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Snakes and Poisonous Snake Identification in the U.S.A.

Updated on March 11, 2011

A Little Bit of Knowledge can Ease Your Fear of Snakes and Help Keep You Safer.

Let's face it, many if not most people have some anxiety about snakes and with good cause. Snakes are wild reptiles that will bite and defend themselves if threatened. For the welfare of both humans and snakes, it is best to leave them alone and to avoid contact.

In the United States there are 4 types and 20 species of venomous snakes, which cause even greater concern, due to the potential pain and lethality of being bitten. Currently, there is at least one species of venomous snake found in every State in the U.S. except Maine, Alaska and Hawaii.

Since snakes play such an important part in the natural balance and in the ecosystems where they are found, it is a tragedy for them to be indescriminintly killed, due to fear and ignorance.

Some basic information about snakes in general and venomous snake in particular, can go a long way in lessening our fears, while maintaining our respect for snakes and their role in nature.

(Photo cottonmouth courtesy of Flickr)

Avoid Dangerous Snake Encounters

U.S. Venomous Snake Facts:

Each year in the U.S., approximately 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes and approximately 12 will die as a result of their bites.

The low mortality rate is based on prompt emergency medical treatment and anti-venom availability in areas with large populations of venomous snakes, ie. Southern California, Texas, Florida.

Even though every one of the 48 continental U.S. states except Maine, is known to have at least one venomous species of snake, in many States, such as in New England, these snakes are rare outside of very small habitats and are endangered due to a long history of indiscriminate killing.

There are 4 types of venomous snakes in the U.S., with 20 sub-species residing in different geographical areas, climates and habitats. The 4 types are: rattlesnake, copperhead, cottonmouth or water moccasin, and coral snake. Of these, the rattlesnake is the most common and widespread throughout the U.S.

The rattlesnake, cottonmouth, and copperhead belong to the pit viper family and have similar triangular shaped wide heads, with a blunt snout and characteristic eliptical,cat-like pupils in their eyes. They have small pits between their eyes and snout, which can sense heat and help them to hunt for warm-blooded prey, such as rodents, at night. As far as color patterns, these may vary according to the species, and age of the snake. Rattlesnakes of course also have small characteristic rattles at the end of their tail which produce a buzzing or rattling alarm when they feel threatened. Copperheads are also known to vibrate their tails when threatened, which can produce a similar sound if they are hiding in leaf litter.

Coral snakes belong to the elipad family (cobra, et al) and are best identified by their striking colors and banding. Other non-venomous snakes such as the king snake have similar markings which led to the following folk rhymes for identification, "Red and yellow, kill a fellow; red and black, friendly jack", and "Red and yellow, kill a fellow; red and black, venom lack". Although these ryhmes are correct, they only apply to coral snakes found in North America.

Rattlesnakes can be found pretty much across the U.S., although again, in many northern states, they may be isolated in a few small areas. Copperheads are found primarily in the east and southeast areas of the U.S., from Texas to Massachusetts and are found in all types of terrain from forested areas to swamps. Cottonmouths are also found in the southeastern U.S. and are semi-aquatic, preferring swamps, lakes and rivers. The coral snake is found primarily in the deep south from Florida to Arizona and typically lives in undeveloped areas, from forests to desert.

All four of these types average around 30" long as adults, although some individuals and species grow longer. They are all predators who feed primarily on rodents, other small mammals,amphibians and other small reptiles. Because of this, they are very important parts of their eco-systems and should be left alone.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Texas (courtesy Flickr)

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Texas (courtesy Flickr)
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Texas (courtesy Flickr)

Justin's Rattlesnake Bite (See Link to Story and Pictures in Resources and Links Below)

Justin's Rattlesnake Bite (See Link to Story and Pictures in Resources and Links Below)
Justin's Rattlesnake Bite (See Link to Story and Pictures in Resources and Links Below)

Snake bite facts

All snakes including venomous species will try to escape from human contact, as their first line of defense. So to avoid bites, leave them alone and let them go on their way.

