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How to Recognize a Venomous Snake

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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Ever since the Garden of Eden, people have had a love/hate relationship with snakes. Many consider them to be creepy, slimy, slithery creatures whose only purpose is to terrorize people. Those in the know realize that snakes are not slimy, come is a variety of beautiful colors and play an important and crucial role in maintaining our wildlife.

Despite what you may think, the vast majority of snakes in the United States are not venomous. In fact, there are only a few species of venomous snakes indigenous to the United States and are divided into the Crotalidae family or Elapidae family.

Better known as "pit vipers," the Crotalidae are the most common, comprised of rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins. The Elapidae family includes cobras and the coral snake, the only species occurring naturally in the United States. The southwestern United States has the privilege of being the area with the most venomous snakes.

If you happen upon a snake, how can you tell if it is venomous or not? Venomous snakes tend to have certain characteristics that distinguish them from non-venomous snakes. Knowing the difference can help determine if the snake your pet is "playing" with is venomous.

Pit Vipers

Members of the pit viper family, rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins, have broad triangular heads. Non-venomous snakes have narrow rounded heads.

Pit vipers have elliptical shaped pupils. Non-venomous snakes typically have more rounded pupils.

Pit vipers have prominent curving fangs. Non-venomous snakes tend to have many small teeth.

Pit vipers have a deep pit located between the nostril and the eye, thus the term "pit viper." Non-venomous snakes do not have this pit.

Coral Snakes

Coral snakes are known for their distinctive color pattern of red, black and yellow. This pattern determines if the snake you are observing is a venomous coral snake or a harmless species.

Coral snakes have a yellow band on both sides of a red band and a black band between yellow bands. This means the color pattern is: yellow – red – yellow – black – yellow – red, and so on. Non-venomous similarly colored snakes have the red band next to a black band.

A simple saying to help you remember is, "red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, venom lack."

Whether the snake is venomous or not, leave him alone. Snakes are not on this earth as entertainment for people; they are responsible for keeping the rodent and vermin populations in check. They live their lives quietly and try to stay hidden and away from people, so when you encroach upon their territory, give them the respect they deserve.

There is much truth to the statement that snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them. If you come upon a snake, stand still and let him scurry away. Moving, swatting or throwing things at the snake may be taken as a threat and the snake may have no alternative but to fight back. If left to their own devices, snakes usually scurry away and hide.

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