How to Identify North American Snakes

Know your snakes.
Know your snakes. (Image: Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

Snakes are divided into two categories by experts: venomous and nonvenomous. People that plan on camping and doing other outdoor activities in North America should learn about the types of snakes found there. North American snakes fall into two families with many different subfamilies. Four types of venomous snakes are found in North America: the copperhead, water moccasin or cottonmouth, coral snake and the rattlesnake. Most snakes in North America are nonvenomous.

Look at the shape of the head. Most venomous snakes in North America have triangular heads.

Observe how a snake acts when you have an encounter with it. Learn to identify aggressive acts. All snake species can behave aggressively when provoked; learning to recognize aggressive behavior prevents snake bites and snake-related injuries.

Listen for rattles. Although a common sound for venomous snakes, nonvenomous snakes can also make rattling noises.

Learn to identify patterns and colors of venomous snakes and nonvenomous snakes that look similar. One example, the venomous coral snake, has several look-alikes; remember that the red stripe on the coral snake does not touch the black stripe, making it easily identifiable.

Buy a field guide with photos of different types of snakes. Snake identification does not feature set rules. All venomous snakes do not have triangular heads.

Tips & Warnings

  • If camping or hiking in areas of known venomous snakes, wear protective boots and carry kits to treat snake bites.
  • Always check camping gear, sleeping bags and boots for snakes seeking out warmth to avoid injury.
  • You cannot distinguish venomous snakes from nonvenomous species solely by the color and patterns on the body.

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