How to Identify Snakes in Kentucky

By Tom Crain
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Snakes are one of the most interesting groups of animals in Kentucky, according to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources. In Kentucky, snakes range in size from the 7-inch worm snake to the massive 6-foot black rat snake and can be found anywhere in the state from dense state forest lands to suburban backyards. There are 32 types of snakes found in Kentucky, and only 1/8 are venomous.

Review the 36-page booklet "Kentucky Snakes" compiled by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources found online and in print at Kentucky nature centers and state parks. In addition to color photographs, this booklet contains brief written descriptions and range maps.

Observe Kentucky snakes' colors and patterns found on top and bottom. Top and bottom patterns will vary, as will the colors. Snakes can have a single color, such as the black racer, or multiple colors, such as the scarlet kingsnake. Patterns include bands, stripes, spots or no pattern. Good examples of distinct patterns include ribbon snakes for striping and king snakes for banding.

Count the number of scale rows on the head and body. Each Kentucky snake species has a specific number of scale rows found on the head and body. Observe the scale texture each snake possesses based on its keel. The keel is the narrow ridge running down the middle of the snake's scales. It can be strong, as shown on rattlesnakes; weak, as on corn snakes; or smooth, as on kingsnakes.

Observe the anal plates when identifying groups of Kentucky snakes. An anal plate is the large scale next to the anus. It can be divided, such as on the Mississippi green water snake, or single (undivided) such as on the garter snake.

Identify the snake's behavior and Kentucky habitat where it was found. Such observations include: Is it active at night like the corn snakes, or during the day like the garter snakes? Does it like to be in wet areas like the black rat snake does, or dry areas like the timber rattlesnakes? Was it found in a tree like the black racers, or under rocks and logs like worm snakes? Also pay attention to what it is eating.

Look for characteristics of the four venomous snakes in Kentucky: copperheads, coppermouths, and timber and pigmy rattlesnakes. Each is identified by vertical pupils (a thick up-and-down line vs. a circle), and being pit vipers (a "pit" is a sensory organ found between the eye and the mouth).