From your friend's terrarium to a nearby swimming hole, a lot of environments commonly contain a wide variety of snakes. While many (even most) snakes can be intimidating in appearance, many are completely harmless. Of course, many can kill you. If you need some help distinguishing between common venomous and non-venomous snakes, read on.
BALL PYTHON - NON-VENOMOUS
Habitat: Grasslands, savannas and sparsely wooded areas in Africa
The non-venomous ball python feeds mainly on small mammals like rats and mice, which they kill using constriction. They are not native to North America, but because of their docile nature and relatively small size, they are popular as pets. In captivity, ball pythons can live for over 40 years.
CALIFORNIA KINGSNAKE - NON-VENOMOUS
Lampropeltis getula californiae
Habitat: The West Coast of the United States and northwestern Mexico
California kingsnakes are non-venomous, but they use constriction to hunt and kill a variety of prey, including rodents, birds, reptiles and amphibians. They earned the name “kingsnake” because of their willingness and ability to kill and eat other snakes, even rattlesnakes, as they are impervious to venom. They are easy to care for and are popular as pets.
COPPERHEAD - VENOMOUS
Habitat: Mostly deciduous forest and mixed woodlands in the Northeast, Midwest and Southern United States
Copperheads are pit vipers, and prefer to ambush their prey, although they will actively hunt insects, and have even been observed climbing trees to hunt cicadas. While most vipers will slither away from humans to avoid us, copperheads tend to freeze instead, which leads to many bites when humans accidentally step on copperheads.
COMMON CORAL SNAKE - VENOMOUS
Habitat: Southeastern United States and Northeastern Mexico
Coral snakes are recognizable for their wide red and black bands separated by narrow yellow bands. Similar-looking, but non-venomous and harmless snakes have wide red and yellow bands separated by narrow black bands. A folk rhyme intended to teach the distinction goes, “Red touches black, friend of Jack. Red touches yellow, kill a fellow.” Despite the latter part of the rhyme, coral snakes are responsible for only about 100 bites per year in the U.S., and few are fatal. Coral snake antivenom isn’t even made anymore, because it was so unprofitable.
CORN SNAKE - NON-VENOMOUS
Habitat: Overgrown fields, forest openings and trees in the Southeast United States
Corn snakes are a type of rat snake, harmless snakes that prey on small rodents and similar-sized animals, which they kill using constriction. They are placid, slow to bite and extremely cool looking, which has made them popular as pets. In fact, because they are relatively easy to care for, corn snakes are often recommended as starter pets for those interested in keeping snakes.
COTTONMOUTH, AKA WATER MOCCASIN - VENOMOUS
Habitat: Creeks, streams, marshes, swamps and ponds in the Southeastern United States
Cottonmouths are strong, muscular swimmers (they are the only semiaquatic species of viper) and can be aggressive biters. They are often mistaken for copperheads, but have a more powerful venom. Although they have a painful, sometimes deadly bite, with tissue-destroying venom, they are not as deadly as rattlesnakes, and their venom is not neurotoxic.
EASTERN DIAMONDBACK RATTLESNAKE - VENOMOUS
Habitat: Southeastern United States
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is both the largest and the heaviest species of rattlesnake. The longest known specimen was 8 feet long, and the heaviest weighed 34 pounds. Not only are they intimidating in size, they are also said to be the most dangerous venomous snakes in all of North America. They are also excellent swimmers, and it is not uncommon for them to strike without bothering to issue a warning use their rattles. So, y’know, be afraid of these things.
MILK SNAKE - NON-VENOMOUS
Habitat: Usually forests, but sometimes open prairies and rocky slopes in southeastern Canada, all of the United States and Central America to northern South America
Milk snakes are harmless snakes, although their coloration resembles that of venomous coral snakes, which can be enough to keep predators at bay. Milk snakes themselves feed mostly on bugs, worms and slugs. Their name comes from a once-common myth that they sucked on the udders of cows to feed on their milk. The myth probably stems from milk snakes’ common presence in barns.
MOJAVE RATTLESNAKE - VENOMOUS
Habitat: Deserts of the southwestern United States and central Mexico
Diamondbacks may bite and kill more victims than mojave rattlesnakes, but mojave rattlesnakes are well known for their extremely potent, neurotoxic venom, which is the most debilitating and deadly in North America.
Next: Zoo Owner Sleeps With Snakes
RED TAILED BOA - NON-VENOMOUS
Boa constrictor constrictor
Habitat: Tropical rainforests and semi-desert area in Mexico, Central America and South America
Boas are similar to ball pythons in that they are docile in captivity, so despite their sometimes intimidating size and appearance, they are quite tame and are popular as pets. Depending on their size, pet boas feed on mice, rats, rabbits and even chickens. Like pythons, they can live for several decades, so potential owners should be aware of the longevity of their commitment to keeping a boa as a pet.