Snake Safety: How to Identify Venomous Snakes in Texas

Have you ever come across a Texas snake, and couldn’t tell if it was venomous or not? This is a common concern for those who are unfamiliar with snake species. And with good reason! Bites from venomous snakes, though uncommon, can be deadly.

What should you do if you meet a venomous snake? Stay calm, do not approach the snake, and let others know of its location. Even though these snakes can be scary, they do not chase humans. In fact, the old saying is true:

It is more scared of you than you are of it.

If a venomous snake is on your property, you can call an expert to remove and relocate the snake.

So how can you tell if a snake is venomous or not? First, meet the 4 types that live in our state:

  • Rattlesnakes
  • Copperheads
  • Cottonmouths (Also known as water moccasins)
  • Coral Snakes

Rattlesnakes

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake: Photo by Jerry Owens

Rattlesnakes are fairly common, particularly in West Texas. There are several types of rattlesnakes in Texas, but they all look fairly similar.

Rattlesnakes can be identified by these features:

  • Rattles: Each time a rattlesnake sheds, it gains a “rattle” on its tail. The sound is unmistakable, a rattlesnake shaking its tail is its way to ward off potential predators.
  • Triangular heads: Although this should not be the only feature used to identify a venomous snake, rattlesnakes do have triangular shaped heads.
  • Slit eyes: Rattlesnakes have slit, “cat-like” eyes

If you have dogs or horses, and live in an area where rattlesnakes are common, you may want to look into a rattlesnake vaccine. This vaccine can protect dogs and horses from the effects of rattlesnake venom.

Copperheads

Copperhead

Copperhead photo by Fiona Sunquist

Copperheads are common in Texas, and are found throughout the majority of the state. They are not found in the Panhandle, or in far West Texas.

Copperheads can be identified by these features:

  • Triangular heads: Copperheads have defined triangular heads much like rattlesnakes. Again, this feature should not be used as the only identification for a venomous snake.
  • Slit eyes: Another feature that copperheads share with rattlesnakes is their slit, cat-like eyes.
  • Orangish color: Copperheads have orangish brown bodies with large, brown banded patterns.
  • Green tails: Young copperheads have bright green tips on the ends of their tails.

Copperheads are excellent at camouflaging themselves. Their unique color and pattern allows them to blend in among piles of leaves and logs.

Be sure to watch kids closely in wooded areas – I can speak from experience. As a kid, I picked up a copperhead while collecting acorns. The snake did not strike or bite, luckily. Remember to teach curious kids to look out for snakes, and never to approach or play with a snake in the wild.

-Haley Pittman, TXSI Staff


Cottonmouths

Western Cottonmouth Snake

Western Cottonmouth photo by Pierson Hill

Cottonmouths are commonly referred to as “water moccasins”. These snakes are aquatic – they swim in water and live around water. However, they are not the only aquatic snakes in Texas. In fact, we have many non-venomous water snakes that look similar to cottonmouths.

Cottonmouths can be identified by these features:

  • Triangular heads: Just like the two snakes above, cottonmouths have distinctly triangular heads.
  • Slit eyes: They also share the slit, cat-like eyes with the snakes above.
  • “Cottonmouth”: The cottonmouth gets its name from its bright white mouth. It will pop its mouth open when threatened.
  • Body: Its body is typically dark gray to black, with little markings. Some, like the Cottonmouth pictured, have brown and black banding down the back. It has a thick, robust body.

Although these snakes may vibrate their tails when frightened, do not mistake them for a rattlesnake. Many snakes, even non-venomous ones, will use this technique to intimidate potential predators.

Coral Snakes

Coral Snake

Coral Snake photo by Jason Penney

Coral Snakes are unique – their appearance is very different from the other venomous snakes above. We also have their non-venomous doppelganger in Texas, the Milk Snake. To tell which is which, another old saying can be used:

“Red next to yellow, kills a fellow; red next to black, friend of jack”.

Coral Snakes can be identified by these features:

  • Slim head: Unlike the other snakes above, Coral Snakes have slim bodies and heads. Just another reason to use more than triangular heads as identification!
  • Unique coloring: Their bodies start with a black head, and are followed by red, black, and white stripes. Their pattern is black, yellow, red, yellow, black. Non-venomous Milk Snakes, on the other hand, have black, yellow, black, red, black patterns.