When cornered, the rattlesnake and copperhead will vibrate their tails, which may give you a sound warning to stay away.

The cottonmouth will generally open it's mouth wide and display it's fangs and characteristic white mouth, as a warning.

In scientific testing of the venomous species, the copperhead is the most likely to strike first, with the least amount of provocation. It is therefore logical that copperhead bites are the most frequent in the U.S. The State of North Carolina holds the dubious distiction of the most copperhead bites of any State within the U.S. on average. Fortunately, copperhead venom is the least toxic of the venomous U.S. snake types and it typically only injects small amounts of venom. Although not usually fatal, nonetheless, the copperhead bite is extremely painful and requires immediate emergency medical treatment to avoid massive tissue destruction, secondary infection and loss of use of muscles and limbs.

The type and toxicity of rattlesnake venom varies widely between different species. Most rattlesnakes have a type of hemotoxic venom, which targets and destroys blood cells and tissues. The canebrake rattlesnake of the southeastern U.S. and the mojave rattlesnake of the far west are considered two of the most dangerous venomous snakes because they have a neurotoxic venom which attacks the nerve cells and can lead to paralysis, lung and heart failure. Then there's the southern pacific rattlesnake of coastal southern California, which has a very lethal combination of both hemotoxic and neurotoxic agents in it's venom.

The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest of the venomous U.S. species reaching 3 to 5 feet in length. It is also very dangerous due to the amount of venom it injects with a bite, typically enough to kill 6 humans.. Venom amounts often vary with the size of the snake. Even baby venomous snakes though, usually produce serious amounts of venom and should be considered as dangerous as the adult snakes.

Approximately one out of four venomous snake bites is a "dry bite" meaning that no venom is injected with the bite. Nevertheless, emergency medical treatment should be sought immediately to rule out the need for antivenom treatment and to clean-out the wound. All snake bites,non-venomous, as well as venomous, are serious, since snakes have an abundance of bacteria in their mouths that can cause serious infections in humans.

The bite of the pit vipers, which includes the rattlesnake species, the copperheads and the cottonmouths, are typically very painful and can cause massive tissue damage in proximity to the bite. The rattlesnake bite is considered more dangerous than that of the cottonmouth and the cottonmouth's more than that of the copperhead, in terms of the toxicity of the venom.

The coral snake is the most elusive of the four venomous snake types in North America and is seldom seen. It is a burrower and spends most of the time hidden under leaf litter or sand. It tends to be very shy and less aggressive than the pit vipers. It has two small fixed fangs at the front of its mouth, unlike the 3 types of pit vipers, which have long retractable fangs.

Coral snakes have a deadly neurotoxic venom, and when they bite, they tend to latch onto the prey, in order to inject their venom, rather than the quick strikes and more massive injections, characteristic of the other three venomous snake types.

Coral snakes account for approximately 30 snake bites a year in the U.S. Bites from this snake are relatively less painful than the pit vipers and the affects of the venom may be delayed as much as 12 hours after the bite occurs. The venom being a neurotoxin, causes damage to the central nervous system and poses a serious threat to the respiratory and cardiac systems, as well as, paralysis. Patients bitten by coral snakes are admitted to the hospital for at least 24 hours to monitor their symptoms and treatment needs.

Photo below is a copperhead next to a woodpile, one of it's favorite hideouts.

Identifying the Copperhead - One of North America's Most Common Venomous Snakes

The Two Deadliest Rattlesnakes!

The Canebreak Rattlesnake, Southeastern U.S., Below

flickr

Southwestern U.S., "Mojave Green"Rattlesnake ,Above

Sobering Picture of Copperhead Bite to the Finger 3rd Day Following Bite

Sobering Picture of Copperhead Bite to the Finger 3rd Day Following Bite
Sobering Picture of Copperhead Bite to the Finger 3rd Day Following Bite

Safety First!

Avoid, Respect and Don't Interfere with Snakes.

