How to Identify Venomous Snakes

May 9, 2013 by | 8 Comments

Spend a little time outdoors on nearly any continent, and you will eventually encounter a snake—likely sooner than later. The key to surviving this encounter is the ability to quickly and accurately determine whether you’re facing a minor annoyance or a deadly threat.

You can often identify a venomous snake by looking for certain physical features, which unfortunately means you must be closer to them than you’d like. That’s never a good thing. This isn’t a fool-proof solution though, because there are some that do not posses these features.

1.) Venomous snakes generally have a thick triangular head that is wide in proportion to their body like the rattlesnake hiding amongst these rocks.


2.) As with this cottonmouth, venomous snakes often have a stout, heavier bodies, compared to the thin, lighter bodies of many non-venomous snakes.

Cotton Mouth

3.) Most venomous snakes have elliptical pupils that resemble long narrow slits, as seen in the baby copperhead below, rather than the round pupils you find in most creatures.

Copperhead Snake

4.) All snakes have teeth, but only venomous snakes have fangs capable of delivering poison, as shown by this bush viper. They often display their fangs long before striking in an attempt to scare you away—and it usually works.

Bush Viper

5.) If you have the unfortunate opportunity to get really close, you can look for two small holes that look like nostrils, visible on this Malabar pit viper. They aren’t though; they are actually heat-sensing organs used to find prey.

Malabar Pit Viper

These features aren’t the only indication that a snake is venomous though. The coral snake, found throughout temperate U.S. states, does not have a large triangular head, a stout, heavy body, or elliptical pupils, but it packs one of the most potent venoms of any snake in North America. Throughout the world, there are many other snakes, such as the cobra, sea snake, and mamba, to name just a few, that don’t have these easily identifiable features, but are just as, or more deadly than their counterparts.

Coral Snake

The only 100% certain way to identify venomous snakes is to learn about them ahead of time. I recommend the book, Venomous Snakes of the World to familiarize yourself with the species you’re likely to encounter where you live or travel.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

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  • Howard says:

    Good article and beautiful snake pictures.

  • Christopher de Vidal says:

    There’s the coral snake and its non-venomous look-alike, the king snake. One way to remember which is which is the old saying, “Red and yellow, kill a fellow. Red and black, won’t hurt jack.” The colors of a king snake go red/black/yellow and the coral, red/yellow/black.

    Course I would sooner just avoid both……….

    • Jeremy Knauff says:

      You are correct Christopher; they both have distinct and consistent patterns. In fact, the easiest way to tell the difference between the two is that a coral snake always has a black nose.

      • Briana says:

        Jeremy, thanks for that tip. I can never remember otherwise. Black nose – that’s easy to remember.

  • barry says:

    Hog nose snakes (puff adders) meet pretty much all of these traits listed but are not considered venomous (to humans). Hog nose snakes come in different colors and though I live in the midwest I have seen eastern hog nose snakes in this area. Hog nose snakes eat rodents and toads (lots of toads) and are beneficial but when they rear up like they are ready to strike you, they can look threatening ending in their demise to someone that is not familiar with them, they also play dead if acting aggressive does not work.

    • Jeremy Knauff says:

      With the exception of the pupils, that is true Barry, but hognose snakes are not considered puff adders; that’s just a nickname they’ve earned for how they mimic true puff adders. Their head is larger than their body, but not quite as large as a typical venomous snake. Another thing the hognosed snake does that confuses people is rattle its tail, which in the twigs and leaves tends to mimic the sound of a rattlesnake. The easiest way to identify them is to look for their up-turned snout.

  • N Hundt says:

    The picture of the snake’s “nostrils”, the heat-sensing organs, helped me identify a young (6″ long) snake that I found in my yard while raking leaves on the 1st warm day of spring. While pictures of garter snakes show “nostrils,” too (, I concluded that the snake I found was venomous. Note the two photos: the garter has simple holes on a smooth continuous surface towards the front, while the pit viper has a more formed structure to the front of the “holes”. Given the metallic, copper sheen on my snake’s head in the sunlight (not visible under current cloudy skies in the container where I placed it), and the aforementioned photo, I think the snake I found is is a copperhead. I’m taking him far away from my property. Now, where’s his mom?

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