By Dorothy LaVonne Mitchell (LaVonne) on July 18, 2011

Thought you might like to know a bit about the snakes that co-habit with us.


Snakes belong to the animal group called reptiles. This group also includes crocodiles, lizards, and turtles. Reptiles are cold-blooded animals that raise their body temperature by lying in the sun or lower it by crawling into the shade. Their body temperature changes to the temperature of its surroundings. Because of this, snakes that live in colder climates must hibernate through the winter. They will find burrows or caves and fall into a deep sleep until the weather warms up enough for them.

There are more than 2,700 species of snakes in the world. They live almost everywhere, in deserts, forests, oceans, streams, and lakes. Snakes live on the ground, in trees, and in water. There are a few areas where snakes do not live. They cannot survive in places where the ground stays frozen all year around, such as in the high mountainous regions, above the Arctic Circle and Antarctica.

Snakes bodies are covered with plates and scales. Without this protective armor snakes could not move over rough or hot surfaces like tree bark, rocks, and hot desert sand. Their scales are also nearly waterproof and help to keep the water out. Rough belly scales allow the snake to keep their grip on rough branches and to push off of surfaces when they need to move.

Scales are made up of layers of cells stacked one on top of the other. The outer cells are dead and protect the living ones underneath them.  A few times every year a snake will shed a layer of dead skin. The cells underneath are then ready to take over as the outer layer.

When a snake is ready to shed its eyes get cloudy and it is temporarily blinded. Why? Because snakes eyes do not have eyelids (that’s why they don’t blink) but instead are covered with a clear scale called a spectacle.  When a snake is ready to shed its old skin it will rub up against a rough surface, like a rock, to rip the skin and then slide right out. Just like taking off a sock!

In case you were wondering (cause they are soooo flexible), snakes actually do have bones.  Animals with bones are known as vertebrates -- snakes are vertebrates. 

A snake’s backbone is made up of many vertebrae attached to ribs. Humans have approximately 33 vertebrae and 24 ribs. Snakes have between 100-400 vertebrae with as many ribs attached! That is what makes them so flexible and helps them move along!

All those bones and the strong muscles protect the internal organs. The throat of the snake takes up the front one-third of the body. It leads to a really long stomach, which, like the throat, will stretch to the size of whatever the snake is eating. 

Snakes also have two long lungs, a long liver, kidneys and intestines. The last quarter of the snake has a small anal opening (they have to poop, you know!) covered by a scale called the anal plate, and the rest is tail made up of more bone. 

Snakes have four ways of moving around. Since they don’t have legs they use their muscles and their scales to do the “walking”.

Concertina method: this is when snakes bunch themselves up and then throw themselves forward.

Serpentine method: This motion is what most people think of when they think of snakes. Snakes will push off of any bump or other surface, rocks, trees, etc., to get going. They move in a wavey motion. They wouldn’t be able to move over slick surfaces like glass at all.

Sidewinding: This method is similar to an inchworm’s movement. The snake will lift the middle of its body up and then push it down forcing its head to move forward.

Rectilinear Method: This is a slow, creeping, straight movement. The snake uses some of the wide scales on its belly to grip the ground while pushing forward with the others. 

The jaws of the snakes are not fused together. That means that unlike our jaws, snakes jaws are not hooked up at the back of their mouths. This makes it possible for them to eat very big meals, bigger than their own heads! That would be like you swallowing a whole watermelon! 

If you had your mouth full of a watermelon, do you think you could breathe? Not likely! Snakes can. They have a little tube at the bottom of their mouth that comes out far enough to get air when the rest of their mouth is full.

Although most snakes have teeth, four rows on the top and two on the bottom, not all snakes have fangs. Only the poisonous ones do.

Fangs are sharp, long, hollow teeth that are hooked up to small sacs in the snake’s head behind their eyes. These sacs produce a poisonous liquid called venom. When a snake bites, venom is released and starts to work immediately to kill or paralyze the prey. For some snakes with really long fangs, the fangs will fold back into the mouth so they don’t bite themselves! When a snake loses or breaks a fang it will grow another.

Since the poison will work almost immediately, some snakes will hold onto the animal, which is unlucky enough to be in its mouth, until it stops struggling and the snake can start to swallow it. Other snakes will bite and then release the animal so that it does not get hurt when the animal struggles and slowly dies. These snakes will use their flicking tongue to smell and follow the victim until it dies and can be eaten.

Sea snakes are thought to be the most poisonous of all snakes. Other poisonous snakes include Adders, Cottonmouths, Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and Cobras. Spitting Cobras can spit venom up to 6 feet away! Yuk!