It's a fact that most snake bites occur when handling snakes. So the first and foremost rule, is to leave them alone. If you have one in your home, or backyard get an experienced handler to come and remove it. Don't try to kill it or attempt to move it yourself.

Know your area and its wildlife. If you live in an area that has a known venomous snake population, be careful when outdoors doing gardening or other yard activities.

Educate your children concerning any snake dangers in your area and strictly warn them against picking up snakes. Children, because of their body size, are more at risk when bitten by venoumous snakes, and are more apt to pick-up a snake due to their curiosity. Even a dead venomous snake can still reflexively bite and inject venom(ie.no picking-up road kill).

When hiking, camping or involved in outdoor activities in areas known to have venomous snakes, be especially careful around fallen logs, rock piles, leaf piles and caves, where snakes tend to hang out. Be wary at night, as most of these snakes tend to be nocturnal hunters and lay low during the heat of the day.

If you are a hunter, or someone engaged in other outdoor activity which takes you into undeveloped/ wilderness areas and known venomous snake territory, be cautious, use common sense and consider wearing snake-proof boots. Take an appropriate first aid kit and familiarize yourself with first aid techniques for snake bites.

Be especially knowlegeable and wary of venomous snakes, if you live in suburban areas bordering on wilderness lands, such as commonly found in southern California, Arizona, Florida and other sun belt states.

All of these snakes tend to be much more active in the Spring, when they are coming out of their dens following winter hibernation, and roaming far and wide in search of food. Also, these snakes tend to be more active in the early evening, after avoiding the heat of the day. Again, venomous snakes tend to be nocturnal hunters.

Identifying the Cottonmouth aka Water Moccasin - Another Very Common USA Venomous Snake

Cottonmouth/ Water Moccasin (courtesy Flickr)

Cottonmouth/ Water Moccasin (courtesy Flickr)
Cottonmouth/ Water Moccasin (courtesy Flickr)

Coral Snake (courtesy Flickr)

Coral Snake (courtesy Flickr)
Coral Snake (courtesy Flickr)

What's Your Opinion of Venomous Snakes?

What's the Role of Venomous Snakes in the Environment?

See results

Snake Field Guides and Reference Books - Great Gifts!

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Comments and Questions from Readers

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    • potovanja profile image

      potovanja 5 years ago

      I think your lens worht another LIKES:). Thank you 4 visit my lens...

    • dunky400 profile image

      dunky400 5 years ago

      Wow! Thank you sooooo much for this information. I have 5 water snakes in the live well of the cabin I'm staying at. We just found them today doing some gardening and straitening up. I thought they were poisonous but it turns out they are not. I will be precocious even though they are harmless just in case we get some new neighbors. Lol! P.S. Tell Brandon to be more careful!

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 5 years ago

      Nice lens.

    • compugraphd profile image

      compugraphd 5 years ago

      "

      I love snakes and I think this was a great way to educate people about what to do when seeing a snake in the wild. Fortunately for me, I've only seen snakes at the county fair or as pets. Thanks for your lens.

    • profile image

      janetsue 6 years ago

      @tdove: DeanAllan and JullianCraig, Here's to you (!) , the manly men :) Your comments & web Info eased my mind about the snake I saw , PLUS , from the # of comments , many people now have reliable , accessible , information on our "snake-friends" . Many Thanks . Sincerely , JanetSue

    • profile image

      DeanAllan 6 years ago

      No problems at all Julian - I have already looked at both the e-Book and the online course - I thought they were both great. I got the book first and found it gave good advice on things I can do to make my place less attractive to snakes and it also gave me a heap of information that I never knew before on why snakes act the way they do around us which makes them a heap less scary to me now - saying that, sorry, but I'm still not going anywhere near one in the foreseeable future unless it's by accident!!!!!!. The online course was a cool little exercise to see if I had retained what I had read in both the book and while I was going through the course - thanks again - two really good reference courses

    • profile image

      juliancraig 6 years ago

      @DeanAllan: Hey Dean

      Thanks for letting people know about the Working with Wildlife website. And you are right, it is a great reference point for a whole bunch of information and education about the venomous snakes of North America. We have gathered information from industry experts and toxinologists to provide you (the public) with the most up-to-date and factual information available.

