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Pet Snakes provides easy to understand, practical information and facts to help the new snake owner take care of their animals. At Pet Snakes we want to provide information that will help you enjoy your reptile more than ever.

How to identify a snake

Learning to identify the snakes you are likely to come into contact with is both educational and important in the case of venomous species. Some species of snake, such as the rattlesnake subspecies, are easily identifiable even by those who have never seen one before. Unfortunately the vast majority of snakes are not so easy to recognize and this leads to confusion often resulting in the snake being killed out of fear that it might be venomous.

I’m going to show you how to identify snakes in your local area based on 6 factors:

  1. Known species in the area
  2. Coloration
  3. Patterns
  4. Size
  5. Body shape
  6. Head shape

Before we get into those subjects I need to address a myth about identifying venomous snakes. That is, venomous snakes have elliptical eyes.

This isn’t so much a myth as it is a misunderstanding. With the exception of the Coral Snake venomous snakes found in the United States do have elliptical eyes. Go outside of the US however and that rule proves to be useless. It is more accurately stated that Pit Vipers have elliptical eyes, but saying all venomous snakes have them is false. Elapids such as the Cobra and the Boomslang have round pupils. The rule works so well in the United States because the most commonly encountered venomous species are pit vipers.

Identification of snakes even for the well trained observer can at times prove difficult. The goal with this article is to give you some tips to help in the process. If you aren’t absolutely positive that the snake you have seen is not venomous do not attempt to pick it up or otherwise harass it.


What species are known to live in the area?
This is the first place you should start in your effort to determine what species of snake you are looking at. If you’re in the middle of Ghana for instance you know that the California King snake isn’t likely to show up. At the same time you’re very likely to come across a Ball Python if you happen to be digging around in termite mounds in Ghana.

This isn’t fool proof to determine if a snake is or isn’t of a particular species. Due to human colonization of almost every bit of inhabitable land on the planet it is not unheard of for species of flora and fauna, including snakes, to end up where they didn’t originally exist.


What color is the snake?
The most easily observable aspect of a snake is its color. Even before you see the shape of its body you can see the coloration. You should look to see if it is:

  • Multicolored
  • Muted colors
  • Vibrant colors

Color alone won’t allow you to identify most snakes (exceptions made for one of a kind species such as the Brazilian Rainbow Boa) but it does help to narrow down the list of possible species.


What patterns and shapes are the colors in?
This is a very important aspect of identifying snakes. Every species has unique patterns that when you know what to look for make it much easier to tell what kind of snake it is. A good example is the Scarlet King snake and the Coral Snake. They both have very similar colors and it is the pattern these colors appear in that makes them identifiable one from the other. A popular mnemonic verse goes “Red touch black, venom lacks. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow”. Scarlet kings have red, black and yellow bands as do Coral snakes, but the colors appear in a different combination.

Often the patterns and shapes of a snakes colors are so distinct that it is easy to tell what kind of snake it is just by a casual glance. A prime example is the Boa Constrictor. Regardless if it is Boa Constrictor constrictor or imperator the general patterns alone give it away as a Boa Constrictor.


What size is the snake?
This can be misleading for a variety of reasons including the fact that age plays a huge role in how large a snake is at the time you see it. However it is still an important weapon in the arsenal of identification. Apply the rule of common sense when it comes to snake sizes and identifying species. If you observe a 15 foot long snake, regardless of the patterns it isn’t going to be a Corn Snake. It could well be a Reticulated Python or a Burmese Python but it won’t be a Corn Snake.


What is the overall shape of the snake?
This is another aspect of a snake that can be misleading as far as identifying species is concerned but it is worth a mention. The general shape of the snake can help to determine what species it is. When talking about the shape of a snake in this instance it is referring to their roundness. Look to see if it is:

  • Normal:
    Snakes that are normal or typical in their bodily appearance have a medium build. They are more or less round, not especially stout or noticeably slender. A King snake is a good example of having the normal body shape.
  • Slender:
    A slender snake will appear skinny when you look at it. Not emaciated, but skinny. A Coachwhip is a good example of the slender body shape.
  • Stout:
    A stout snake looks chubby. When you see it you might think it is overweight and if you didn’t know better that would be a forgivable offense. A Ball Python is a good example of the stout body shape.


What is the shape of the snakes head?
The shape of the head can play a key role in the ID of a snake. Some species have very distinct characteristics when it comes to head shape. You should observe if the head is:

  • The same size as the body:
    Some snakes have no discernible necks which makes it appear as if the body and the head are all one piece. King snakes are a good example.
  • Slightly larger than the body:
    The head can be distinguished from the body but it is not such a large difference as to be glaring. The Garter Snake is a good example.
  • Much broader than the body:
    The head is noticeably larger than the body of the snake, often reminiscent of an arrow head. The Green Tree Python is a good example.

By looking at all six of these aspects we are able to better determine the species of snake we are looking at. As was stated earlier the identification of snakes, especially unfamiliar species, is best left to experts. If you don’t know what kind of snake you are attempting to handle the outcome could be grim.

  • Keith2828

    i reciently bought a snake an amnt sure what type it is either was the previous owner i have pictures of it need help please.

  • Amberlisa

    i need help identifying a snake that i have. i’m going to try to sell it but i need to know what kind it is! i need help ASAP please.

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