US-based snakes are pit vipers, this is a handy way to recognize them.

After its head, a snake’s general behavior is the next best giveaway for venomous types, especially regarding water snakes. For instance, harmless snakes swim with their heads sticking out of the water. Conversely, cottonmouths and other dangerous water snakes have their whole bodies on the water’s surface as they swim.

As mentioned above, coral snakes are particularly problematic because they’re harder to spot based on these criteria. They have uncharacteristically round pupils for a venomous snake, their heads are round, and they don’t have heat-sensing holes. Still, you can spot a coral snake with a fair degree of certainty because of its colorful yellow, red, and black stripes.

Be Safe

Some of the tips we’ve mentioned above can definitely help you determine what kind of snake you’re dealing with. However, most of them also require you to see the snake in question up close—which is a dangerous proposition if it really does turn out to be venomous.

Plus, some venomous snakes have characteristics and behavioral patterns that mimic those of their non-venomous cousins. So, be extremely careful while handling snakes, and avoid them in nature regardless of their appearance.