Stay Safe in the Wild: How to Identify Venomous Snakes?

According to the scientific consensus, there are close to 4,000 snake species in the world, 600 of which are venomous. Out of these, 200 of them are deadly and can kill a full-grown human in a matter of hours. To make matters worse, some venomous and non-venomous species are similar in appearance by virtue of pure coincidence.

Others are similar by virtue of evolutionary adaptation. Such is the case of the corn snake, which mimics the appearance of the coral snake because the latter is venomous. This creates confusion between the two species, allowing the corn snake’s predators to think twice before targeting the snake. Despite it being harmless.

This brings us to today’s topic: how to distinguish between venomous and non-venomous snakes? Let’s see!

Types of Venomous Snakes

You can encounter many venomous snakes, depending on where you’ve planned your trip. Here are 6 of the most popular venomous snakes you can find in America, as well as other continents:

  1. Copperhead – This one is widespread throughout the American continent and is a colorful, strong-bodied, and deadly reptile. Copperheads blend in their environment amazingly well thanks to their leaf-like color pattern and warm coloring. These snakes produce a hemotoxic venom that leads to local inflammation, swelling, and blood clotting. Fortunately, the copperhead isn’t as deadly as other venomous species, especially if medical assistance comes in time.
  2. Cottonmouth – You may know this one as the water moccasin, a potentially deadly species that inhabits the marshes and swamps of the southeastern US. This snake has a thick and powerful body and a wide mouth with a white interior, which it likes to flare when threatened (hence, the name.) The cottonmouth’s venom is also hemotoxic but a bit more potent than that of the copperhead. Severe tissue damage is common if medical assistance doesn’t arrive soon.
  3. Taipan – Fortunately, you won’t have to worry about the taipan, as this monstrous beast can only be found in Australia. Taipans are usually brown with dark heads and black eyes and mouths, creating an ominous picture of the death to come. This one ranks as the deadliest snake species in the world. Not only does this snake possess the largest reserves of neurotoxic venom out of all snakes, but the deadly cocktail is also extremely potent. One bite can send up to 100 adults into the shadow realm. Fortunately, this snake’s territory is very secluded, causing it to only rarely bump into people.
  4. Rattlesnake – We’re coming back home to look at a more endemic personality: the rattlesnake. This species inhabits large arid regions of South and North America and is quite distinctive thanks to its appearance and behavior. Rattlesnakes curl in balls when threatened and ring their tails, emitting a loud noise to inform everyone of their presence. If the warning system fails, the snake will immediately attack and deliver its hemotoxic cocktail. You’re likely to run into a rattlesnake whenever you go into arid regions with plenty of rocks, crevices, and bushes, so keep your eyes open. Fortunately, rattlesnakes will rarely bite without warning.
  5. Cobras – We can’t have a list of venomous snakes without mentioning the mighty king cobra. This iconic snake resides mostly in Africa and Asia, spread across different species and subspecies. This snake is well-known for its defensive mechanism, consisting of raising its body and flaring its trademark hood. The cobra possesses a neurotoxic venom capable of inflicting paralysis and death even in humans.
  6. Vipers – These are short venomous snakes present pretty much in every corner of the Earth. Depending where you’re looking, there are multiple species of vipers, each with distinct characteristics and behaviors. Most vipers possess hemotoxic venom, but others have a mixed neurotoxic and hemotoxic bite, inflicting a variety of symptoms. Vipers are also deadly in most cases.

There are multiple other venomous snake species to consider, including the coral and sea snake, which also inhabit vast regions in and around the American continent. Now that you know what awaits for you in the wild, let’s see how to distinguish between venomous and non-venomous reptiles. Consider the following traits:

  • Head shape – Most venomous species have a triangle-shaped head, while non-venomous ones have rounder heads. However, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. For instance, coral snakes have round and smooth heads, despite being deadly venomous. Then you have constrictor snakes (non-venomous) like pythons and boas, who have rectangle-shaped heads, so they don’t fit in either category. This metric is good as a general standard, not an absolute one.
  • Eye pupil shape – Venomous snakes have elliptical pupils, while non-venomous species have them rounder. Just make sure you assess the snake’s pupils from afar. There’s no point in getting too close and risking being bitten just so you can observe the snake’s pupils; that would defeat the purpose.
  • The fangs – Venomous snakes have large elongated fangs situated on the upper jaw. Some species have retractable fangs that only come out as the mouth opens. Others keep their fangs out constantly. The fangs are used to deliver the venom, so you won’t find them in non-venomous snakes. That being said, many non-venomous species have teeth as well, like boas and pythons. However, their teeth are smaller and spread throughout the jaw length, similar to those of an alligator. Constrictor snakes use these teeth to secure their prey.
  • The skin’s appearance – Most non-venomous snakes have smooth scales and shiny bodies. Venomous species have keeled and rugged scales.

