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Published by Jack Glisson of Kentucky up Close!

I will list all weekly Profiles in Nature columns published on this page. An archive of past editions are listed on the bottom of the page. The main window shows the current weeks subject. I will not place the current papers column here until after the paper has been distributed. All photos on these articles are "clickable" so one can get a better look.


Venomous or Non-Venomous?

                I ran this column last summer but I feel it is important enough to repeat each year during warm weather. I usually get several phone calls and text per year asking if a certain snake that was found is dangerous or not. I don’t mind these calls at all but am just trying to get this information out there. If anyone needs a refresher this same information is available on my web site, www.kentuckyupclose.com.

            With a couple of months of warm weather left and hunting seasons right around the corner more and more people will be enjoying the outdoors. I thought this might be a good time to clarify some sure methods on how to tell if a snake is dangerous or not.

                Although five families or groups of snake occur in North America only two are present in Kentucky and the bordering states. The  Colubridae, or colubrids, and the Viperidae, or pit viper family. Since we are only dealing with two families and each has its own distinctive characteristics, telling a venomous snake from a non-venomous snake is quiet easy.

                Out of the 31 species (40 or so if sub-species and intergrades are counted) of snake present in Kentucky all but four belong in the colubrid Family and are our non venomous species. These include rat snakes, kingsnakes, hog-nosed snakes, water snakes, garter snakes, and several other smaller groups.

                The four venomous snakes present in Kentucky are pit vipers and are the copperhead, water moccasin or cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake, and pigmy rattlesnake. The pigmy rattlesnake is only present in Kentucky in the southern portion of the Land Between the Lakes and Trigg County areas.

                First, lets discuss a common but untrue method of identifying a venomous snake. Probably the most common statement I hear is “poisonous snakes have blunt tails”. This is an absolute untruth. All of our snakes are born with sharp tails. The only ones that have blunt tails are the ones that have lost the tip to a predator or an over-zealous housewife with a garden hoe!

                Now for the three absolute methods to tell if a Kentucky Snake is venomous or not.

1.)     Pupils; All of our colubrid (non-venomous) snakes have round pupils. All of our pit vipers (venomous) snakes have elliptical or “cats eye” shaped pupils.

2.)     Heat sensing pits; All of our pit vipers (venomous) have a pit located between the eye and the nostril on each side of the head. This pit allows the snake to see an infrared image in total darkness. This is useful as well for locating warm blooded prey such as mice. All of our colubrids (non poisonous) lack these pits.


combined id photos.jpg

Photo Credit – www.kentuckyupclose.com


3.)     Tail scales; All of our our snakes have single scales across the belly until reaching the anal plate. The anal plate is the scale that covers the vent opening. The anal plate may be single or divided. All of our colubrids (non-venomous) snakes start having divided scales immediately following the anal plate. All of our pit vipers (venomous) have a series of scales that are not divided immediately following the anal plate. This may consist of a few scales or most of the tail section.



Photo Credit – www.kentuckyupclose.com


            Last are a couple of methods that although are factual can be misleading.

1.)     Head shape; All of our pit vipers have a spade or arrow-head shaped head with a narrow neck that then widens into the main body. Most of our non venomous snakes heads are no wider than the neck and lack the spade shape. A few of our larger non-venomous snakes such as the diamond-backed water snake, appear to have a wider than usual head, add to the fact that a lot of species flatten their head and body and this trait can become misleading.

2.)     Cross section of the body; A cross section view of all our pit vipers (venomous) have a roughly triangle shaped body. Our colubrids (non-venomous) are more rounded or oval. The problem with this is that as mentioned before several of the non-venomous species flatten their body when disturbed and would then appear to have the triangle cross section.

                One interesting fact to note is if you find a shed skin that is intact it can be easily determined if it came from a poisonous or non-poisonous species. The scales on the tail section are a dead giveaway and if examined closely the pits or lack thereof are also a telltale sign.

                The methods I have listed here are accurate in Kentucky and bordering states. Some other families exist in the South-West and in Coastal areas.

                Enjoy your time outdoors and remember – if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone!

© 2015 Jack Glisson of WWW.kentuckyupclose.com


 Published in The Ballard County Weekly 08/05/2015

You are invited to visit the home page of my web site at www.kentuckyupclose.com .

NOTICE - Links to the individual columns December, 2013 through December, 2014 have been disabled due to a contractual agreement with Kindle Direct Publishing. When the contract time allows these links will be reinitiated. Meanwhile, 2 six month volumes of these columns are available for sale at Kindle Books. The Links are HERE and HERE.

Dec - 2013
Hooded Merganzer
Brown Recluse Spider
Jan - 2014
Baldfaced Hornet
Northern Shoveler
Eastern Gray Squirrel
American Bald Eagle
Feb - 2014
Sandhill Crane
Jack Glisson
Black Vulture
March - 2014
White-crowned Sparrow
Striped Skunk
Chorus frog
Lady Bug
April - 2014
Eastern Wild Turkey
Rat Snake
May - 2014
Eastern Carpenter Bee
June - 2014
Poison Hemlock
Western Mud Snake
Southern Painted Turtle
July - 2014
Swamp Leather Flower
Deer Fly
August - 2014
Wild Sweet Potato Vine
American Lotus
Venomous or Non-venomous
Mourning Dove
September - 2014
Passion Flower
Annual Cicada
Wood Duck
Fall Webworm
October - 2014
Muscadine Grape
Woolly Bear Caterpillar
October 8th Lunar Eclipse
Walnut or Butternut?
Monarch Butterfly
November - 2014
Black and Yellow Garden Spider
White Tailed Deer
Common House Spider
December - 2014
Red Fox
Fox Squirrel
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Holly
January - 2015
English Sparrow
Ring-billed Gull
North American Beaver
Deciduous Holly
Feb - 2015
Spanish Needle
Chinese Mantis
Virginia Opossum

March - 2015
The Mineral, Ice
Northern Cardinal
American White Pelican
Hairy Bittercress
April - 2015
Eastern Garter Snake
Eastern Redbud Tree
Northern Spring Peeper
Downy Phlox
Virginia Bluebell
May - 2015
American Coot
Black Locust
Periodical Cicada
June - 2015
July - 2015
Catalpa Worm
Green Ash
Eastern Kingsnake
Double-crested Cormorant
August - 2015
Venomous or Non-Venomous