This article was written by Connor, one of our founding editors. Connor is a full-time travel and lifestyle photographer with extensive experience in the outdoors industry.
North America is home to an incredible 165 different types of snakes. It’s important to know how to identify a snake, for this reason.
The sight of one can send shivers down the spine of any man or woman who has been misled by media hype and false information around venomous snake bites. The truth is that there are fewer deadly snakes in America than you may think, but with look-a-likes lurking around the corner, we think you should know how to tell if a snake is poisonous.
Most snakes, even if not venomous, will deliver a pretty painful bite. The reality is that they just want to stay out of harm’s way like us humans. As your mother always used to tell you, if you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone too. The reverse works as well. If you mess around in their territory, they’re not afraid to lunge in your direction, jaw open.
In North America, there are only four kinds of venomous snakes you need to watch out for, however, you can find at least one of these in almost every state. After you’re done with this page, you’ll know how to identify a venomous based on its visual appearance and habitat. We’ve got your back.
When it comes to figuring out which snake is going to deliver a killer bite or which one is simply giving a warning nip, there are some key characteristics to look out for.
There are many myths flying around when it comes to visual appearance differences among venomous and non-venomous snakes. The truth is, there are very few give aways apart from really understanding the body type.
If you’re brave enough or have landed yourself in the unfortunate situation of being so close to the snake you may be able to tell if it is venomous by looking at its eyes. All snakes with slit-shaped eyes are venomous. This helps you only to a certain extent though, as not all venomous snakes have slit-shaped eyes.
This means you’ll still need to be sure that you can remember some other tell tale signs. Next, we cover how to identify venomous snakes you’ll come across in North America.
With the second strongest venom of any snake, the bright-colored coral snake is one to watch out for. The important part to remember about the coloring of a coral snake is that the red and yellow bands are touching. The non-venomous look-a-likes tend to have red and black bands touching each other.
Although coral snakes have the second strongest venom of any snake, their small fangs mean that their bite is not efficient in delivering the venom. This results in very few deaths from coral snake bites.
In fact, the handy rhyme “red and yellow, kill a fellow; red and black, friend of Jack” should stick in your head enough to tell the difference when it matters.
This rhyme works well in North America but is often inaccurate in South America and other countries. In other parts of the world, coral snakes can either have no banding, red and black, or pink and blue banding.
Due to the coral snake being so deadly, many non-venomous snakes disguise themselves with similar colorings to warn off any potential threats.
Coral snakes are known as the timid snake, typically showing reclusive behavior by staying beneath the ground or under leaves in forest areas.
They tend to only come to the surface when it rains or during the breeding season. This snake doesn’t want to bite you unless it has to protect itself, simply because it saves its venom for its prey. So, unless you’re poking at it or endangering it then it most likely won’t attack you.
Often aptly named the easter coral snake, you will largely find it in the southern Coastal Plain from North Carolina to Louisiana and. They are most frequently found in Florida. The highest chance of you seeing a coral snake is spring or fall. According to the Savannah River Ecology Lab, when they are threatened, they will rise up and curl the tip of their tail.
As mentioned earlier, coral snakes have undersized fangs which means that their bite often doesn’t penetrate the skin. Because of this, very few coral snake bites result in death among humans. In fact, there have been no reported deaths since the late 1960s, according to National Geographic.
That said, if you are unfortunate enough to be bitten it can get pretty serious. If left untreated, the venom from a coral snake can result in paralysis of the cardiac and respiratory systems. Fortunately, fewer than 1% of coral snake bites result in death, so as long as you seek help, the odds are in your favor.
The highly venomous rattlesnake is the largest deadly snake in North America. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest of all and can grow up to 8 feet long, which is around 2.4 meters. Rattlesnakes have a reputation that scares those who aren’t familiar with them.
They’re known for their diamond-shaped head and heavy body. Although there are many sub-species, the most common kinds of rattlesnakes you’ll find in North America are the timber rattlesnake, eastern diamondback, western diamondback, and the prairie rattlesnake.
The most obvious part of their appearance is their rattle at the end of the tail, which is what gives this species of snake their name, making a buzzing sound when it is vibrated.
As a member of the pit viper family, rattlesnakes have two organs that can sense radiation. One of these is their eyes and another is heat-sensing pits, which allows them to track their prey based on its thermal radiation.
The highly feared rattlesnakes are indigenous to the Americas and are found in a variety of habitats in North America. The type of habitat you can find a rattlesnake can include forests, bush, swamps, grasslands, and deserts. Although you may find a rattlesnake in all of these kinds of locations, each species of rattlesnake has a specific habit.
The eastern diamondback, for example, will generally be found in dry, pine flatwoods or sandy woodlands, in North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In California, Arkansas, and Mexico, you will typically find the western diamondback and the timber rattlesnake will likely be found through Florida, Minnesota, and Texas.
Like most snakes, rattlesnakes will usually only attack when provoked; they prefer to stay out of bother. Although normally timid, rattlesnakes can be vicious if they are disturbed or handled. If a rattlesnake feels threatened, they will often flee in an attempt to escape. However, if they feel trapped, watch out for their bite.
