How to Identify Venomous Snakes (US)

During a day hike with my two young kids this past weekend, we were abruptly reminded of the fact that we are all just visitors in the great outdoors and there are many creatures that call the trails their home – like snakes!

The three of us had been itching all week to get outside and go for an adventure walk. We like to spot flowers, try to identify rocks, look for animal tracks, and generally just do as much ‘discovering’ as we can. I use this time to share my knowledge and love of the outdoors with Jack and Maggie in a fun and exciting way.

Luckily the big, black snake that we saw by the edge of the trail was well known to my kids and easily identified as a North Carolina Black Rat Snake (non-venomous). Even so we gave it a wide berth and left it well alone – our general rule of thumb for all snakes. I taught my kids the basics of how to spot a venomous snake a very long time ago and we go over those essential skills on a regular basis, but it got me thinking that it would be worthwhile to share that information here.

Tips For Identifying Venomous Snakes (United States)
Safety First: Avoid, respect and do not interfere with snakes. It is a fact that most snake bites occur when someone tries to handle a snake. So the first and foremost rule, is to leave them alone!

Luckily there are only four types of venomous snakes in the United States. They are Cottonmouths, Rattlesnakes, Copperheads and Coral snakes. Knowing how to specifically identify these four snakes is the first and easiest step in being able to accurately spot venomous snakes.

Know These Four Venomous Snakes

  • Cottonmouths – range in color from black to green. They have a small white stripe along the side of their heads. They are most often found in or around water, but are equally at home on dry land. Young Cottonmouths have a bright yellow tail. They are usually found on their own, so if you see several snakes that appear to be getting along quite peacefully, they are probably not a cottonmouths
  • Copperheads – have a similar body shape to cottonmouths but are much brighter, ranging from coppery brown to bright orange, silver-pink and peach. Young Copperheads have yellow tails as well. Look for a distinctive ‘copper’ colored head against a mostly brown of green body – hence the name
  • Rattlesnakes – Look for the signature ‘rattle’ on the end of the tail. Some clever but harmless snakes imitate this distinctive rattle sound by brushing their tails through dry leaves, but only true rattle snakes have the bulbous-like rattle at the end of their tails. If you can’t see the rattle, they also have a heavy triangular head
  • Coral snakes - have very bright coloring with black, yellow and red bands, a yellow head, and a black band over their nose. There is an easy rhyme to remember how to distinguish a Coral snake form their look-a-likes the King snake: “Red touching yellow, will kill a fellow. Red touching black, you’re ok Jack!” My son likes this rhyme even though we don’t get Coral snakes where we are in NC. Note: The Coral snake is not found in the mountains of NC, however it is found on the East coast.  Here is a great website all about the Coral snake that shows the common location for the Coral snake in NC.

Visual Differences Between Venomous and Non-venomous Snakes

  • Venomous snakes in the US all have elliptical (slit) pupils like a cat’s eye. Non-venomous snakes have round pupils. There’s always an exception to the rule though, and Coral snakes do not have slit pupils!
  • Most venomous snakes in the US tent to have bodies with varying colors. Snakes that are one solid color are usually harmless. The exception here is the Cottonmouth, so this spotting technique on it’s own is not foolproof
  • Most venomous snakes tend to have a triangular shaped head due to the venom glands. Non-venomous snakes have spoon shaped heads. The Coral snake, being so small, makes this hard to spot
  • If a snake has a true rattle on the end of it’s tail, it’s a Rattlesnake – venomous!
  • Some venomous snake in the US will have a small depression on their faces between their nostrils and their eyes called a ‘pit’ which is used to sense the heat of their prey. These snakes are known as pit vipers.
  • Finally, swimming snakes. If a snake is swimming with just its head above water, it’s most likely to be a non-venomous water snake. Nearly all venomous swimming snakes swim with their lungs fully inflated causing their bodies to float on the surface of the water.

Pop-Quiz! Based on the identification tips above, would you expect the snake shown below to be venomous or non-venomous? Bonus points if you can tell what type of snake it is!

Resources and Links
Here are a few additional resources that you can use to help you identify snakes (in the US). I would strongly advise all of you to know what types of venomous snakes are indigenous to the state or location where you live and that you know how to identify them, Google is your friend here.


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Disclosure: No actual snakes were harmed during the making of this blog post.

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  • http://sticksblog.com/ Chad “Stick” Poindexter

    Great article Brian!

    And I say the last snake is poisonous, and I would call it a copperhead…just my guess… :)

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Ha! If you can’t tell whether the last snake is venomous or not then the whole purpose of my blog post has failed! It most certainly is a Copperhead!

  • http://sticksblog.com/ Chad "Stick" Poindexter

    Great article Brian!

    And I say the last snake is poisonous, and I would call it a copperhead…just my guess… :)

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Ha! If you can’t tell whether the last snake is venomous or not then the whole purpose of my blog post has failed! It most certainly is a Copperhead!

  • mockingbird77

    Snakes terrify me so this has been hugely reassuring! Thank you (:

  • mockingbird77

    Snakes terrify me so this has been hugely reassuring! Thank you (:

  • http://www.facebook.com/butterfly101664 Malisa Davis-Hodges

    I read somewhere that you can also tell venomous snakes by the line pattern at the tail. If the line pattern doesn’t change, it’s poisonous? Would you elaborate on this please?

  • Sherry

    Slit pupil-poisonous, copperhead