      By the way, if you do the online course or have a read of our e-Book, can you give me ome valuable feedback?

      Regards

      Julian Craig

      Working with Wildlife

    • profile image

      juliancraig 6 years ago

      @janetsue: Hi janet,

      Did you get a pic? This would certainly help in the ID process.

      Regards

      Julian Craig

      Working with Wildlife

    • profile image

      juliancraig 6 years ago

      @fromamericateel: Hi there

      The Mojave Grreens (Northern Mojave Rattlesnake) are more dangerous because they have powerful neurotoxins in their venom unlike other species of rattlers.

      This also means that the first aid protocols are different. Please go to the Working with Wildlife website and have a look at the TWO first aid sheets. You can download them for FREE at http://www.workingwithwildlifeusa.com/downloadable...

      Stay Safe!

    • profile image

      DeanAllan 6 years ago

      Check out a website by an organization called Working with Wildlife at www.workingwithwildlifeusa.com. They talk about snakes of the USA, what happens when a snake comes into contact with a human and how to reduce the chance of being bitten by one. They have snake bite first aid sheets that you can download for free and there are even e-Books and an online snake awareness course available. It is worth having a look at.

    • profile image

      janetsue 6 years ago

      Please! I can't find a picture to identify the snake on my deck ! Approximately 30 inches(?) long , brown patterned , and 3 cream (or light colored) stripes running length-wise ,top of back stripe distinctive because it appears raised/ridged . Gratefully , Janet

    • Steve Dizmon profile image

      Steve Dizmon 6 years ago from Nashville, TN

      As we enter Spring this is a very timely and useful lens. I grew up in Copperhead and Rattlesnake country and learned early to consider myself an invader when I entered snake territory. Great subject that deserves wide exposure.

    • jnstewart profile image

      John Norman Stewart 6 years ago from Cottonwood, CA

      Very useful lens. Thanks.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      It's interesting to see the the effect of the neurotoxic bites versus those that cause large scale localized tissue damage.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Great lens

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Great lens. I have had some run ins with some snakes. Can't say I like'em but everything has it's place.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I have fears with snakes I can't barely look at them but still interested of reading this lens very informative and helpful specially when having a sudden snake encounter.

    • fromamericateel profile image

      fromamericateel 7 years ago

      There are Mojave Greens as far north as Honey Lake, Lassen County Nevada. Mostly they drop off the trains. There are also Mojave Greens around Jackpot Nevada and south.

      Most people can not understand why Mojave Greens are so much worse than the other rattlesnakes.

      I know snakes have their place, but I prefer that place be as far from me as possible.

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 7 years ago

      Very helpful lens! Snakes are really dangerous and it is extremely important for people to know what to do and what should not be done. 5*

    • profile image

      Jenlin01 7 years ago

      Can't stand snakes, but this lens has a lot of important information. Added to my lens "backyard habitats" Thanks!

    • Airinka profile image

      Airinka 7 years ago

      Snakes are dangerous!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      The trauma junkie in me thanks you for the photos. Very neat to see the effects!

    • profile image

      bengriston 7 years ago

      I live in snake country it seems. I killed a cooperhead in the front yard just a couple of weeks ago and there are cottonmouths in the creek by the road. It is an uneasy feeling so I wear boots a lot.

    • profile image

      beachbum_gabby 7 years ago

      well done lens, but honestly it's my worst nightmare! thanks for the tips.. :D

    • junebugco profile image

      junebugco 8 years ago

      I found it interesting that you created a lens on Poisonous Snakes when you live in a state without a species of such.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Excellent Lens. 5*

      If you get a chance check out my Instant Stress Management lens.

