There are almost 3,000 species of snakes, and only 375 of those are venomous. Although snakes are found on every continent except Antarctica and in almost every country, they are most common in tropical regions. Snakes typically hunt small animals, such as insects, rodents and birds. There are, however, some species that inject venom in their bites. Becoming familiar with the appearance of snakes in your local area is a good practice if you are going to spend time outdoors in terrain where snakes might be present.
Snakes’ appearances vary widely, although they are all long, flexible reptiles without limbs. Some are a few inches long and some are several feet long. They may be as thin as worms or as thick as a young tree trunk, with varying tail features – such as rattles – and facial features as well. The most identifiable differences between snakes are their scale patterns, especially on their backs. Some snakes are a single color, such as red, black or green, and many exhibit multiple colors or patterns. It can be confusing to identify a snake’s species because some different species share highly similar scale patterns. There are numerous brown striped snakes, for example, but factoring in their their other features, your location and the terrain can help. Whether you have stumbled across a black snake with white stripes or a red snake with brown blotches, it is always safest to leave snakes alone.
Snake Scale Patterns
While you might think of a striped snake as having rings of color around it like a striped sock or a raccoon’s tail, the terminology for markings on snakes works differently. “Striping” is a type of pattern in which a thin line of color extends down the length of the snake’s body, from head to tail. There are often symmetrical lines on either side of the body, sometimes with a third down the center of the back. Sometimes there are multiple stripes down the belly, as well. The rings of color that appear around a striped sock or raccoon’s tail are called exactly that when they appear on a snake – “rings.” If the strips of color only extend across the back and sides, but do not cross the belly, they are called “crossbands” (or sometimes just “bands”) instead of rings. “Spots” are round marks, and “blotches” are large irregular marks with dark borders that appear down the back, while tiny flecks of color appearing on each scale are called “speckling.” Lastly, “diamonds” are a strip of partially overlapping diamonds that run down the back and usually have a dark border, sometimes with an additional pale border as well. To see diagrams and examples of these patterns, please see the Resources section.
Nonvenomous Brown Striped Snake Species
There are many species of brown snakes. Most of them are nonvenomous. One species is called Dekay’s brownsnake, which lives in the eastern United States. They are known as a “city snake” because they are frequently found in urban areas, especially beneath debris. Dekay’s brownsnakes also prefer wet areas like cypress swamps. They are brown but may be tinged with yellow, red or gray. They have stripes and/or dark blotches that run from their heads down their bodies to their tails. They are small; they typically measure 6 to 13 inches long.
You may also see a common garter snake. Another species of brown snake is called the western terrestrial garter snake, which resides in the western part of the United States. It can be found mostly in wet areas, such as streams, wet meadows and ponds, where it feeds on animals such as fish, amphibians and lizards, birds, leeches and small mammals. Unlike many snakes that lay eggs, the western terrestrial garter snake is one of the species of snakes that gives live birth to its offspring. The scales on its back have a ridge in the center, meaning that the scales are “keeled.” Its belly scales are pale, but its back color is brown, gray or blue-green. It has a light colored stripe on each side that runs from its head to its tail on the second and third scale rows above the scales of its belly. These two stripes are interrupted by periodic dark blotches.
The lined snake lives throughout the the central United States, from the north-most part of Illinois down to Texas. The lined snake is the only species in its taxonomical genus. Like the western terrestrial garter snake, the lined snake has keeled scales. It also has a light colored stripe on each side of its body on the second and third rows of scales above the belly scales, but its stripes do not have dark blotches. Its belly scales are pale with half-moon marks. Its back scales are light brown or gray. It is typically 7.5 to 22.4 inches long and prefers to live in prairies and wetlands, as well as suburban yards.
The queen nnake grows up to 2 feet and lives in the rivers of mountains in the eastern United States. It mostly eats crayfish. It ranges in color from light brown to grayish to olive green. It has a white or yellow stripe running down each side of its body, as well as yellowish belly scales with four brown stripes. Its scales are keeled. The Florida brownsnake is another example of a nonvenomous brown snake with stripes. It lives in most of Florida and southeastern Georgia. It mainly lives in wetlands, like swamps and ponds. It is typically 7 to 10 inches long, and its back scales are grayish or rusty-brown, with a light stripe and dark flecks along its sides. It has a light colored band across the back of its head.
Venomous North America Snakes
Some snakes in America are venomous. Mostly they want to be left alone by humans, and the safest thing to do when bitten is to remember what the snake looked like and get to a hospital as quickly as possible. (For more information about what to do when bitten by a snake, see the Resources section.) One common venomous snake is the copperhead, which can be found throughout the eastern United States. Like its name implies, it has a copper-colored head. Its body is reddish-brown, with deep brown crossbands shaped like hourglasses. Its pupils are vertical, like cats’ eyes. The copperhead is a type of snake called a pit viper – these snakes have heat-sensing pits between each eye and nostril. It typically strikes when a person mistakenly steps on its camouflaged body.
Another venomous snake is the cottonmouth, also called the water moccasin. They have large triangular heads and measure 2 to 4 feet long. They are uniformly dark and are pit vipers, like copperheads. They are found in the southeast United States. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is a venomous snake that primarily lives in Florida and Georgia. Their tails have rattles made of interlocking pieces of keratin (the same material in human hair) that creates the signature rattling sound when the snakes move their tails a certain way. It grows up to 6 feet long and prefers dry sandy areas. It is brown or tan, with a dark diamond pattern that has a lighter border. In Alabama and Georgia, annual events called Rattlesnake Roundups have created a decline in diamondback populations that worry some herpetologists. During these roundups, the rattlesnakes are killed in large numbers using means that are harmful to habitats, such as pouring gasoline down snake burrows.
- Florida Museum: Visual Guide to Florida Snakes
- Defenders of Wildlife: Basic Facts About Snakes
- University of Georgia: Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis Getula)
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Dekay's Brownsnake (Formerly Brown Snake)
- Bureau of Reclamation: Snakes of Berryessa
- Wildscreen Arkive: Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis Sirtalis)