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Snakes Alive! How To Identify Snakes

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Publication Number: IS0641
View as PDF: IS0641.pdf

Note: Most people use the terms “poisonous” and “nonpoisonous” when talking about snakes. The proper scientific terms to use when discussing snakes, however, are “venomous” and “nonvenomous.” Venom is injected through fangs or stingers.

Snakes are important members of the natural world and make a significant contribution to the control of pests such as rats, insects, and other snakes. Venomous snakes, however, are not desirable members of the human habitat. The risk of a venomous snakebite is lower than that of being struck by lightning, and the risk can be reduced by:

  • cleaning up refuse and other hiding spots around buildings and yards;
  • wearing heavy shoes and pants in wooded areas; and
  • looking first before stepping or touching hidden areas where snakes are likely to be resting or hiding.

Most venomous snakes in the United States belong to the pit viper group. The pit viper has pits on its head, vertical pupils, a triangular head, a slim neck, and a heavy body with a single row of scales on the underside of the tail. The pit viper group includes the major categories of copperhead and cottonmouth and two major categories of rattlesnake. All pit vipers may vibrate their tail sections rapidly to make noise when threatened.

The cottonmouth and copperhead categories are often referred to as moccasins, but they are two distinct categories within the pit viper group.

comparison of venomous and nonvenomous snakes



There are many varieties of rattlesnakes that have pit viper characteristics and a button on their tails (youngest snakes); they gain two to four segments of rattles each year of their lives. The typical size range of rattlesnakes is 15 to 72 inches, but the record size was a 96-inch eastern diamondback.


The five varieties of copperhead snakes have pit viper characteristics and bands or hourglass markings of brown, copper, or red on a tan body. The 20- to 36-inch snakes have regional differences in color and size; the young have a bright-yellow tail tip. An unusually large copperhead was recorded at 56 inches in length.



The semiaquatic cottonmouth also has pit viper characteristics, but the adult has a solid-colored upper body that is olive-brown or black with a lighter underside. Although often difficult to distinguish from the nonvenomous water snake, a cottonmouth is usually more aggressive. While a water snake will leave rapidly when threatened, the pit viper often raises its head and confronts an enemy with a show of fangs inside a cotton-white mouth. The size of the cottonmouth ranges from 30 to 48 inches, with a record length of 74 inches.


If you are bitten by a snake...

  1. Get emergency medical help as soon as possible, but as much as possible, refrain from moving about quickly.
  2. Remove all items that may restrict circulation in the affected extremity. Watches, bracelets, rings, gloves, or shoes may pose a problem as the bite area swells.
  3. Immobilize the affected area as much as possible. Attempt to keep the bite at or slightly below the level of the head.
  4. If the snake is still in the area, do not attempt to kill or catch it, unless it poses a danger to you or the victim. Try to remember what it looks like so you can identify the type of snake from pictures in the emergency room.
  5. Do not:
    1. Place a tourniquet or constricting band above the bite;
    2. Give the victim anything to eat or drink, particularly alcohol;
    3. Place the affected area in ice;
    4. Make any cuts or apply suction to the area;
    5. Attempt to give antivenom; or
    6. Administer pain or antianxiety medications.

For help, call the Mississippi Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.


Information Sheet 641 (POD-04-18)

Revised by Bronson Strickland, PhD, Extension Professor, Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture.

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Portrait of Dr. Bronson Strickland
Extension Professor
Wildlife Management

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