venomous snake identification

Snakes strike fear into the hearts of most.  One can imagine that early cultures learned that if a snake bites, illness or death may soon follow.  Some of the earliest humans are believed to have originated in places where a large percentage of native snake species are very dangerous.  In this situation, it is easy to consider how overall snake fear (ophidiophobia) developed.  Today, this fear is so wide-spread that many people cannot even look at a picture of a snake!

To be on the positive side, we are blessed in America's WETLAND that venomous species are outnumbered by harmless forms about 21 to four.

First, how does one identify our dangerous species?  The coral snake, which does not occur south of Lake Pontchartrain, is readily recognized by its slender body with alternate red, yellow and black bands.  Every other band on the body is yellow, thus yellow always separates red and black bands.  Similar non-venomous are easily differentiated since black bands or blotch margins separate red from yellow or cream.

In America's WETLAND, there are four species to know:  Canebrake (or Timber) Rattlesnake, Pigmy Rattlesnake, Copperhead, and Cottonmouth.  These are all members of the same family and have similar body forms - rather stout for their length, head distinct from neck, and very rough looking due to having keels on each scale.  They all have a heat sensing pit between the eye and nostril, elliptical (cat-eyed) pupils, usually two very large fangs at the front of the upper jaw, and, on the underside of the tail, a single (rather than double in non-venomous species and the coral snake) row of scales.  All of this is fine and dandy, but you have to get pretty close to see these features.The widespread notion that these critters can be identified by having a triangular head is false.  True, they do have a clear margin between the head and neck, and they do often expand the rear of the head, thus accentuating the difference, but many other non-venomous forms do the same.

Never, never, touch a “dead” snake!  It may not really be dead or reflexes might cause it to bite and inject venom.

It is recommended that, if you don’t know a snake’s species, it is best simply left alone.  Walk away and leave it be.

Most of us live in urban settings and will infrequently, if ever, encounter a snake.  But America's WETLAND is perfect habitat and it is not unusual to discover snakes in the midst of populated neighborhoods.  The simplest way to identify dangerous snakes in Louisiana is to learn to recognize them on sight, the same way one recognizes cardinals, bluejays, crows, squirrels, raccoons, etc.  South of Lake Pontchartrain, there are only four venomous snakes- anyone can learn to recognize them.  The one character that they all share that is relatively easily seen from a distance is that the area between their eye and tip of nostril has a distinct ridge, making the front side of the head vertically flat rather than rounded as in non-venomous forms. 

The canebrake rattler reaches five or six feet in length, is tan with black chevrons across the back and a copper stripe down the mid-line. 

The pigmy rattler usually only grows to 18 inches, is grayish with spots all over the back,  and has a copper stripe down the mid-line. 

The copperhead reaches four feet and is recognized by the copper-brown hour-glasses on each side of the tan dorsum. 

Cottonmouths are more variable.  The young look very much like copperheads, except the margins of the pattern are jagged.  As they mature, they darken until the back is mostly deep brown (the juvenile pattern may be visible when the snake is wet).  A tale-tale marker for the cottonmouth is that there are two pale stripes on the side of the otherwise dark head.

Avid outdoorsmen should consult natural history field guides to learn various behaviors that will help them learn the snakes.  Once you’ve mastered their identification, you will probably not forget.