 

Despite the danger that these animals pose, we encourage you to treat them with respect. Like any wild animal, these snakes are vital to their ecosystems. Mass-hunting events such as the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup spread a message of violence and animal cruelty. To learn more about snakes in Texas, or to help us spread positive snake education, join our email newsletter list:

Snake of the Day: The Eastern Hog-Nosed Snake!

The Eastern Hog-Nosed Snake is one of four snakes in Texas with the unique, upturned “hog” snout. This shape is beneficial to the snake as it burrows under leaves and dirt to catch toads, its main food source. Eastern Hog-Nosed Snakes are considered non-venomous, although they do have teeth in the rear of their mouths. These teeth are used to kill prey, but are too far back in the snake’s mouth to be used for defense. This makes Eastern Hog-Nosed Snakes harmless to humans. Another interesting trait of this snake is its “play dead” defense. It is known to flip onto its back, or hide its head under a coiled tail to avoid predators.

The Eastern Hog-Nosed Snake is a non-venomous snake in Eastern and Central Texas. It is known for its upturned "hog" snout, which it uses to burrow in the ground. It feeds on mainly toads and frogs.

Snake of the Day: Speckled Kingsnake

The Speckled Kingsnake is sometimes called the “salt and pepper” snake due to its unique, freckled markings. In Texas, these snakes range from the majority of the Eastern region of the state up into the panhandle. This snake is widely respected by those familiar with it — it is a great snake to have around your property! Speckled Kingsnakes keep down the populations of small rodents and venomous snakes. Look for these snakes in areas with damp tree stumps and logs, the Speckled Kingsnake’s favorite hiding places.

Speckled Kingsnakes are found in North and East Texas.

How to Identify a Texas Ratsnake

Hi there, everyone! We’ve been getting requests from you lately to ID different snakes based on their pictures. We love getting these requests, and encourage you to send us more of your snake questions! We will try our best to answer for you, or direct you to an expert herpetologist for help.

One thing we noticed as these photos came in is that most were ratsnakes. In fact, more than 90% were ratsnakes! So we thought that it would benefit everyone if we offered a crash course on ratsnake identification.

First of all, what is a ratsnake?

Ratsnakes are non-venomous, harmless snakes common to Texas. They get their name from (you guessed it) eating rats. They are great to have around in barns and other rodent-prone areas!

Although they are common, ratsnakes can be hard to identify. There are four kinds of ratsnakes in Texas, including:

The Texas Ratsnake is the most common of these, and is sometimes found in suburban neighborhoods. This snake is typically yellowish brown with large, dark brown spots and a white underbelly. It grows four to six feet in length, but keep in mind that juvenile snakes will be smaller than this. Check out our ratsnake release video to see just how big these snakes get as adults:

Watch out for these snakes in vehicles, on wooden rafters, or in chicken coops.

Texas Ratsnake

Notice the brown spots, white underbelly, and head shape of this juvenile Texas Ratsnake.

The other three types of ratsnakes are less common. Trans-Pecos Ratsnakes are clearly distinguishable by their yellowish color and H-shaped spots.

Trans Pecos Ratsnake

A young, light colored Trans-Pecos Ratsnake

Baird’s Ratsnakes are typically orange to red-orange in color with faint dark stripes down their backs.

Baird's Ratsnake

A light, reddish orange Baird’s Ratsnake

Great Plains Ratsnakes can vary in coloring based on region, but are typically grayish brown with brown blotches.

Great Plains Ratsnake

A Great Plains Ratsnake with a grey body and brown spots

Do you have pictures of a ratsnake from your region? Send it to us on Facebook, Twitter, or Email – we would love to share more of these snakes, so that everyone can learn to identify them!

Gardening with Snakes

Gardeners take note – snakes are actually beneficial in the garden!

Snakes prey on rodents, slugs, and insects, all of which can be detrimental to plants. If you know the struggles of dealing with a pest infestation, you understand the benefit of having some help nearby. Smaller snakes can wipe out a swarm of grasshoppers, and larger snakes can keep rodents from eating and tunneling in your garden.