There are several other indicators to consider, like color and behavior, which we will discuss shortly. It’s important to remember that these general indicators don’t apply to all species but most. That’s because some non-venomous snakes can mimic the appearance of venomous species to give themselves an edge against predators.

Identifying Venomous Snakes

So, you stumble across a snake in the wild, and you want to tell whether it’s venomous or not immediately. What indicators should you consider aside from the ones we’ve already mentioned? Consider the following:

Identification by Color and Pattern

Many venomous snakes are brightly colored and showcase more intricate patterns on their backs. You’re looking for colors like black, red, yellow, and even blue. The snake’s intense coloring is meant to inform any potential predators that they’re dealing with a lethal animal.

These bright colors are especially aimed at birds of prey, which are known to hunt snakes and other reptiles. This means that the snake’s color is the first thing you’ll most likely observe during your encounter. However, be wary. Not all venomous snakes are brightly colored.

The taipan, which is the deadliest snake in the world, is a bland brown with a black head. Rattlesnakes are also typically brown with variations of black and earthy nuances. So, you can’t use color to determine their nature, but you can use their pattern instead.

As I’ve already mentioned, some non-venomous species can also mimic the coloring of their more deadly counterparts as a deterrence factor. This can cause you to avoid otherwise completely harmless snakes, which, to be honest, isn’t bad.

Identification by Shape and Size

We need to consider these indicators separately because they describe different species.

  • Shape – Some venomous snakes have different body shapes and distinctive physical characteristics than non-venomous species. The head is typically triangle-shaped with a thick and powerful body. Venomous snakes usually have prominent heads with powerful jaws, thin necks, and thick bodies, ending with slender tails. This characteristic is present in vipers, rattlesnakes, copperheads, and many others.
  • Size – Venomous snakes are often smaller than non-venomous ones. This is generally because the venomous types don’t need to rely on their size and strength to intimidate potential predators. Instead, they use their warning colors, defensive behavior, and venom to make a statement.

Identification by Behavior

Non-venomous snakes rarely stick around to face you when being taken by surprise. Instead, they prefer to flee precisely because they don’t have means of defending themselves should things go south. Venomous snakes, though, are different. Most venomous species will hold their ground and resort to a variety of defensive behaviors, depending on the species.

The loud hissing is generally widespread across most species. Cobras raise their bodies and flare their hoods, while rattlesnakes take on a ball shape and ring their tails. If you meet a snake with a clear defensive stance and behavior, back off slowly and go around.

It’s important to note that these indicators are only present in some species, not all. For instance, some venomous snakes use defensive tactics only seen in venomous species to create confusion and scare off predators. If you’re unsure of the type of snake you’re seeing, keep your distance just to be safe.

Safety Tips to Avoid Venomous Snakes

The first and most obvious tip would be to avoid nature altogether. Remaining in your home and avoiding nature altogether is typically a good idea, but not realistic. So, let’s get to some actually useful tips, such as:

  • Always keep your guard up – Never lose your focus when traversing dangerous areas where you know you can come across different venomous snakes. Stay sharp and watch where you’re going.
  • Get adequate gear – Have a pair of thick pants and tall leather boots. Most venomous snakes tend to bite below the knee, so that’s the area you need to protect.
  • Preparation is king – Have a snake-bite kit with you no matter where you’re going. Especially if you live in areas notorious for housing venomous snakes. Such a kit can save your life and delay the venom’s impact until proper medical assistance arrives.
  • Keep your distance – Don’t approach any snake you happen to come across; you can never know for certain whether that’s a venomous species, despite being aware of the main markers. Not all venomous snakes follow the same patterns in terms of behavior, coloring, appearance, etc., as we’ve just discussed.
  • Learn the difference – You should always have a good idea about the primary characteristics of venomous snakes, even if they’re not universal. Any amount of knowledge is better than complete ignorance because it will help you, at least in some cases.


Not all venomous snakes are deadly, but even mild venomous bites can become fatal. Some people are allergic to snake venom, in which case they risk anaphylactic shock, which can result in death. It’s always best to take all of the necessary precautions and show snakes the respect they deserve. If you don’t respect them of your own accord, they’ll force you to.

Robert from ReptileJam

Hey, I'm Robert, and I have a true passion for reptiles that began when I was just 10 years old. My parents bought me my first pet snake as a birthday present, which sparked my interest in learning more about them. read more...