    • profile image

      Cassandrology 8 years ago

      This is one of my favorite animals and wildlife lenses, speaking of snakes I really hate snakes and most feared to be bitten by these deadly reptiles, thanks for that information on how we can avoid this venomous snakes hope that we can use and apply this if ever we encounter these snakes.

    • mysticmama lm profile image

      Bambi Watson 8 years ago

      Wonderful lens, I think snakes are so beautiful 5*

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I am quite happy to handle the more friendly varieties but I hate venomous snakes, so I had to force myself to read this lens.

      It is excellent and one of the most informative wild life lenses I have seen on Squidoo. Blessings to you!

    • ssuthep profile image

      ssuthep 8 years ago

      I am terribly scared of snakes - poisonous or not. This lens is jam packed with really good and useful information to identify poisonous snakes and symptoms. Blessed by a Squid Angel!

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image

      MargoPArrowsmith 8 years ago

      While hiking in a dessert in Arizona I came upon a rattlesnake. I knew enough to stand still until it was gone, but somehow expected it would run very fast. Well, I have never seen anything move so slowly in my life! It took forever. I bought big bells to attach to my shoe laces so they can hear me coming. I don't want to go through that again.

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 8 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Blech! Gruesome photos! Great informative lens!

    • profile image

      tweety0126 8 years ago

      Great lens, very informative; great visuals. Thanks for sharing.

    • businessblossom1 profile image

      businessblossom1 8 years ago

      Very informative . . . and the visual aids make sure it sticks in the mind.

    • SciTechEditorDave profile image

      David Gardner 8 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

      Wow! A definite 5* lens! I hope you don't mind, but I'm linking to your lens from my lenses on Rattlesnakes and Gila Monsters. After living in New Mexico for a bunch of years, I've seen plenty of the snakes you so nicely described in your lens. Reptiles inspired me so much when I was in New Mexico, that when I got into college, I continued my studies on some of the biggest reptiles out there--the Komodo Dragons and their Relatives. Just like Jurassic Park all over again, eh? Thanks again for a great lens!

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 8 years ago

      Having lived in Africa I have to agree with what you have said in this great lens. They do give me the chills though!

    • ChristopherScot1 profile image

      ChristopherScot1 8 years ago

      Snakes always make me think of Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones.

    • profile image

      BlossomVinson 8 years ago

      This is very useful and informative lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Great lens. I lens rolled it to my know your snakes. 5 stars from me

    • profile image

      Great-Golf-GreenFee-Deals 8 years ago

      You know I've always wanted to play golf in the USA.

      Reading this I'm certainly better informed and I'll choose my courses with care.

      Excellent lens.

    • Music-Resource profile image

      Music-Resource 8 years ago

      Hi Greg: Intriguing Poisonous Snake lens. That hand bite pic really showcases some serious necrosis, eek! ~Music Resource~

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 8 years ago from USA

      You've created a fabulous resource lens here!

    • profile image

      Couch-Covers-Melanie 8 years ago

      Great lens! Very informative and educating! I appreciate all the tips and informations. It certainly helps to understand snakes a bit better.

      5* for you!

      PS: Did you know couch covers can be real moneysavers?

    • rob-hemphill profile image

      Rob Hemphill 8 years ago from Ireland

      A great lens with so much information, and lovely pictures. Respect to the reptiles! 5*s

      Thanks for visiting my Beginners Wine Guide.

    • profile image

      GreatGoji 9 years ago

      This is a very interesting and informative lens.. I learned a lot about snakes and it is really a fact that some of them are really deadly. I appreciate your lens and I have noted some important information I might need.. Once again thx!

    • profile image

      winpaulson 9 years ago

      Those pictures are nasty. There aren't a lot of snakes where I live, only the odd garter snake. I'm glad I haven't had to concern myself with the identification of poisonous snakes.

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image

      ElizabethJeanAl 9 years ago

      I panic when I see a snake and don't stay around long enough to identify it. One of these days that panic action is going to get me bitten.

      Great lens

      5*

      Lizzy

    • profile image

      tdove 9 years ago

      Thanks for joining G Rated Lense Factory!