Snake identification skills come in handy, especially in those times one crosses paths with a snake and wonders if it’s poisonous. These snake encounters often happen during the warmer months of the year, traditional season for these cold blooded reptiles.
Identifying the types of snakes people come into contact with in the United States starts by presenting some formal information about snakes.
First, the native snakes in the United States fit into one of five different families:
- Boidae (Boas)
- Colurbridae (Colubrid)
- Crotalidae (Pit Vipers)
- Leptotyphlopidae (Blind Snakes)
- Elapidae (Coral Snakes)
Most people will cross paths with Colubrid snakes for the simple fact that they are the largest family of snakes in terms of number of species.
The family covers around one hundred species, including the most common types of snakes such as garter snakes, kingsnakes, rat snakes and coachwhips. The picture at the top of the page shows a pair of Garter Snakes.
As the most common snakes, they also are the focus of the snake identification guide. Please press any of the green buttons on the left to learn more about the snake species associated with each of the genera. The presentation below provides a run down of some common and rare colubrid snake species along with an overview of the Pit Vipers (Cottonmouths, Copperheads and Rattlesnakes).
Types of Snakes: Colubrids
The Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus) in the second picture is a common Colubrid species, found in most areas of the United States. It’s also the only member of the genus.
The dual color body, dark on the top and a bright shade of orange or yellow on the bottom serve as the best field identification clues. The picture highlights the snake’s characteristic ring neck mark. While ring-neck snake bites are rare, touching them is not recommended. They can secrete a foul smelling chemical.
While all snakes possess the ability to swim, Water Snakes (genus Nerodia) get their name because of their close association with water habitats.
With the exception of the Pacific Northwest, nine different species inhabit most areas of North America. All but one species, the Salt Marsh Snake (Nerodia clarkii) inhabit fresh water areas from small ponds to large rivers. The Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) is probably the species with the widest range. It’s found in all states east of the Rocky Mountains.
Physically, water snake bodies grow anywhere from three to six feet in length. Their dark, often blotched skin, helps them blend into their environment.
In the South, the venomous Water Moccasin shares a similar habitat and slightly resembles a few water snake species. The shorter and thicker body of the Water Moccasin can normally be used as field identification clues to distinguish between them.
While Water Snake species are not venomous, many species are known to be ill tempered, and quick to bite when startled. Wildlife officials often recommend that boaters avoid drifting under low hanging branches (their favorite basking places) in order to decrease the possibility that the snakes drop in for a ride.
Indigo snakes (genus Drymarchon) often get ranked as the largest coulbrids. They can grow up to nine feet in length, with most averaging in the five to six foot category.
The picture highlights the snake’s blue hue, making snake identification in this instance also easy. It’s also a one of a kind snake and the only member of the Drymarchon genus in the United States.
Pit Vipers: Crotalidae
As already mentioned, some people immediately associate poisonous snakes, or venomous snakes with the snake world.
Fortunately, the majority of snakes present in the United States are neither poisonous nor venomous. However, four native genera of venomous snakes inhabit North America, Coral Snakes, Copperheads, Cottonmouths and Rattlesnakes. The presence of rear fangs and a very mild venom sometimes qualifies a few Colurbridae species such as Lyre snakes as venomous snakes. They represent a small proportion of the country’s approximately 250 total snake species and subspecies.
Pit Vipers are the largest group of venomous snakes. Three genera, covering about forty species of rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths, inhabit various areas of the United States.
Crotalus rattlesnakes, for example, inhabit most areas of North America. Because of the venomous bites, their presence in any specific area usually gets well documented. The desert Southwest hosts over a dozen different species.
Rattlesnake identification can be a bit tricky because rattlesnake diversity translates into species with substantially different body patterns. Diamondback species, for example, have dark, diamond shaped patterns along the length of the body. That makes for difficult species identification. The Timber Rattlesnake pictures is probably the most common species in the United States. It lives in most states east of the Rocky Mountains.
For general identification purposes and for personal safety reasons, most people only need know that a rattlesnake can be identified by the rattle at the end of the tail. It’s the only snake with that physical characteristic and a good clue to keep away from the snake.
Five different copperhead subspecies (Agkistrodon contortrix) inhabit Eastern and Mid-western forest areas, south to Texas.
Their diet consists primarily of rodents in their territory, and unless directly disturbed, they are not known to be particularly aggressive in the presence of humans.
Copperheads grow to an average three feet in length and their light body is covered with darker crossbands. The head shows a characteristic copper color.
Populations of Cottonmouth Snakes are limited to water areas of the Southeast and up the Mississippi River to Illinois.
The look very similar to the common water snakes they share territory with.