How to Identify a Snake Species

Read the below, but your best bet may be to simply type your location and a description of the snake into a search engine, and look at the image results.

Identifying snakes has little to do with the myths surrounding poisonous and non-poisonous characteristics and has more to do with body type classification. There are very few tricks that can be used when determining the venom factor, the only one of which is pupil shape. All snakes with slit-shaped pupils are poisonous. Not all poisonous snakes have slit-shaped pupils. This one certainty is often difficult to ascertain as it requires you to get extremely close to the snake to make your determination.

In reality, snake experts use a methodical system to categorize and identify a snake once it has been found. These basic guidelines are then cross-examined against a reference book. Many seasoned experts can tell a snake by visual alone, but for the rest of the population, the step-by-step identification process is handy.

The first characteristic accessed is body length. Snakes are categorized into three classes: small, medium, and large. Once length is determined, the width of the snake is also examined. If possible, actual dimensions should be gathered. A snake’s head shape can tell a lot about it, but does not necessarily mean anything in regards to venomous or non-venomous. Many pit vipers have triangular heads, but other snakes can resemble the same shape when they deliberately flatten their heads in aggression or anxiety. Knowing if the snake has a round, long, or oval head will help in identification but is not any proof of venom or lack thereof. Eye color, pupil shape, location on the face, and eye size should all be noted. These three identifiers: body length and width, head shape, and eye characteristics will narrow down the possibilities for species identification.

Color is usually very helpful in determining the type of snake you have located. Many snakes have distinctive patterns. Noting the patterns and the colors is very important. Sometimes the difference between a harmless snake and a deadly viper is one ring of coloration. Blotches usually refer to patterns with no symmetry. Theses markings are often rectangular with darker edges. If a diamond pattern is noted, color and color pattern should be noted as well. Are there speckles (flecks of color) or spots (large or small defined, solid color circles)? Ring patterns appear like bands around the width of the snake. Stripes are patterns lengthwise down the body. Note color contrasts. Some snakes are one color on the dorsal side and a different color on the belly. Distinctive markings on the head and neck may be present. Lastly, some snakes have no markings at all and are one, solid color.

Tail characteristics are another guide to identifying a snake. The tail is defined as the length of body stretching beyond the snake’s anus. Tails can end with a rattle. They can be pointed or rounded. Some have specific patterns. When the snake is turned over, is the scale near the anus single or divided?

Experts are able to use the number and arrangement of scales on a snake to further assist in the identification process.

Once all the information is gathered, a field guide will help you narrow down your list. The characteristics noted will pinpoint one or maybe a few species suspected. Some snakes are almost identical, and it is these snakes that need the assistance of habitat evaluation. If a snake cannot be identified by appearance alone, the habits of the species will come into play. Some snakes like rocky soil. Some snakes like sand. Some snakes eat only certain animals, or will only be found out at certain times of day. Not all snakes are found everywhere. Having a good, basic knowledge of the local area will help tremendously.

Click here to read about what is the difference between venom and poison snakes.

The important thing to remember is that most “quick” identification advice is based loosely on truth. You cannot always be certain of a snake’s venom potential just by the shape of its head, the color of its body, the habitat it lives in, or the color and shape of its eyes.

You may want to read my Shed Snake Skin Identification page if you've simply found the sheddings, and want to tell what type of snake left them behind.


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