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How to ID a venomous snake

STILLWATER, Okla. – Most snakes are harmless to humans. They pose no real threat, lack venom and are oftentimes very docile.
How to ID a venomous snake


However, a few species in Oklahoma do need some special attention. Rather than finding out the hard way, by being bitten and rushed to the emergency room, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Wildlife Specialist, Dwayne Elmore, offered some helpful tips for identifying the seven venomous snakes in the state.

One of the more famous and easily recognizable venomous Oklahoma snakes is the copperhead.

“The copperhead is a medium-sized snake, usually between 1-3 feet in length, with light and dark tan or chestnut-colored, hourglass-shaped bands that wrap all the way around the body,” Elmore said. “It is the only snake in Oklahoma with that color pattern.”

Juvenile copperhead snakes may have a yellow or green tip of the tail, but that goes away as the snake matures. A bite from one of theses snakes will require a visit to the hospital, but is usually not fatal.

The cottonmouth, or water-moccasin, is one of the most difficult venomous snakes to identify (unless its open mouth can be viewed) because it can have a variety of color patterns. They can be earth tone, red or brown and have grayish banding.

“There is a dark band that runs on the side of its face, under the eye. There are no other water snakes that have this band,” Elmore said. “This species is confined to eastern and southeastern Oklahoma and is easily identified by the signature white lining of the mouth.”

Oklahoma also is home to five species of rattlesnake, with the biggest and most concerning being the western diamondback.

Contrary to the name, western diamondback rattlesnakes do not always have rattles. Although they can have a color variation, they will all have alternating dark and light bands on the tail and interlocking diamond shapes on their backs.

The timber rattlesnake also can have color variations. These snakes can be gray with black bands and an orange stripe down the back, or gold with black bands and a gold stripe down the back. Either combination will be completed with a black tail and extremely docile personality.

The prairie rattlesnake is identifiable by a black band close to the rattle and light stripes down the sides of its face. These two traits are constant while other color variations will exist.

The pygmy rattlesnake, which is very uncommon throughout most of the state, is small, but packs a punch. This gray snake has black spots with a red stripe running the length of its back.

“The pygmy’s rattle sounds like a mosquito buzzing,” said Elmore.

The final rattlesnake species found in Oklahoma is the western massasauga. This snake has a row of dark brown blotches running the length of its back with three smaller rows of lighter colored blotches along each side.

“Some of the snakes are hard to distinguish from others,” said Elmore. “But all venomous snakes in Oklahoma are pit vipers, with obvious heat-sensing pits between the eye and nostril, making their heads bulky and somewhat heart shaped from above.”

If one of these seven species is spotted, it is best to leave the area and allow the snake to escape.


Sean Hubbard
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
157 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-4490
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078