North America may not be Australia, but it is still home to several venomous snakes with unique characteristics and patterns. Identifying these snakes is crucial for staying safe while exploring the great outdoors.


One of the most recognizable venomous snakes in North America is the rattlesnake. They are found throughout the continent, except Alaska and Hawaii. Rattlesnakes have a distinctive rattle on the end of their tail, which they use to warn of potential threats. The rattle is made up of segments that the snake adds each time it sheds its skin. Rattlesnakes also have triangular-shaped heads and vertical pupils. Diamondback, Timber, Pygmy, and Massasaugas are different rattlesnake species that outdoorsmen can encounter.

  • There are two subspecies of Diamond back; the Eastern and Western. The eastern is found in southeastern states and is the largest venomous North American snake species. These snakes are capable of reaching 7 feet long and striking two-thirds of their body length. Remember that when skirting an angry snake. Western Diamondbacks are usually smaller than their eastern counterparts but still possess a similar diamond pattern on their scales; Westerns spend the warmest parts of the day seeking shade leading to human-snake interactions as hunters and hikers look to beat the heat in the same way.

  • Timber Rattlesnakes are the most northerly living of the rattlesnake species. Sometimes referred to as Canebrake rattlesnakes these snakes are native as far north as Quebec and as far west as Iowa, with Florida being their most southerly haunt. Capable of growing to five feet, the timber rattler is considered one of the most venomous snakes in the continent. Despite that, they are known to be timid and will often rattle and feign strikes multiple times before committing to bite. 

  • Living in heavy vegetation and sand flats from the Florida Keys to Kentucky, the pygmy rattlesnakes are significantly smaller than diamondback rattlesnakes, growing to a maximum size of 30 inches. The pygmy rattlesnake’s venom doesn’t produce any neurotoxin and won’t likely kill an adult, but the bite will be painful and expensive to treat, so it’s best to leave it alone.

  • Massasaugas have dark brown or gray bodies with dark blotches and a distinctive rattle on their tails. They are found in the central United States and are known for their relatively small size compared to other rattlesnakes.


Anyone who grew up with a BB gun likely knows this next species. Another venomous snake found in North America is the copperhead. Copperheads are mostly found in the eastern United States, and they are known for their distinctive copper-colored heads. They also have hourglass-shaped patterns on their bodies that are tan or brown in color. Copperheads are not typically aggressive, but they will bite if they feel threatened.

Credit: John White, Snakes on the Water: Cottonmouth or Watersnake via Virgina Department of Wildlife Resources 


Cottonmouths, also known as water moccasins, are found in the southeastern United States. They are typically found near bodies of water, and their venom is particularly potent. Cottonmouths are usually dark brown or black and have thick, muscular bodies. They also have a distinctive triangular-shaped head, a common feature among venomous snakes. Banded water snakes and even rat snakes can appear similar to cottonmouths but lack the distinctive pit viper-shaped head and “eye mask.” As their name implies, water moccasins live in damp areas and are adept swimmers.

Credit: Coral Snake via Britannica


The coral snake is the only venomous snake in North America that is not a viper. Coral snakes have thin bodies and small heads, which are not as distinctively triangular as other venomous snakes. They are found in the southern United States and are known for their brightly colored red, yellow, and black bands. Their markings are similar to a Scarlet Kingsnake. While the colors are the same, the patterns between the two are not. The old saying “red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, Friend of Jack (or venom lack)” is not always true and should not be used as a reliable identification method. Instead, it is best to remember that leaving a snake alone is the best way to not worry about its venom.

When identifying venomous snakes, it is important to remember that not all snakes are venomous, and not all venomous snakes are aggressive. In fact, most venomous snake bites occur when people accidentally step on or disturb the snake. If you are unsure if a snake is venomous, it is best to stay away and observe it from a safe distance.

Credit: Coral Snake via Britannica

What to do if you encounter a venomous snake? 

Encountering a venomous snake in the wild can be a scary experience, but there are some steps you can take to ensure your safety:

1. Stay calm: The first thing you should do when you encounter a snake is to stay calm. Snakes can sense fear and may become more aggressive if they feel threatened.

2. Keep your distance: It’s important to keep a safe distance from the snake. Venomous snakes typically have a range of about 2-3 feet, so make sure you stay outside of that range.

3. Do not touch or provoke the snake: Never attempt to touch or provoke the snake in any way. This can lead to an attack or bite.

4. Give the snake an escape route: If possible, give the snake an escape route so it can move away from you. If the snake feels trapped, it may become aggressive.

5. Back away slowly: Slowly and calmly back away from the snake while keeping an eye on its movements.

6. Seek medical attention if bitten: If you are bitten by a venomous snake, seek medical attention immediately. Do not attempt to suck out the venom or cut the wound; these methods are ineffective and can cause further harm. Snake bites can be painful and may cause swelling and other symptoms.

Remember, snakes are an important part of the ecosystem and should be respected and left alone in their natural habitat. For those of us who do spend our free time in the woods, fields, and swamps where snakes call home, it’s wise to buy snake-resistant clothing. Snake boots, gaiters, and pants are all sound choices that allow the wearer to enjoy their time while providing protection from snake bites.