Gartersnakes and coachwhips are both snakes commonly found in gardens, and both are harmless to humans. Coachwhips are known to look as if they are “chasing” humans – in reality they are incredibly fast snakes that simply scare humans as they quickly try to hide.

San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia) by David Lawson via WWF UK

San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia) by David Lawson via WWF UK

Gardening Know How has some great tips for attracting snakes into your garden. Make sure that you make enough noise before mowing to scare snakes into their hiding places – you don’t want to accidentally mow over these beneficial reptiles. Enlist an army of frogs in addition to snakes for more slug control.

Coachwhips are beneficial, harmless snakes commonly found in gardens.

Coachwhips are beneficial, harmless snakes commonly found in gardens. Photo by TXSI staff.

Snakes provide a efficient, organic means of handling garden pests – maintain a snake-friendly environment in order to keep them around your garden!

Snake of the Day: Trans-Pecos Ratsnake

We’re starting a new segment on the blog: snake of the day.
Check back soon for more photos and facts about snakes found in Texas!


 

The Trans-Pecos Ratsnake is a cute Colubrid species of snake found in Southwest Texas, primarily near Big Bend. Snake enthusiasts marvel at this ratsnake for its large, blueish eyes. Herpetologists believe that its eyes are designed for nocturnal hunting. These are non-venomous snakes, and are often noted as being easy to care for in captivity. However, we encourage Texans to leave snakes alone, rather than take them home! This little ratsnake will be much happier living in the warm rocks of West Texas than in captivity.

TransPecosRatSnake

Why snake education?

The Problem

  • Many Texans see snakes as something to be feared, unfortunately believing that “the only good snake is a dead snake”. It is not uncommon, after spotting a snake, for citizens to feel that it is necessary to follow and kill the snake.
  • Hunts such as rattlesnake roundups damage our environment and teach a violent message. During the notorious Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, hunters pump gasoline into the ground to drive snakes out of their dens. Snakes are then beheaded, skinned, and eaten. This year, children were able to place their hands in a bucket of snake blood, and then sign their bloody handprint on a wall. An event that attracts visitors from across the world, Sweetwater’s Rattlesnake Roundup gives the impression that Texans have a very negative relationship with our wildlife. Read Amber Smith’s recent article for an in-depth look at the harm that these roundups pose to biodiversity.
Photo of handprints in snake blood at Sweetwater's Rattlesnake Roundup via Daily Mail

Handprints in snake blood at Sweetwater’s Rattlesnake Roundup via Daily Mail

The Plan

  • Unlearning misconceptions and prejudices about snakes is one way to create a more snake-friendly Texas. We plan to focus on teaching children, before they develop a hard-to-break fear of snakes.
  • Part of these educational efforts will include snake safety tips! Kids growing up around people who fear snakes may not know much about snake behavior. We can show kids examples of areas that snakes are likely to hide, and explain that they should not play near these areas. Further, we can teach them to leave snakes alone if they encounter one in the wild.
  • Teaching efforts can foster a healthy respect for snakes in the public eye. We hope that the more people know about the animal, the less they will fear it.
  • We are excited to work with people who love snakes, and share our enthusiasm with those who don’t.
eobsoleta_juv

Juvenile Texas Rat Snake by Chris Harrison via Birds and Herps

As always, thanks for saving snakes with us!

And so it begins!

We’re making it official! Forms have been filed today for us to incorporate TXSI as a non-profit organization with the state of Texas.

So what are the next steps?

Once all the paperwork is finalized, we can start raising funds. Our plan is to raise initial funds through an Indiegogo campaign, so stay tuned for details on that! The goal is to raise enough to cover startup costs, and begin our programs and services as soon as possible.

In the midst of all of this, we are going to need some exceptional volunteers to apply for a position on our Board of Directors. These individuals will help to shape the direction that TXSI takes going forward. We will make an application available soon, but in the meantime contact Haley (Event/Outreach Coordinator) with any questions: haley@txsi.org

Finally, we need all of you to spread the word and support us! Keep up-to-date with TXSI by liking us on Facebook, or following us on Twitter.

We look forward to saving snakes with you!