Here are some tips to quickly ID a snake.
The last thing anyone exploring the outdoors wants to encounter in the woods is a venomous snake. I'd take a skunk, spider, or wolverine over one of them any day.
With that in mind, here are some tips on what to look out for during your outdoor adventures this summer to aid in quick snake identification and most importantly, help you determine if it is venomous.
1. Patterns and Coloration
This can be a good clue as rattlesnakes and copperheads almost always have a color pattern on them. Water moccasins (aka cottonmouths) can too, but they can also appear more solid in color. This is why you shouldn't use any sort of pattern as a hard and fast rule on snake identification.
There are also non-venomous snakes that have patterns. Here in Michigan, the northern water snake is mistaken for a rattlesnake all the time, but it is actually harmless. The northern water snake has more of a rectangular-shaped pattern to it while rattlesnakes usually have a diamond pattern, or one some have described as "video game controller-shaped."
Most snakes with yellow or orange vertical stripes over the length of their bodies are either harmless garter snakes or ribbon snakes. Garter snakes can have a spotted or barred color pattern, too.
Also be aware that there are copycats out there. The coral snake, like the one in the picture above, is brightly colored and patterned. It is also highly venomous. But it has a copycat in milk snakes, which is probably an evolved trait to help keep milk snakes safe from predators. To be on the safe side, don't handle any brightly colored and patterned snake like the one you see above.
There is a rhyme to help tell the difference between a coral and milk snake that we'll share here: "Red touches black, safe for Jack. Red touches yellow, kills a fellow."
Also keep an eye out for the scarlet king snake. It is another species that sometimes greatly resembles the coral snake, but it is harmless. In North America, it is probably a good rule of thumb to be cautious around any patterned snake, but remember one of the most venomous snakes on earth, the black mamba, is solidly colored. There are really no hard and fast rules with snakes.
2. Pupil Shapes
This is another area where you can get a good clue, but don't rely on it solely. Going back to the coral snake for a moment, it is a venomous snake which has round eyes, which may fool many into thinking it is non-venomous.
Most venomous snakes, especially here in North America, seem to have eyes that are vertical slits, like a cat's eye. If you see vertical eyes, it is probably a viper and your best bet is to leave it alone. Granted, let's hope you never get close enough to see for sure!
With some snakes, it is very easy to identify them as harmless from their pupils, like with garter snakes.
Again, keep in mind the black mamba, a snake that has round pupils, as do cobras and the eastern brown snake in Australia. I'll repeat myself: There are no set rules on snakes.
3. Body Shape
A lot of guides online will tell you to look for a triangular-shaped head on a venomous snake. But let's step back a moment and think about this. That vague description covers a LOT of snakes. Look at any python or boa. They have triangular-shaped heads but are in no way venomous.
One North American snake often mistaken as dangerous is the Eastern Hognose snake. This reptile has a triangular head, but it is completely harmless. Personally, I've never felt safe looking for a triangular head as an indicator of a snake's potential danger.
The eastern hognose snake also likes to flatten itself out and it almost gives the appearance of a cobra's hood on some snakes. It has probably led to more than one hognose being unnecessarily killed as a result.
Ribbon snakes and garter snakes tend to have greatly streamlined bodies where there is almost no definition between the head, neck and the rest of the body.
Copperheads, rattlesnakes and water moccasins on the other hand, do tend to have a bulkier and more defined head than most venomous snakes. On rattlesnakes and water moccasins in particular, you might notice a more defined neck behind the head. These snakes also tend to have a bulkier or heavier-looking appearance than a harmless snake.
You do have to love rattlesnakes a bit for having such an obvious giveaway trait that makes for a quick identification. There is really no doubting it when you run across a timber rattlesnake or eastern Massasauga rattler. You are too close and should probably back away.
Keep in mind, even the young snakes will have at least the beginnings of a rattle. However, the tale that snakes add one new rattle a year is nothing more than an urban legend.
Once again, keep in mind there are some non-venomous snakes that like to imitate the tail-twitching of a rattlesnake. It should be obvious if the snake is shaking its tail and there is no noise. If you hear a rattle, you've got a rattlesnake.
5. Research Venomous Snakes in Your State or Province Ahead of Time
There are so many variations and sub-species of venomous snakes in North America that it would take a book to note all the differences between them here. The best thing to do is to put in the time to do some extra research specifically on the venomous snakes in your state or province.
It may not be as daunting as you think. For my home state of Michigan, it's easy. There is only one venomous snake species, the eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, an endangered species. So it's a simple task in Michigan. If it has rattles, you've found it. You can use the pupil rule here because the eastern Massasauga is the only one with vertical pupils in Michigan. For what is worth, I've lived here my whole life and have never seen one in the wild.
When you do your research, be sure to look at an official state wildlife page. Most states have a snake page set up on their natural resources site specifically to aid in identification. Sadly, few people take the time to read them even though it may only eat up a few minutes of your time.
Don't rely on the words of friends or family who insist that a snake is venomous or not. Many people are uniformed about what snakes really live in their home state or province. I once had some friends freak out on a kayaking trip because they were certain it was a water moccasin in the tree we were paddling under. I had to reassure them it was only a harmless black rat snake.
Obviously, if you're from south Florida, Texas, or Georgia, there are going to be way more snakes you need to know than someone living in Maine. The southern and western parts of the U.S. are generally home to more dangerous snakes than the north and east.
But you don't need to be an expert herpetologist. Just know the tell-tale signs of venomous snakes in your area and you'll be ready for whatever nature throws at you.