In many countries, venomous snakes are caught and their venom is “milked” from their fangs by squeezing the venom sac and forcing the release of the poison. This venom is then used to create a medicine called antivenin that is used to save the lives of people bitten by snakes. Snakes will keep producing more venom for as long as they live. 

Snakes use their senses to hunt, escape danger, and to find a mate.  Since snakes have very poor eyesight their other senses need to make up for it.

Some snakes can smell with their noses but ALL snakes smell with their tongues. When a snake sticks out its tongue it smells its surroundings. The moist tongue collects scents and small organisms from whatever it touches and from the air around it. When the tongue goes back into the mouth the forks touch a special sensory spot called the Jacobson's organ on the roof of the mouth and tells the snake what it smells. Snakes have a small notch in their lips that they can stick their tongues through so they don’t need to open their mouths.

Snakes can absorb vibrations through the ground and determine the size of the prey or danger by its movements.

Snakes are carnivores, which means they will eat only meat including each other. Some snakes are hunters while others will lie in waiting to ambush their prey. They can be very sneaky and will try to trick their victims into coming to them! The Cantil snake, for example, has a bright yellow tip on its tail to look like a worm. (The Common Cantil is a heavy bodied snake with a broad, triangular head and small eyes with vertical pupils. They are usually brown or black, with darker brown or black banding, sometimes with white or cream colored highlights. They are found from southern Sonora in Mexico, southeast to Guatemala and El Salvador, also in state of Morelos, Mexico. Their bite can be deadly.) Boy, won’t the bird be surprised when it finds out it isn’t a worm that it bit! Desert living snakes will hide under the sand and wait for something yummy to wander by.

The smallest of all snakes, the Thread snake, eats the pupae, or eggs, of ants and centipedes. The largest snakes, the Pythons and Anacondas, have been known to eat, deer and pigs! Most snakes live off of insects, rodents, birds, eggs, fish, frogs, lizards and small mammals.

All snakes swallow their food whole. While they do have teeth, the teeth are made for grabbing, hooking and holding their prey, not chewing. Constrictors will grab and hold their prey while wrapping their bodies around the victim and slowly “constricting” or tightening their coils until they squeeze the last breath out of their prey and the heart stops. Cobras, Vipers, Rattlesnakes, and other venomous snakes will maim or paralyze their prey by sinking their fangs into it before swallowing it.

Have you ever wondered how a snake can swallow such big meals without chewing? Snakes have powerful muscles all along the front half of their bodies. Snakes use these muscles for moving as well as swallowing. The muscles move the food down along the throat and into the snake’s long stomach. Moving the food through the throat into the stomach can take 10 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the animal they are eating.
In egg-eating snakes the sharp rib bones will poke through the eggshell to help speed along digestion. Food in the snake’s stomach can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of months to breakup or digest. That is a long time to work on a meal! 

Believe it or not, some snakes only need to eat a couple times a year!

If you come across a snake don't kill him! He isn't your enemy -- snakes don't prey on humans. In a successful wildlife habitat snakes will be around. You may never see one, but if you do, it'll only be for a moment or two, as he'll be horrified at coming face to face with you. Just let him slither away, which he'll quickly do. A snake's major method of confrontation is: not to. Unless you scare him by grabbing or cornering him, he's a peaceful animal. When we set aside our fears, we find that snakes are fascinating creatures who deserve respect as an important part of a successful wildlife habitat.

What is it about snakes that give us the willies? Nearly everyone, men and women alike, are afraid of them (ophidiphobic). Is it the unblinking stare? The scaly skin? The long, limbless body? Their method of locomotion? Or, maybe it's the flicking tongue and sharp fangs, so dangerous looking. Whatever it is, you're not alone and our response almost seems instinctive. Yet, curiously, instinct may have nothing to do with it -- some studies show that children have no fear of snakes; they apparently learn it from adults.

Snakes, so hard for humans to relate to, do have a "soft" side. They aren't especially smart, but snake owners say their snakes clearly recognize them and show a preference for being handled by them, but not by strangers. Some pet owners believe their snake enjoys being stroked. Snakes in "petting" exhibits have even been "socialized" and will accept handling and stroking by strangers. (Don’t try this in your own backyard!)

There are about 2,700 species of snakes in the world, with about 120 species living in North America. Only 20 are venomous. Venomous or not, a snake only bites when he's under attack. Most bites occur to someone who's trying to kill or catch one. What should you do if you happen upon a snake? Slowly back away. It's as simple as that. Even venomous snakes will avoid striking, if at all possible.

