How to Differentiate Between Venomous and Non‐Venomous Snakes

Опубликовал Admin
22-07-2019, 15:20
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Updated: July 22, 2019 Encountering a snake in the wild can be alarming, especially if you’re not sure what species it is. A bite from a venomous snake can be deadly. The best way to know whether you’re dealing with a venomous or non-venomous snake is to get familiar with the kinds of snakes that live in your area. You can also look for characteristics associated with common venomous species. If you get bitten by any kind of snake, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately.

Identifying Common Venomous Snakes

  1. Look for a triangular head to identify a viper. In the U.S., the most common venomous snakes are pit vipers. These snakes have large, triangular heads that are widest at the base and significantly wider than the neck. They also have a pit on their faces between the eye and nostril, which senses heat and makes it easier for them to locate their prey. To spot a pit viper, look for a triangular head shape, a pit on the face, and vertical, cat-like pupils.
    • Pit vipers are also found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and across the Americas.
    • Pit viper species found in North America include a variety of rattlesnakes as well as water moccasins (also known as cottonmouth snakes).
  2. Identify a rattlesnake by its rattle or button. Rattlesnakes are a type of pit viper, and the most common type of venomous snake in the Americas. Aside from their triangular heads and heavy bodies, their most distinguishing feature is the rattle on the end of their tails. In some cases they may have only a button (a single rattle segment) or a squared-off tail if they have lost their rattle.
    • It is also helpful to learn the different colors and patterns associated with different rattlesnake species. For example, diamondback rattlesnakes, as their name suggests, have a distinctive diamond pattern along their backs.
  3. Recognize coral snakes by their colors. Coral snakes are a type of brightly colored venomous snake found in the Americas and some parts of Asia and the Pacific. These snakes are not pit vipers—they have small, slightly rounded heads and their eyes have round pupils. While their colors and patterns vary, you can typically identify them by looking for bright red, yellow, and black bands.
    • If you live in the Southeastern U.S., you might have heard the saying “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, a friend of jack.” This is a useful rhyme for remembering the difference between venomous coral snakes and harmless king snakes—king snakes do not have bands of red and yellow together.
    • However, there are other non-venomous snakes with touching red and yellow bands, so this little rhyme is not always reliable.
  4. Check for a blue-black mouth to spot a black mamba. If you live or travel in Sub-Saharan Africa, you might encounter the deadly black mamba. These snakes are long (up to 14 feet (4.3 m)) and are olive or grey in color. You can recognize a black mamba by the distinctive blue-black color of the inside of its mouth, which it might show off if it feels frightened or threatened.
    • Mambas are related to cobras, and they behave similarly when threatened. If you corner a black mamba, it may rear up and open a hood or flap around its neck.
    • Like coral snakes and cobras, black mambas are elapids, not vipers. They have narrow heads and round pupils.
  5. Watch for a hood to identify a cobra. These famous venomous snakes are found in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. The most distinguishing feature of the cobra is the hood around its head and neck, which it displays when it feels threatened, along with a loud and intimidating hiss. Some cobras are also able to spray venom at their attackers.
    • You can also recognize some cobras by their distinctive patterns. For example, the Indian cobra has a pair of connected eye spots on the back of its hood that resemble spectacles.
  6. Familiarize yourself with the venomous snakes in your area. There are numerous species of venomous snakes around the world, and there’s no single set of distinguishing features you can use to tell if a snake is venomous. The best way to know for sure if a snake is venomous is to look it up based on its appearance, behavior, and geographic region. Do a search online or look at a local reptile guide to find out what kinds of venomous snakes—if any—live in your area.
    • For example, if you live in Oregon, the only venomous snake you are likely to encounter is the western rattlesnake.
    • Just like with venomous snakes, there’s no set of distinguishing features that indicates that a snake is not venomous. To identify non-venomous snakes, look at a local reptile guide to find out which snakes live in your area and study their specific characteristics.
  7. Learn to distinguish between similar-looking species. Some non-venomous snakes can be quite difficult to distinguish from similar-looking venomous species. If there are easily confused species in your area, study each type so that you can learn some of their distinguishing characteristics.
    • For example, the venomous North American water moccasin, or cottonmouth, is often confused with a harmless water snake . You can tell the difference by looking at the shape of the snake’s head and body. Water moccasins have heavy bodies and triangular heads, while water snakes are slender, with narrow heads.
    • People often confuse gopher snakes, which are not venomous, with rattlesnakes, due to their similar coloration and aggressive behavior. However, unlike rattlesnakes, gopher snakes have a pointed tail without rattles.
  8. Get a picture of any snakes you see for reference if possible. If you happen to see a snake and you’re wondering what kind it is, try to snap a picture of it with your phone or camera. You can then show the picture to an expert at a local government wildlife agency, or use it as a guide to help you look up the snake based on its features.
    • Don’t put yourself in danger trying to get a good picture! Just try to get a shot from a safe distance if you can.
    • If you don’t have a picture to work with, you can use Google Image Search to try to find pictures of similar snakes. For example, use search terms like “black snake yellow ring neck Pennsylvania,” and you will turn up images of the Northern ring-necked snake.