A rattlesnake will normally strike when humans try to capture or kill it and they’re capable of striking up to 2/3 their body length. The bite of the rattlesnake contains hemotoxic elements, which damage tissue, destroy blood cells and skin tissue. If bitten, your breathing may be affected as the neurotoxins in the venom attack the central nervous system.
Some species of rattlesnake, such as the Mojave, have a component in their venom that can cause severe paralysis. This snake is usually found in California, Nevada, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Utah.
Also known as the water moccasin the cottonmouth is North America’s only venomous snake that is aquatic. The bulky head of the snake is noticeably wider than its neck and it has a dark mark from its eye to the edge of its jaw, as you can see in the picture above. The cottonmouth snake has slit-shaped eyes, which is a giveaway that the snake is venomous. However, it is important to remember that not all venomous snakes have slit-shaped eyes.
Usually, the snake is a dark shade of brown and will have lighter bands on its side. The cottonmouth has dark crossbands with lighter brown shading in the center. You can differentiate a non-venomous water snake as the cottonmouth’s dark crossbands are at their widest on its sides and narrow on top. This is the opposite of most of the non-venomous water snakes. Cottonmouths are often mistaken for non-venomous brown water snakes.
It’s crucial to know that the younger cottonmouth’s patterns are most visible. Adult cottonmouths often have a much darker pattern, which can become less visible and will appear that the snake has no pattern, just dark shading such as in the picture above.
Due to the fact the cottonmouth is semi-aquatic, it will normally be spotted around water. People tend to think that this snake is highly aggressive, although the truth is that this has been exaggerated over time.
Like the other snakes, they prefer to stay out of trouble and will retreat when they can. However, under threat, the cottonmouth will curl up in a defensive and iconic S shape, head back and mouth open. A study showed that 36% of cottonmouth snakes bite when they feel threatened.
As with other cold-blooded reptiles, they will be found near the water on branches, logs, and stones. This helps to keep their body temperature up. They are usually located in the southeastern parts of North America in southern Virginia, Florida, and eastern Texas.
As with the rattlesnake, the venom from the cottonmouth hemotoxins destroys cells and breaks down blood cells. Although very few deaths occur from cottonmouth bites, it can ultimately be deadly.
Often, though, the cottonmouth with give a dry bite, which is usually enough to keep the threat away. Snakes like this want to keep their highly potent venom for their prey, which is more likely to become food. It would be wasteful for it to produce a venomous bite on a human.
After a bite, the victim’s limbs may start to swell due to fluids collecting at the bite area. This, in turn, will make the bitten area red and extremely itchy. Often the victim will suffer from shock symptoms and a faster heartbeat.
Like the rattlesnake and cottonmouth, the copperhead is a member of the pit viper family meaning it also has two heat-sensing pits in order to detect prey through thermal radiation.
The copperhead is one of the most misidentified snakes in North America due to its similarities with other snakes, like the northern water snake. Make sure you read the description and take a good look so you know what you’re watching out for!
This snake has a broad head, a stout body, and is medium-sized. In fact, they grow to an average length of 50-95cm which is 20-37in. It’s very rare for a copperhead to grow past 1m in length. As in their name, they have a copper-colored head which is unmarked and a red/brown colored body with chestnut brown, irregular crossbands.
Unlike the cottonmouth, the copperhead’s crossbands are wider at their sides and narrower on top. Copperhead’s are the only snake that has crossbands shaped a bit like an hourglass. One of their other key identifying features is their snout which faces downward.
The copperhead of North America is a nocturnal creature, however as the night becomes colder, they can be seen during the day occasionally. It is important for them to keep their body at a good temperature due to the fact they are cold-blooded. Copperheads are more sociable and tend to live in the same areas as each other.
This snake is what’s known as an ‘ambush predator’, which is common among pit vipers. They will wait in a suitable location until their prey arrives, at which point they make their attack.
When faced with humans, they will retreat if they are able to do so. Most snakes, especially the family of vipers, prefer to stay out of danger and not attack unless absolutely necessary. However, the copperhead also has a tendency to freeze in position when startled, which often causes people not to notice them and step on them, resulting in suffering from a bite.
Although the copperhead isn’t all too common, their range is large and they can be found in the following states: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Copperheads prefer to stay in semi-aquatic environments, like swamps. In North America, they will also be found in rocky and forested areas. They also like to hide under piles of leaves or sawdust and in stone walls.
The good news is that, although they’re venomous, copperheads are typically not aggressive and their venom is very rarely fatal for humans.
Tests show that the venom from a copperhead is the lowest potency of all pit vipers. Most copperhead bites happen when humans aren’t even aware of their presence. This is because they freeze in one spot when frightened and their camouflage makes them very hard to spot.
Like many venomous snakes, they often give an initial warning bite with little or no venom. If you’re unlucky enough to be served with a venomous bite by a copperhead, you will experience severe pain, throbbing, and swelling. The toxins can damage muscle and tissue. The venom from a bite will also attack red blood cells, which will begin to trigger hemorrhaging.
If you’re bitten, you need to try to keep the bite area as still as possible and below your heart. It is important that you attempt to remain calm so that your blood pumping around your body isn’t sped up. Try to identify whether in fact it was a copperhead and seek medical assistance as soon as you can.