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Venomous versus Non-Venomous Snakes

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Snakes are slender, cold-blooded reptiles who are known for having long bodies and no legs. While there are over 3,000 species of snakes, they all tend to look the same when you possess a strong dislike for them. Whether harmless or poisonous, they are all considered an enemy when in the same vicinity as you. Harmless snakes, however, should not face the same consequences as their deadlier counterparts. 

What is the difference?

Non-venomous snakes aid in the population control of common pests, such as rats and mice. These harmless snakes have even been known to prey on poisonous snakes. As a result, there is a reduced chance of people coming into contact with these deadly reptiles. Throughout several parts of the world, harmless snakes are seen as beneficial to the environment.

In contrast, one of the only positive things about venomous snakes is that they can be used in discovering and developing new medicine. Snake venom can affect blood pressure and blood clotting. As such, scientists can use that same venom to develop new drugs to treat these health issues. Snake venom has been used to treat a variety of conditions, including cancer, pain, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. 

How to Distinguish Between Venomous and Non-Venomous Snakes

There are four types of poisonous snakes that exist in the United States: rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths (or water moccasins), and coral snakes. It is estimated that more than 7,000 Americans are bitten by a poisonous snake each year. Due to this reason, it is important to be able to distinguish between venomous and nonvenomous snakes. Different snake bites require different medical assistance. By understanding which snake has bitten you, you are able to accurately assess your potential risks, increasing your chances of survival.  

Here are a few notable things to consider in order to help you understand the type of snake you have come in contact with.

1. Head Shape and Pits

Venomous snakes
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Venomous snakes have a distinct head shape. Their heads are typically wide at the back and attached to a narrow neck. This gives off a triangular-shaped appearance. While this can be seen as a good indicator, it is not always accurate. It is known that non-venomous snakes have a tendency to flatten their heads into a more triangular shape, appearing more dangerous to potential predators. This can lead to them being confused with venomous snakes. As a result, poisonous snakes cannot be identified solely by head shape.

Another indicator that can assist in further identification is the pits (or holes) that appear on their heads. Rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, and coral snakes all fall under the category of pit vipers. This means that each snake has two pits that appear on their snouts. Pits resemble nostrils and are located midway and slightly below the eye. Non-venomous snakes do not have pits.

2. Pupils

Venomous snakes
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A snake’s pupils can be a great indicator when trying to determine whether it is venomous or not. Poisonous snakes’ eyes are comparable to a cat’s eye, as they possess slit-like elliptical pupils. In contrast, harmless snakes have round pupils. With that being said, this identification method can be dangerous. It is better to keep a safe distance when observing a snake. 

3. Coloring

Venomous snakes
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While there are only four types of venomous snakes in the United States, each type contains several subspecies that come in a variety of sizes and colors. As a result, color may not be a completely accurate method in distinguishing between venomous and non-venomous snakes. With that being said, there are some color aspects that can be useful in identification. If a snake has solid colors, it is often harmless. Comparably, if the snake is more patterned and colorful, it is a good idea to use caution when approaching. There are exceptions to each of these rules, but they are great to take into consideration.

4. Tails

Venomous snakes
One noticeable identifier can be a snake’s tail. Young cottonmouths and copperheads can be identified by their tails. They are often bright yellow or greenish-yellow in color. Of course, one of the major identifiers of a venomous snake’s tail is if it rattles. If you hear a rattling sound, you are about to come into contact with one of the most poisonous snakes. You should safely flee the area as soon as possible. While non-venomous snakes can replicate rattling noises, it is always better to be safer than sorry.  You should not risk your life to satisfy your curiosity.

5. Behavior

Behavior can be used in distinguishing between venomous and non-venomous snakes. Each snake exhibits different behaviors and characteristics. With a wide variety of behavior, however, it can be difficult for an untrained individual to remember the differences. A few noticeable behavioral differences can be seen in rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. Rattlesnakes tend to shake their tails and omit loud clicking noises when threatened, but not all rattlesnakes have rattles. Cottonmouths, or water moccasins, swim with their entire body on the water’s surface while non-venomous snakes only allow their heads above the water.

Encountering a Snake

In the event that you encounter a snake, the best thing to do is to move to safety. If you are unable to do that, you can then assess the situation and determine if the snake is venomous or non-venomous. In the case that the snake is not interfering with your safety, it is always better to let it slither away rather than approach it.

Thankfully, snakes rarely attack humans unless they feel threatened. If you are bitten, however, there are a few steps you can follow. First, no matter the type of snake, it is always best to treat it like an emergency. If possible, you should head to your nearest emergency room or call an ambulance if needed.

The next, and possibly most important, step is to stay calm. While this is easier said than done, panicking can result in the potential poison spreading quicker. Do not search for the snake that bit you, but rather stay still and try to remember any identifying features. If possible, seek out first aid from those around you.

More Tips

Along with these steps, there are a few additional tips that can help in the aftermath of being bitten. Be sure to remove any jewelry from the bitten area as swelling can and will occur. Contrary to popular belief, do not attempt to cut, suck, wash, or press the bite. The best thing to do is fasten a pressure immobilization splint and bandage, but make sure not to restrict blood flow completely. Be sure to change your position in order to elevate the bitten area level with or below where your heart is. Finally, do not apply ice or a tourniquet, and do not drink caffeine or alcohol.

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