Recognizing Snake Bite Symptoms

  1. Seek emergency care if you’re bitten by a snake. If you’re bitten by any snake—even if you’re pretty sure it’s not venomous—go to the emergency room or call emergency services immediately. Even non-venomous snake bites can be dangerous if left untreated.
    • While you’re waiting for help, wash the bite with soap and water if you can, and keep the bite below the level of your heart. Remove any tight clothing, watches, or jewelry that might constrict the area and cause swelling.
  2. Watch for severe symptoms to identify a venomous bite. After being bitten by a snake, make note of any symptoms that develop. Let emergency medical personnel or your doctor know about these symptoms, as they can help your care team figure out what type of venom they may be dealing with and how to treat it. Common symptoms of a venomous snake bite include:
    • Severe pain, redness, swelling, or bruising around the bite
    • Numbness around the face or mouth
    • Difficulty breathing
    • A rapid heartbeat
    • Weakness
    • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
    • A headache
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Blurred vision
    • Fever
    • Convulsions
  3. Look out for mild pain, itching, and swelling with a non-venomous bite. If you’ve been bitten by a non-venomous snake, your symptoms will likely be fairly mild. However, it’s still important to have the bite checked out by a doctor immediately. Untreated snake bites of any kind can lead to a serious infection, and some people may experience allergic reactions to the snake’s saliva. Common symptoms of a non-venomous bite include:
    • Pain in the area of the bite
    • Mild redness and swelling
    • Bleeding from the bite wound
    • Some itching in the bite area


  • While you may have heard that most snakes are venomous, this is not true. In fact, only about 15% of snake species worldwide are in any way dangerous to humans. While it’s a good idea to treat all snakes with caution and respect, don’t assume that every snake you encounter is venomous.
  • Don't kill a snake that didn't attack you. Snakes help control the population of rodents and other pests that could transmit diseases to humans.
  • If you plan to catch a snake, a safe option is to set a snake trap.
  • When you are not sure if a snake is venomous, just assume it is and stay away!
  • Don't step into grass when you don't know if a snake is hiding in there.
  • If you are dealing with spitting cobras, make sure to wash all clothes, camera lenses, and other equipment after you are done. Wear sunglasses or goggles to avoid getting venom in your eyes.
  • If you are bitten by a venomous snake, do your best to positively I.D. it! A great way to do this is to take a clear picture of the snake from a safe distance with your smartphone. Having a positive I.D. on a snake could save your life when professionals are selecting your antivenin.


  • If you don't seek medical help right away after getting bitten by a venomous snake, it can lead to death.
  • Never try to grab any wild snake. If you are sure the animal is non-venomous and insist on handling it, do so in a non-threatening manner. A snake stick is a great tool when used safely.
  • A bite from even a non-venomous snake can become infected. Always seek medical attention and try to positively identify the animal that bit you.
  • Do not try to handle a snake that is hissing, rattling its tail, curving its neck into an S shape, or spitting, because that is them giving you a warning to leave them alone or they will strike.
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