Watch Your Step! How to Identify Poisonous Snakes


by Anna Fletcher

If you go hiking, camping and backpacking a lot, then you’ve probably seen your fair share of snakes. For some, seeing one snake is seeing too many; and for others, they’re are pretty cool. But before you go Jeff Corwin on that snake, you should know exactly what kind you’re dealing with. It’s really important that everyone knows how to identify different snakes, especially the venomous ones. So carefully look around on the ground, in the leaves, and under rocks before you set up your campsite or hang up your hammock – you don’t want any surprise guests to your party!

Living in the south, we have the chance to encounter quite a few poisonous snakes, including the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Canebrake Rattlesnake, the Pigmy Rattlesnake, the Coral, the Cottonmouth, and the Copperhead. Here are the ways to identify each one…

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

All rattlesnakes are pit vipers, meaning that they have heat sensing pits between their eyes and nostrils that allow them to hunt at night and protect themselves from predators. All pit vipers have these distinguishing characteristics:

  • diamond-shaped head no wider than their neck
  • vertically slit pupils, much like a cat’s
  • two, hollow fangs that inject venom when they bite and lay flat against the roof of the mouth when the snake’s mouth is closed

The eastern diamondback is the largest poisonous snake in North America, measuring nearly 8 ft long with a very thick middle.

Distinguishing characteristics of the Eastern Diamondback:

  • black and multi-colored diamondback pattern:  black pigment with a brown center enclosed by thin, yellow diamonds
  • black face with two thin, slanted yellow lines on either side of its eyes
  • olive-brown tail with black and white “raccoon-like” bands

Canebrake Rattlesnake

Canebrakes are another heavy-bodied pit viper. The average length is between 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 ft, but many as long as 6 ft have been spotted. Their nickname in the southeast is “Swamp Rattler” because they like to hang out around the edges of swamps. They can also be found around old abandoned farms and buildings, taking shelter in the debris.

Distinguishing characteristics of the Canebrake:

  • light-colored, gray body with a pinkish tint
  • black chevrons on the back and sides
  • pinkish, yellow, orange, or brown dorsal stripe (i.e. stripe down the length of its body)
  • solid black tails

Pigmy Rattlesnake

Pigmy’s are pit vipers that have tiny rattlers at the end of their tail. The soft, buzz-like rattle that they make can only be heard when they are a few feet away. Their length is between 15 – 23 in, and they widely vary in color.

Distinguishing characteristics of the Pigmy:

  • red or orange dorsal stripe that connects a row of dorsal spots
  • brownish-red or black stripe from eye to jaw
  • nine scales on top of the head

***Important Note:  When identifying snakes, don’t rely on the presence of a rattle to determine whether the snake is venomous or not. Rattlesnakes frequently lose their rattles in the wild from injuries, fights and other accidents, and sometimes they simply don’t rattle when you are near. So keep it on the list of identifying characteristics, but don’t let it be the main one.


Coral snakes are often confused with King Snakes, their non-venomous doppelganger. A well-known rhyme to distinguish the two goes, “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow.” Coral snakes are usually between 20 – 30 in long, though they can be longer.
flickr – Seth Patterson

Distinguishing characteristics of the Coral:

  • narrow yellow rings and wider black and red stripes (the red strips touch the yellow, whereas on non-poisonous snakes they do not)
  • head is black from the front to right behind the eyes and then bright yellow
  • round eyes (as opposed to the vertical, cat-like eyes)
  • small, grooved teeth that don’t fold back into its mouth
  • black and yellow tail (no red on the tail!)


Cottonmouths are also known as water moccasins (they are most often confused with other snakes because people tend to regard any snake found in water as a water moccasin). Cottonmouths will appear to be swimming on top of the water as opposed to under it. They are heavy-bodied snakes that can get up to 6 ft in length. Coloring varies from snake to snake, and most adults will have a darker color. Older cottonmouths are almost always solid black in color.

nationalgeographic – Jared Skye

Distinguishing characteristics of the Cottonmouth:

  • bright white lining on the inside of the mouth (they are very aggressive and if they feel even a tiny bit threatened they will open their mouths wide at you)
  • black to brown to tan body coloring
  • bands that cross the back (these bands fade as they age)


Copperheads are thick, stout pit vipers that normally reach 2 – 4 ft in length. Their bites are very painful and can cause permanent discomfort, though they are not usually fatal.

Distinguishing characteristics of the Copperhead:

  • hourglass patterned scales, with dark lines criss-crossing over a lighter background (very good camouflage to dry leaves, so be careful where you step!)
  • pinkish to bright orange color