Venomous vs. Non-Venomous Snakes: Key Differences You Need to Know

When you hear of snakes, the first thing that comes to mind is whether they’re venomous or non-venomous. Luckily, there are a few simple ways to tell the difference between a venomous and a non-venomous snake.

Most venomous snakes have triangular heads, while a large number of non-venomous snakes have round heads. Pupils can also help reveal whether a snake is venomous or not. Venomous snakes tend to have narrow vertical pupils, while their non-venomous counterparts mostly have round pupils.

Seeing a snake in the wild can be a frightening experience, so it’s important to remember that most snakes encountered in nature are not venomous. Read on to learn how to tell the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes based on their scales, body shape, and more.

How To Distinguish Venomous and Non-Venomous Snakes

There are a few key differences to look for when trying to identify whether or not a snake is venomous. 

There exist several differences between venomous and non-venomous snakes, as indicated in the table below. 

Triangular shaped headRounded head
Narrowed pupilsRound pupils
Smooth, plate-like scalesBumpy scales that overlap each other
Whip-shaped tail that tapers towards the end.Thicker tails that are shaped like a club or hammer
Aggressive behaviorMore docile
Have fangsHave teeth
Brightly ColouredMuted Colors
Have a rattleNo rattle
Diamond-shaped, hourglass or chevron patternsBlotched, banded or lined patterns

1. The shape of the Head

It is often difficult to tell venomous and non-venomous snakes apart, but one distinguishing characteristic is the shape of the head. The head of a venomous snake is generally triangular, whereas the head of a non-venomous snake is more rounded. 

The triangle is often written as a ‘V’ shape if viewed from above. If you are ever unsure, it is best to just observe from a safe distance. Although as a defense mechanism, some non-venomous snakes may flatten their heads to look more intimidating. 

This can make identification more difficult. But the base of a venomous snake is wide and tapers gradually towards the end, which is how you can tell it apart from a non-venomous snake. 

2. Pupils

Another way to tell venomous from non-venomous snakes is by looking at their pupils. Venomous snakes have cat-like pupils that look almost like vertical lines and appear to be narrowed. This is because the eye plays a vital role in hunting and venomous snakes need better vision to strike their prey. 

Most venomous snakes have elliptical-shaped pupils that can open wider in the dark and help them focus on their prey. 

Non-venomous snakes, on the other hand, don’t need such advanced night vision, so they can afford to keep rounder pupils. These snakes usually have round pupils like those of a human

3. Scales

The scales of a snake’s skin can also help tell if it is venomous or non-venomous. Venomous snakes have smooth, plate-like scales, while non-venomous snakes tend to have more bumpy scales overlapping.

Venomous snakes have evolved to be more streamlined, so they can move quickly and strike their prey accurately. Non-venomous snakes are more robust and have thick hides to protect them from predators.

4. Shape of the Tail

Another difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes is the shape of their tail. Most venomous snakes have whip-shaped tails that taper towards the end, while their non-venomous counterparts have thicker tails that resemble hammers or clubs.  

The whip-like tail of a venomous snake is designed to help them swim faster and strike prey with greater accuracy. Non-venomous snakes don’t need to move as quickly or accurately, so they can afford to have a thicker tail. 

5. Behavior

Snakes tend to have varying behaviors, which helps to distinguish them from one another. Generally, venomous snakes are more aggressive and may display defensive posturing when threatened. 

Non-venomous snakes tend to be more docile and usually try to flee if they feel threatened. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a foolproof method of identification, as some non-venomous snakes may also display aggressive behavior if they feel threatened.

6. Venom Glands and Fangs

Most snakes have venom glands, but not all of them are considered to be venomous. Venomous snakes have two large venom glands, and each of them is connected to a tube called a duct. 

The venom is injected into prey or predator through two long fangs in the snake’s upper jaw. The fangs are hollow and filled with venom so that when the snake bites its prey, it injects the venom through a process called envenomation

Venomous snakes’ fangs are usually curved and hook-shaped. It helps the snake to hold onto its prey better so the venom can take effect. 

Non-venomous snakes have rows of teeth that are short, blunt, and do not contain any venom. They use their teeth to hold onto their prey until they can swallow it.

7. Rattle

A rattlesnake’s rattle is created by a series of hollow, interlocking segments at the end of its tail. When vibrated, the segments knock against each other producing a loud buzzing sound. This rattle is used to warn away potential predators or distract them while the snake escapes. 

The rattles are mistaken for a bee or a wasp, and this distraction often helps the snake escape. It is important to remember that not all snakes have rattles – they are only found on venomous rattlesnakes.

The size and number of rattles on a snake indicate its age. Each time the snake sheds its skin, it will add another rattle onto the end of its tail. Babies can be identified by their lack of a rattle, while older rattlesnakes will have multiple segments. The vibrations also help the snake identify potential prey and obstacles.

8. Coloration

Most venomous snakes tend to be more brightly colored than non-venomous snakes. Bright colors are a warning to potential predators that the snake is venomous. On the other hand, non-venomous snakes often use camouflage as a defense against predators. 

This means they will blend into their surroundings more easily, making them harder to spot. It also helps protect them against potential predators. While this is not always the case, it is a good rule of thumb when differentiating between venomous and non-venomous snakes.

9. Skin Patterns

When identifying a venomous snake, look out for skin patterns. The pattern of a snake’s skin can be an important clue. 

Non-venomous snakes usually have differently shaped and colored markings that are blotched, banded, or lined

Venomous snakes have diamond-shaped, hourglass, or chevron markings. These patterns are often bright (and distinct) and can be seen on the dorsal surface of a snake’s body. 

There may also be a line running down the middle of a venomous snake’s back that is distinct from its other markings. These patterns are different between species, so be sure to do your due diligence before getting too comfortable handling a wild snake. 

Remember, if you ever encounter a wild snake, it’s best practice not to approach it. Instead, admire it from a safe distance.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What Is the Best Way To Avoid Being Bitten by a Snake?

The best way to avoid being bitten by a snake is to be aware of your surroundings and avoid handling any wild snakes. Other safety measures include wearing protective clothing such as heavy boots and long pants when trekking in snake-populated areas and paying attention to your footing to avoid inadvertently stepping on a snake. 

Are There Any Medical Treatments for a Snake Bite?

There are several medical treatments for snake bites that should be sought immediately after being bitten by any snake. Treatment may include cleaning and bandaging the wound, administering antibiotics to prevent infection, and sometimes antivenom to neutralize the venom.

Final Thoughts

The best way to protect yourself against venomous snakes is by familiarizing yourself with the physical characteristics of both venomous and non-venomous species. 

Pay attention to the snake’s head (and eye) shape, pupil size, color pattern, and skin patterns to determine whether it is venomous or not. When in doubt, it’s always best to err on caution and admire snakes from a safe distance.

Recent Posts