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How Can You Tell If a Snake Is Poisonous?

Last Updated: 16.04.24


Snakes are pretty fascinating creatures that have captured both our fear and imagination for centuries. They are part of stories, legends, symbols, and cultures across the world. Before wondering what repels snakes, you might need to know that in fact less than one third of all the species are venomous.

There’s only one area known for its large venomous snake population and this is Australia. Their percentage there goes as high as 65%, so if you are not living in that country you are probably pretty happy right now. Furthermore, it’s also good to know that while non-venomous snake bites are not deadly, this doesn’t mean they are not painful.

The United States also has some snakes that you want to avoid, since their venom poses a life threat, and one of the ways to steer clear of them is to know what they look like. In this article, we will take a closer look at the main types of venomous snakes you can find across the country and at ways in which you can recognize them.

The four main types of such reptiles in the United States are the copperheads, cottonmouths, the coral snakes, and rattlesnakes. Each one has particularities that you should be aware of, especially if you live in a part of the country that has a sizeable snake population.


Cottonmouths & rattlesnakes  

The cottonmouths are known for their elliptical pupils, as well as for the fact that their color ranges from green to black. They also have a white stripe on the side of the head, and they are most of the times found around water. While they enjoy this environment, cottonmouths have also adapted well to land.

The young snakes feature a tail that is bright and yellow, and this species is known for having a solitary life. Therefore, if you notice multiple snakes at the same place living peacefully, chances are they are not cottonmouths.

The next type of snake we’re going to look at gets its name from a well-known physical feature, namely that it rattles. Rattlesnakes can be identified by this particularity, but you should also be aware that harmless species sometimes imitate their behavior and sounds by brushing their tails through leaves. However, only rattlesnakes actually have the rattle at the end of the tail.

In case you cannot see the rattle, it’s good to know that they have elliptical eyes just like cats do. Hopefully, you’ll never have to come close enough to a rattlesnake to actually see the shape of its pupils, but that’s another story. Their heads are also triangularly-shaped, so this is another potential sign.



Copperheads & coral snakes

Copperheads are known for their beautiful colors. As we’ve said, snakes are both scary and fascinating creatures. With tones that range from bright orange, peach, and silver-pink, all the way to coppery brown, these snakes usually live in mixed woodlands and deciduous forests.

The fourth type of snake is another beauty when it comes to its colors – the coral snake. Other non-venomous snakes have borrowed its looks, the most popular one being the milk snake. Therefore, you need to make sure that you can tell the difference between the two.

A coral snake is deadly, so you don’t ever want to mess with it in case you encounter one in the wild. When it comes to distinctive marks, coral snakes have a unique coloring that features red, yellow, and black bands, in this particular order. Also, their yellow heads have black bands going over the nose.

One saying that you might want to remember in order to tell the Coral snakes apart from the Milk ones is “Red to yellow, kill a fellow. Red to black, friend of Jack.” Even though coral snakes are known for their shyness, which means that most of the times they won’t bite, it’s still a very good idea to steer clear of them in case you ever cross paths.


How to identify venomous snakes?

There are several things you can take into consideration if you ever need to figure out whether a snake is venomous or not. You should first take a look at the color patterns. Most of the snakes that come in one solid color with little or no patterns are usually harmless.

However, since cottonmouths fall into this color category but their bites are venomous, you shouldn’t rely on this rule of thumb alone. Plus, since snakes are also kept as pets, you should beware of those that might escape their owners and not be originally from a certain area.

Next, you can see what the shape of their head is. While non-venomous snakes tend to have spoon-shaped heads, venomous ones usually feature a more triangular one given their venom glands. On the other hand, these are not always so noticeable in some species such as the coral snake.

Of course, if you see rattles then things are clear. We’re talking about a rattlesnake and you should steer clear from it, go as far away as possible, and leave it be. Since we’ve mentioned that some snakes mimic the rattling behavior by using the vegetation around, you might get confused, but if you do see the rattles, then there’s no doubt.

You can also look for the heat sensor. Some of the venomous snakes living in the United States have an area that looks like a small depression placed between the nostril and the eye. This is usually called a pit and it helps snakes identify their prey based on body heat.


Some tips

You should always consider and treat any snake you find as a venomous one, especially if you are not sure whether it is, in fact, dangerous or not. However, even though you need to remain cautious, it’s very important to remember that you shouldn’t kill any snake.

You should know that killing non-venomous snakes just because we’re afraid of them actually allows the population of venomous snakes to grow. However, many of the venomous species are actually endangered species, which means it might even be illegal to kill one in your state, so don’t go ahead doing this either.



As it’s usually the case, the best approach is to leave them be (unless they are in your house, which might require some specialized help) and allow nature to balance their numbers.

In case you enjoy hiking and climbing, you should never put your feet or hands where you don’t have a clear view of your immediate surroundings. You might also want to research online for more information on the types of snakes that live in your area.

In case you see a snake in your neighborhood, you should let your neighbors know, especially if you think it’s a venomous one. This way, they can keep a close eye on their children and pets for a while. Even though we tend to be afraid of snakes, most of the times they are even more afraid of us.

They only bite if they are taken by surprise or if they think you are a threat. Therefore, you should always be careful when you are traveling on foot, especially if you know that the snake population in your area is a rather large one. You can also make noise around you, in order to give them the time to go away on their own.




1) Snakes facts and information

2) Australia – the land of most venomous snakes

3) List of fatal snake bites in the United States

4) Could the snake that shed the skin be venomous?



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