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How to Tell If a Snake Is Venomous

Encountering a snake can be a scary experience, especially if you are not sure if it is venomous or non-venomous. There are many myths about how to tell the difference between these 2 types, and the biggest problem is that some venomous snakes can be “disguised” and look non-threatening.

However, there are a few tips that can help you to distinguish venomous snakes from snakes that are innocuous and 5-Minute Crafts prepared this guide for you to help you with that.

This article is for informational purposes only and doesn’t replace professional advice. If you were bitten by a snake, seek medical help immediately.

1. Teeth

Both venomous and non-venomous snakes have teeth, but their structure and function are different:

  • Venomous: have fangs, and their function is to inject venom into their prey. The venom is made in glands that are located above their eyes.
  • Non-venomous: have small teeth that are hard to see (and some have teeth that can look like fangs, but they are not). They use them for catching and holding onto their prey.

2. Head and pupils

Most venomous snakes have triangular-shaped heads and vertical cat-like pupils. This, however, can be true but be aware that some venomous snakes can have round pupils. They can react to the change of the light, and if it’s darker, their pupils can get rounder. Here are some other interesting facts:

  • Some species (Coral snakes e.g.) are very dangerous and venomous but have round pupils.
  • Most snakes have flexible jaws and this allows them to actually flatten their heads out and make them look a bit more triangular if they are threatened.

Conclusion: Most venomous snakes do have triangular-shaped heads and spherical pupils like Pit Vipers, for example, but this doesn’t apply to all of them. However, these rules depend mostly on which part of the world you are in. The best way to know how to differentiate between them is to have extensive knowledge about them.

3. Pit organs

These organs are actually small holes and their function is to detect warm-blooded prey. Pit organs are placed between the nose and the eyes of Pit viper snakes that are venomous. Still, it needs to be noted that some snakes that don’t have venom, like Boas and Pythons, have pit organs too.

4. Furrowed brow

There are also certain snakes with scales that stick out near their eyes. This gives them a very distinctive appearance, and they look like they have a brow. Reptiles like rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and cottonmouths have furrowed brows.

5. Colors and patterns

Some highly venomous snakes, like Coral snakes, have a very colorful pattern of black, red, and yellow stripes, and this is for a reason:

  • Bright colors often warn other predators that the animal can be very dangerous so they need to stay away.
  • Some other examples of these intensely-colored reptiles that can be very dangerous are the Blue Malaysian coral snake with its dark blue scales and white stripes and the green bush viper with a vividly green-yellowish body.
  • However, some non-venomous snakes can mimic the coloration and thus end up looking like their venomous cousins (e.g. the Scarlet Kingsnake looks almost identical to the Coral snake).
  • It’s better to focus on the pattern, for example — Northern copperhead snakes are venomous and have a very distinctive hourglass-shaped pattern on their body, while the Eastern milk snake is not venomous but has similar coloration. Still, the pattern is different and is made of blotches that are outlined in black across the body.

6. Mimicry

As mentioned above, non-venomous snakes evolved a very interesting behavior of mimicking venomous snakes. This strategy consists of adapting the color or even patterns to look like a venomous snake. A great example is the Scarlet Kingsnake which mimics the look of a Coral snake. Although they look almost the same, with their red, yellow, and black coloration, there are differences:

  • The Scarlet kingsnake has red and black bands that touch each other.
  • The Coral snake is also brightly colored, but the red and yellow touch each other, not the red and black.

7. Behavior

Depending on their nature and lifestyle, different snakes can act differently. Still, there are some things that you can remember:

  • They are afraid of humans and will do their best to avoid them. Some will slither away quickly, while others will remain still and try not to be seen.
  • When it comes to rattlesnakes, they can make a very recognizable sound (rattle, buzz) to warn off predators. Again, it should be noted that many non-venomous snakes (black racers, rat snakes, pine snakes, etc.) can do this too when they feel threatened.
  • Dangerous Water moccasins swim with their whole body above the water while the non-venomous water snakes swim with their head above the water.

8. Bite

Whether it is a bite from a venomous or non-venomous snake it has to be treated by medical professionals as soon as possible. There are some differences between the markings that these 2 types of snakes leave:

  • Venomous: since they have 2 fangs, the bite will leave 2 puncture marks, and swelling, bruising, and pain can be felt.
  • Non-venomous: their bite will leave markings of 2 teeth rows and swelling, redness, itching, and even bleeding can occur in this area.

Bonus: How to avoid snakes and what to do if you run into one

So, to summarize — there is no one certain rule that can tell you the exact difference between these 2 types of snakes. Only by learning which venomous snakes live in your area and how to identify them, will you be able to know if it’s dangerous or not. Here are some tips that you can follow if you ever run into this slithering reptile:

  • If you encounter a snake in your backyard or garden, you don’t have to kill it. Just step away and call a service (like a wildlife rescue organization) that will come and remove the snake.
  • Remember that snakes are probably more afraid of you, so don’t try to remove it or handle it by yourself.
  • They will often go away on their own, but the first thing to do is to give them space.
  • Snakes usually hide in tall grass or weeds, so be extra cautious and walk slowly through these areas.
  • Wear hiking boots and footwear with thick soles so you’re more protected.
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