How to Identify Snakes by Their Markings

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Snakes rival birds and fish for their characteristic markings.
Snakes rival birds and fish for their characteristic markings. (Image: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

Snakes can be identified in many ways: geographical location, habitat, size, shape, texture, behavior or even scale type. Their markings, however, are key to identifying the particular species to which they belong. Snakes come in a variety of colors with diverse patterns rivaling tropical fish and birds in their brilliance and symphony of interlocking shapes. Snakes can run the gamut from having a single uniform color such as the green tree pit viper or northern black racer, to the intracacies of the oriental carpet-like Kirtlands snake or Gaboon viper. Common pattern types include stripes, bands, spots, blotches or geometric shapes.

Consult a field guide to identify snakes by their markings. Look for a field guide in your local bookstore, library or nature center.

Go online to a regional (statewide) website that organizes snake species by color and patterns to familiarize yourself with identifying markings.

Identify snakes with uniform (solid) colors commonly black, brown, tan, orange, yellow, gray, blue or green. These snakes are easiest to identify because they have no markings.

Identify snakes that have spots (small rounded marks usually without a border), blotches (large squarish or irregular-shaped markings, frequently with dark borders) or speckles (small flecks of color).

Identify snakes by their cross bands (running across the back and down the sides) or stripes (lines running lengthwise).

Identify snakes by their diamond patterns often with dark borders or dark and light borders.

Tips & Warnings

  • Many times the patterns on the dorsal side (back) or belly are different. Familiarize yourself with the markings on both sides of the snake's body.
  • On some species, the color may be darker on the head and neck and become lighter on the back.
  • The smaller field guides that fit into a backpack or glove compartment can be taken with you on snake-identification expeditions.
  • Many snakes, including the seemingly harmless garter snake, will attempt to bite or strike if disturbed. Observe at a safe distance when identifying markings.

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