Oops, there one goes now. You can see its tail slithering off under your begonias, but you don't know whether or not it was venomous. Yikes! What do you do now?
Relax. Of all the many species of snakes that live in the United States, only four types are dangerous to humans: rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, copperheads and coral snakes. All of these snakes (and their various subspecies) are easy to identify even from a distance, although some of them have a number of close look-alikes that can fool you. If you find out which if any of these snakes live in your state, you can make a point of learning what they look like. Click here to see some photos of these snakes.
Rattlesnakes are easy to identify. Like all but one of the dangerous snakes in North America, they have a heavy, triangular head with elliptical or cat's-eye pupils. They also have a rattle, and generally they will let you hear it if you approach. There are more than a dozen different species of rattlesnakes in North America. Rattlesnakes are attracted to garbage heaps, barns and livestock areas, especially if there are mice around and things lying on the ground to hide under. Old sheets of plywood, tin or barn siding on the ground are their favorite hideouts.
To reduce the likelihood that rattlesnakes will take up residence too close to your home or garden, keep the area neat and clean with few places for a snake to take cover and relax in the shade. Gopher, pine and bull snakes are color look-alikes for rattlers, but their comparatively slender heads and lack of rattle on the tail is a dead giveaway. Click here to learn how to identify an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and a pygmy rattlesnake.
Cottonmouths are one of the hardest venomous snakes to identify. Identifying snakes is never going to be as easy as the snakes wearing little custom t-shirts with the name of their species on them. That's unrealistic, but the truth is that it's almost that simple to identify them if you know what to look for. They range in color from coppery brown to black to greenish, and can be solid colored, blotched or banded. There are a number of common water snakes that are very difficult to tell apart from a cottonmouth by color alone. Rely on the distinctive "raccoon mask" feature, a white stripe along the side of their heavy, triangular head, and their elliptical or cat's-eye pupils. A juvenile or baby cottonmouth has a bright, sulfur-yellow tail which it uses to attract the frogs and insects it preys on in a behavior called caudal luring. Younger cottonmouths are more brightly colored and show strongly banded patterns, whereas adults tend to be duller and darker in coloration.
If you see more than one of the same snake within a few feet of one another, and they are neither in the act of mating nor attempting to eat one another, the chances are good that this is not a cottonmouth. These snakes are loners, and they instinctively scatter and avoid one another fairly soon after birth. A congregating clump of friendly snakes is likely to be a group of Thamnophis or Nerodia (harmless water snakes).
Cottonmouths are often found in or near water, but are quite comfortable on dry land and can adapt very well to living inland and feeding on mice and rats. Cottonmouths are rarely attracted to human dwellings unless there is a pond stocked with fish on the premises. They are more likely to be a problem for people engaged in water sports, such as fishing, as they are perpetually hungry and curious and will respond strongly to the delicious smell of fish. Click here to learn more about Florida cottonmouths.
Copperheads are closely related to cottonmouths, with a similar body type but showing much brighter colors ranging from coppery brown to bright orange, silver-pink and peach. Like cottonmouths, juveniles have bright yellow tails. These snakes are often found in wooded or hilly areas, and are shyer, faster moving and more nervous than cottonmouths as a rule. Like rattlesnakes, they are attracted to shady areas that offer cover to hide under and prey items such as mice and rats. Lookalikes include the corn or rat snake, which has similar colors but rougher scales, a slender head shaped like an oval instead of a triangle, and round pupils. Click here to see some copperhead and cottonmouth photos at Coastal Reptiles.
Coral snakes are distinctively colored in black, yellow and red, with a solid black band on the nose and a bright yellow head. The old rhyme, "Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, friend to Jack," is only halfway accurate. Coral snakes are shy, inoffensive creatures which only bite if grabbed roughly, and sometimes not even then. There are no known deaths from the Arizona coral snake (Micruroides), and very few on record from the Eastern coral (Micrurus).
Coral snake lookalikes include the scarlet snake, the scarlet kingsnake and several species of red and black banded mountain kingsnakes. A snake in North American with red touching black and no red touching yellow is not a coral snake, and is harmless. A snake that does not have a black nose is not a North American coral snake, even if it has red and yellow bands on its body. Click here to see a photo of a coral snake with links to the nonvenomous look-alikes.
Even venomous snakes are only harmful to humans when they are accidentally (or on purpose) stepped on or attacked. Most venomous snake bites on record happened because a human attacked the snake on purpose, or tried to pick it up. Less than 20% happen purely by accident, and absolutely no snake bites happen when the human walks away from the snake. Snakes do not chase people aggressively, with the possible exception of a cottonmouth who smells the string of fish you are dragging - and the cottonmouth only wants your fish, not your finger.
If you always look where you are stepping or reaching, and if you always move away when you see a snake, you will not be at risk of being bitten. For instructions on what to do when you see a snake, read this article on Snake Emergency! What to do if you see a snake.
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