Recognizing Venomous Snakes

by Peter Gordon, Elachee Director of Education

Often the first clue that you have a reptile sharing your space is the disquieting discovery of a snake skin festooning a garden shed, basement or attic.

When this happens, not surprisingly, the Elachee Nature Science Center’s phones light up with concerned callers asking two questions. “What are the chances that the reptile still lives in our house?” and “Can you tell from the skin whether it is venomous or non-venomous?”

Where did that snake come from!?

During warm and hot temperatures, Black Rat snakes are frequent visitors to northeast Georgia yards and gardens.As temperatures begin to rise toward sub-tropical levels in late spring through early fall, the local snake population becomes more active. The likelihood of the average person having an interaction with these unique and important creatures increases.

For example during these warm and hot temperature months, Black Rat snakes and Garter snakes become regular visitors to local yards and gardens. In addition, Brown and Northern Water snakes will soon share lake waters with boaters and fisherman.

If in fact you do find a snake skin, chances are slim that the snake is still in your house or shed. Snakes continue to grow for much of their lives and frequently outgrow their skins. Because the snake is vulnerable during the shedding period, it seeks out a safe, quiet spot. A hollow log or tree works well, but a conveniently accessible attic or garden shed is a popular alternative choice.

The shedding process can take up to a week or more to play out. More often than not, the snake will depart once it has shed its skin leaving behind a souvenir for the resident human to discover.

How to Identify a Non-Venomous Snake

You can determine from the shed whether the snake is venomous or not. A quick examination will reveal the small diamond-shaped scales on its back and large log-shaped scales on its belly. The accompanying photo of Black Rat snake shed shows the divided scales of the common, non-venomous species. Diagram of a Black Rat snake skin shed showing scale patterns that identify this reptile as non-venomous.

Turn the skin so the belly scales are facing upwards and locate the anus (see diagram). The anus is usually located about a foot or so from the tip of the tail. Next, check the belly scales below the anus (looking toward the tail) to see if they are divided or not divided. Non-venomous snakes have divided scales (see diagram).

By comparison, copperheads and rattlesnakes, the two types of venomous snakes found in northeast Georgia, have single, non-divided scales.

Familiarity Brings Respect

Although snakes may terrify you and/or your family, please remember: the only good snake is one that is alive. The more you know, however, the better you can assess perceived danger. Plus, once you learn the benefits of having a 'resident' non-venomous snake in your yard, you'll be wishing one would come to visit!

Monday through Saturday, you can meet a large variety of non-venomous snakes, other reptiles and animals by visiting Elachee's Live Animal Exhibit.

We also invite you to learn even more about creatures that slither and crawl at Elachee's Snake Day 2017. Mark your calendar for the second Saturday in September to come out and touch a snake, hear from regional experts and see an incredible variety of venomous and non-venomous species!

In the meantime, if you have other snake or nature-related questions, give Elachee a call at 770-535-1976.