How To Identify Venomous Snakes

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You have a higher chance of getting bit by a snake than a wolf, bear, and shark COMBINED! Knowing how to identify venomous snakes can save your life.

Each year in North America, there are a reported 7000-8000 venomous snake bites.

These bites happen for a variety of reasons, however more often than not, it boils down to human error.

After all, snakes tend to be reclusive creatures and actively avoid confrontation.

Venomous snakes, in particular, prefer not to bite so that their venom is reserved for catching a meal.

Fortunately, due to modern treatments and public awareness, very few bites result in death.

How To Identify Venomous Snakes

Common Venomous Snakes and How to Identify Them

In North America, there are four main species of venomous snakes: the coral snake, rattlesnake, copperhead and the cottonmouth.

Each snake has its own distinctive markings, although the markings of their subspecies can be slightly different.

Before we teach you how to deal with being confronted by each of these snakes, it’s important that you’re able to identify them. When you’re able to identify them, or their look-a-likes, you will be able to make the right decisions to avoid them as best you can.

Here’s an infographic from Sniff Outdoors, on how to identify each snake and, briefly, what to do if you find yourself in an unfortunate situation.

1. The Coral Snake

how to identify venomous coral snake

The most iconic feature of the coral snake is its distinctive red, yellow and black markings.

For most types of coral snake in North America, the rhyme “Red and yellow, kill a fellow. Red and black, friend of Jack” will set you in good stead to remember the color order.

The key thing to remember is that the yellow band touches the red band i.e. ordered yellow, red, yellow, black. There are some non-venomous snakes which have adapted to look like this, however their bands won’t be in this order.

You’ll typically find coral snakes in forested areas, under leaves or underground, with reclusive behaviour. Like most snakes, they’ll only come out to attack if provoked.

2. The Rattlesnake

how to identify venomous rattlesnake snakes

Two of the most distinctive features of the North American rattlesnake are their blocky, diamond shaped head and thick, heavy body.

Their rattle at the end of their tail, which gives them their name, acts as a warning signal to threats.

There are many subspecies of the rattlesnake, however in North America, you will most commonly come across the timber rattlesnake, eastern diamondback, western diamondback and the prairie rattlesnake.

You’re likely to find them in a variety of habitats, some of which include forested areas, bush, swamps or deserts, so it’s worth keeping this in mind if ever you’re in these kinds of locations.

The sound of its rattle should be enough to help you identify any rattlesnake, but remember that young rattlesnakes do not yet have their rattles, though they are as dangerous as adults. Furthermore, some adults may lose their rattles, so it is a good idea look out for the triangular head.

3. The Cottonmouth

The cottonmouth, like the rattlesnake is a member of the pit viper family, meaning it senses its prey through two heat sensors.

They’re also referred to as the “Water Moccasin”, and they’re quite common in the Southeastern part of the United States.

It’s the only semi-aquatic venomous snake of North America which means that you will usually find it hanging around swamp areas, or in and around water. Often during the day, the cottonmouth will be basking on rocks in an attempt to warm its body temperature, due to the fact it is cold-blooded.

The cottonmouth’s slit-shaped eyes are a good giveaway that it is a venomous snake, however it is important to remember that not all venomous snakes have slit-shaped eyes.

One of the easiest ways to distinguish between this venomous water snake and similar non-venomous ones is its dark cross bands, with lighter brown shading. Often adult cottonmouth’s coloring is so dark, it looks like it has no visible markings.

4. The Copperhead

Also a member of the pit viper family, the copperhead has a wide head and stout body. It’s commonly wrongly identified as it is similar to other, non-venomous snakes, such as the northern water snake.

As in the name of this snake, its skin is red/brown with chestnut brown cross bands, which are irregular. The color of its head is copper and unmarked. Their irregular cross bands are wider at the top of the body and thin out down its sides.

Again, the copperhead is cold-blooded and prefers to stay in semi-aquatic environments, like swamps. Although it is a nocturnal creature, as the nights get colder, you’ll likely see the copperhead out during the day to raise its overall body temperature.

What the copperhead is known for is its ambush attack, staying under leaves or rocks until its prey comes by and it will make an attack. With humans, though, the snake will tend to retreat if possible and avoid confrontation.

What Should You Do To Avoid Being Bitten?

When you’re out and about, the last thing you want is your trip to be cut short because of a nasty nip from one of these creatures. The chances of dying from a venomous snake bite are very low, however the poison will attack your tissue and can even cause paralysis. Here are a few ‘take-away’ tips to best avoid becoming the victim.

  • Research your area – learn which snake frequents each habitat and avoid placing your hands or feet down where you can’t see i.e. rocks/long grass.
  • Wear appropriate clothing – if you know you’ll potentially come across one of these snakes, you should wear long, loose clothing. Also consider investing in snake guards and thick boots to protect your legs and feet.
  • If you’re camping, be sure to always keep your tent closed and boots inside your tent.
  • Don’t handle the snake or prod with a stick – snakes can strike from some distance, so the chances are, if you’re close enough to touch it (even with a stick) you’re close enough to be bitten.

What Should You Do If You’re Bitten?

  • The first thing to do is react quickly call emergency services AND if possible, identify which snake you were bitten by. If you can’t identify the snake, describe its key characteristics i.e. size, markings, body shape, head shape, location.
  • Loosen any clothing and put pressure on the bite. If you’re bitten, you will begin to swell, so loosening clothing will allow room for this.
  • Try to keep your heart rate down and keep the wound below your heart. Both of these will prevent the poison from circulating around your body as quickly.
  • Do NOT try to suck the venom. The only thing that will really help is antivenin treatment, however if you are far from help, you can wash the clean the wound to help prevent infection.
  • DON’T take painkillers.

Final Thoughts

Your chances of being bitten by a snake are higher than your chances of being attacked by a wolf, bear, and shark COMBINED! 

If you’re someone who spends a lot of time outdoors you should spend a little time online learning different snake types so you can beat the odds.

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