U.S. snakes generally range between 8 inches and 6 feet. Their coloration is highly varied and it's all about protection. As with other animals, their coloring is designed to blend into their surroundings, to fool the eye of predators. They may be a uniform color, dull or bright, with subtle markings. Many have colorful patterns of spots, bands, blotches or stripes. Some have a head that's different in color from the rest of their body. With some, the color changes between the head and the tail.

Only an average of 5 people a year are killed in the US due to venomous or some would say poisonous snake bites (Gold et al., 2002)1. Approximately 8000 venomous snakebites are reported per year in the United States. The total number of bites per year in the USA is estimated to 45000 bites (ibid), so only about 18 percent of snake bites in the USA are from venomous snake species. It should be mentioned however, that other survey's reports fewer bites a year (Litovitz et al., 1997)2.

Only 4 species poses a hazard to humans in Northern America and none of them are among the most venomous snakes in the world.

Poisonous Snakes - a technical misunderstanding. Its strange how many people are talking about poisonous snakes. A snake is only poisonous if you ingest it and get poisoned by it. The correct term to use is venomous snakes. Normally venom is harmless if ingested but if the venom is injected into some tissue it is toxic and the tissue around the site of injection and other parts of the body will suffer one way or another.

Below is a overview of some of the snakes in the greater United States.


 Rattlesnakes with the Latin Name Crotalus sp. comes in different varieties and there are numerous subspecies, color variations etc. One thing that they do however have in common is jointed rattles on their tail. In the section about rattlesnakes you'll find detailed descriptions of the most common rattlesnakes in USA. A bite from a rattlesnake is deadly in some cases.


 The cottonmouth snake is also known as the water moccasin. The name cottonmouth comes from the fact that its mouth looks like cotton when it opens it mouth. This snake has been considered aggressive but studies have shown that this is not the case. Cottonmouths reach a length of approximately 30-48 inches. The cottonmouth snake is one of the most common snakes in Florida. Other Florida Snakes includes the 3 other not very deadly US snakes also described in this website.

Coral Snakes

Coral snakes are easy to recognize from their alternating black, red and yellow bands. They are usually shorter than 40 inches. Their preferred place of staying is beneath debris or flatwood or anywhere that offers some kind of protection.  This little saying helps identify the coral snake "Red on yellow will kill a fellow. Red and black's a friend of Jack."

Read more: How to Identify Coral & King Snakes |



A copperhead snake is even shorter than both the coral snake and the cottonmouth snake. It is the most often encountered snake in Eastern parts of the United States like Alabama, Missouri and Arkansas, but of course also all other states. Copperheads are responsible for most venomous snake bites in the USA. Bites are however the last line of defense for this and many other poisonous/venomous snakes.

There are widespread myths regarding snakes:

1.  Snakes hold their tails in their mouths to create a circle and will chase you.

2.  When you kill a snake, another one will chase you (ironically, what IS true is excessive killing of snakes leads to the overpopulation of rodents and more disease

Snake Bite Facts

1.  In the United States, only about 12 people a year die from snakebites.

2.  The estimated chances of dying from a snakebite in the outdoors is approximately 1:10 million.

3.  Victims of snakebites in North America usually have two common denominators, tattoos and alcohol intake.

4.  There are approximately 23 different subspecies of rattlesnakes in the United States including the coral snake, copperhead and cottonmouth (or water moccasin), which comprise the venomous snakes indigenous to the United States. We emphasize indigenous to the United States in that due to the internet, more and more exotic/foreign snakes are being brought into the United States illegally. This is an extremely dangerous practice, posing enormous diagnostic and treatment risk for emergency rooms across the United States. Every month, there are incidents that occur where someone is tired of their exotic and most likely illegally owned pet and releases it, or possibly it escapes. Example: A few months ago, a friend of Survive Outdoors from Indiana was helping someone move when he found a king cobra in the bushes outside of the home. The cobra was poised and ready to strike; luckily no one was bitten.

There are two types of venomous snakes, falling into two separate categories, the pit vipers which include the rattlesnakes, copperheads and copper mouths, and the elapids, which are coral snakes.


Related articles:
, anatomy, snakes

About Dorothy LaVonne Mitchell
I am a retired individual. As a child I played with non-venomous snakes in my neighborhood. I like the outdoors and have been surprised on the trails a few times by Pacific Rattlesnakes shaking their rattles....

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Very informative! :) mollymistsmith Jul 25, 2011 8:34 AM 1
Fascinating dahlianut Jul 20, 2011 7:47 AM 10

Snakes Of The U.S., Canada And Baja California

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