The Sunshine State is suffused with serpents, with no fewer than 46 native snake species. Only six of these are venomous: five members of the pit-viper family and one representative of the Elapidae. Too often wrongly persecuted, both venomous and nonvenomous snakes are normally harmless to humans and perform crucial ecological services as predators of small animals. Whether it’s the defensive theatrics of a hognose snake, the arresting beauty of a rainbow snake or the hair-raising rattle of a giant eastern diamondback in the palmettos, an encounter with a Florida snake can be remarkable.
Florida’s venomous snakes are the copperhead, water moccasin, timber rattlesnake, pigmy rattlesnakes, eastern diamondback rattlesnake -- all pit vipers -- and coral snake, a relative of the Old World cobras and mambas. All possess fairly distinctive field marks. The three rattlesnakes buzz their namesake tails to ward off intruders; the copperhead, only found in northwestern Florida, sports hourglass banding and, in the juvenile, a bright yellow tail; and the water moccasin has a striking dark eye mask and a pale defensive gape, which is the origin of its alternate name, “cottonmouth.” The colorful coral snake, meanwhile, can be distinguished from the similar-looking -- and nonvenomous -- scarlet king snake and scarlet snakes by its inky nose and the yellow-black-red sequence of its banding. Of the native venomous snakes, only the coral lays eggs; if you come across snake eggs in Florida, in other words, chances are they belong to a nonvenomous snake.
For the most part, you are far likelier to encounter one of Florida’s dozens of kinds of nonvenomous snake, most of which belong to the family Colubridae. They range in size from the non-native Brahminy blind snake, which may be a mere 6.35 centimeters (2.5 inches) long, to the great, glossy indigo snake, which has been recorded at 2.6 meters (8.5 feet). Snakes inhabit nearly every habitat in Florida, from scrub to bottomland swamp. The northern rough green snake deftly hunts insects in shrubs and trees; the bigger and burlier rat snakes will also climb, often to raid bird nests. The pugnacious water snakes and stunningly beautiful mud snakes cruise freshwater, and the mangrove salt marsh snake haunts the brackish mangrove jungle of the coast. The diminutive and dull-colored earth snakes, represented by two species, are rarely-seen denizens of dark crevices and leaf litter, while the highly active black racer -- named for its speed -- may be spotted flashing through tall grass on the hunt.
Florida Snakes of Conservation Concern
Seven Florida snakes are classified as “threatened” by either the state or the federal government: the eastern indigo snake, Atlantic marsh snake, Florida brown snake, Key ring-necked snake, Peninsula ribbon snake, Rim Rock crowned snake and short-tailed snake. In addition, a pair of native serpents -- the Florida pine snake and the Lower Keys population of the red rat snake -- are considered “species of special concern.” Four species, meanwhile, are under consideration for federal "endangered" status: the eastern diamondback, Florida pine snake, short-tailed snake and southern hognose snake.
The Brahminy blind snake is far from the only non-native or exotic serpent that has become established in Florida: one-time pet snakes such as ball pythons and boa constrictors that have escaped or been intentionally released can go on to establish breeding populations in the state’s amenable subtropical/tropical climate. The most notorious exotic is the Burmese python, a huge constricting snake native to southeastern Asia that now exists in the thousands in the Everglades and is wreaking ecological havoc. Evidence suggests other giant constrictors, including the reticulated and African rock pythons and the green anaconda, may roam feral in Florida, although not all may be self-sustaining.
- University of Florida: Johnson Lab -- Florida's Snakes
- Florida Museum of Natural History: List of Venemous Florida Snakes
- Florida Museum of Natural History: Compare Eastern Coral Snake, Scarlet Kingsnake, and Scarlet Snake
- Florida Museum of Natural History: Brahminy Blind Snake
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Eastern Indigo Snake Fact Sheet
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: Florida's Endangered and Threatened Species
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: Living With Snakes
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: Nonnative Reptiles
- Slate: Which Exotic Species Are Really Scary?
- National Park Service: Everglades National Park -- Burmese Pythons
- Photo Credit Jens_Lambert_Photography/iStock/Getty Images