How to Identify Snakes

Identification of snake species can be difficult, sometimes even for trained herpetologists. We here at South Carolina Reptiles and Amphibians receive many emails from persons who have encountered a snake and wish to identify its species. Most people want to know whether the snake is venomous or otherwise dangerous. We try to answer all inquiries as best we can. If the person writing has noted several details about the snake, we can usually make an accurate identification, at least to the species level.

As one would expect, the more accurate and detailed the description, the better we are able to assist in the identification. There is a truism in describing snakes which is that the more experience a person has with snakes the better that person is able to describe snakes. The reason for this is probably clear to most persons, but we have expounded on this anyway in a brief discussion on the "Nature of Perception."

In a section on "Snake Identification Characteristics" we present a few of what we think are the more useful characteristics to the amateur herpetologist in identifying snake species. Categories for describing these characteristics are suggested. Illustrations and examples are also provided. We think this information will be most helpful if studied before the observation is made. However, we also believe that it can also be useful after the observation, especially to help convey the description in defined terms.

If a person wishes to attempt identification before or without writing for our assistance, we have provided several tools. First, we have listed some species which should be very easy to identify if the right characteristics are observed. We call these our "Slam Dunk IDs."

Second, there is a table with all the species indigenous to South Carolina and listing the characteristics and categories applicable to each. Since many of the species indigenous to SC are also found in the rest of the Southeast and many other parts of the United States, we think this table will also be broadly useful.

Third, we provide Identification Protocols, (#1) and (#2), which we hope will allow persons to focus, by selecting answers to several general characteristics, on the most likely species, rather than just browsing through all potential species.

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August 11, 2000
Minor corrections: August 25, 2000
Gene Ott

© 2000. Edwin Eugene Ott