VENOMOUS OR NONVENOMOUS
North Louisiana has more nonvenomous snakes than venomous snakes, but because stepping too close to a venomous snake can cause problems or loss of life, it is important to know the difference.
Despite what you may have heard as a kid growing up in North Louisiana, the arrow-shaped head is not an indication that a snake is venomous. Water snakes have triangular heads, and hognose snakes can flatten their heads into a more triangular shape when bluffing.
Three of the four venomous species of snakes in North Louisiana are pit vipers: canebrake rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, and pygmy rattlesnakes. These snakes all have a pit located on each side of the head, diagonal to the eye. You can also identify these snakes by the eye, which will be a slit during the day (although their eyes will be rounder in the dark).
Coral snakes, the fourth species of venomous snake in North Louisiana, is in the elapid family, and are related to the cobra. Coral snakes have round eyes and lack the pit found on pit vipers. Coral snakes are brightly colored, thin snakes, covered in red, yellow, and black bands. Milk snakes are often confused for coral snakes due to their similar colors. Milk snakes lack the yellow bands. While the Mexican milk snake is very similar in pattern to the coral snake, the Louisiana milk snake, found in North Louisiana has large red bands, with small black bands on either side of the red bands and medium white bands between black bands. The pattern is red, black, white, black, red, black, and so on to the tip of the tail, which is usually black.
The Texas coral snake found in North Louisiana has a similar but different pattern. The head starts with a black band, followed by a small yellow band, another black band, another small yellow band, a large red band, another small yellow band, and from there, black, yellow, red, yellow, onward.
If you are familiar with the markings on venomous snakes, you won’t have to rely on identifying the more difficult aspects of a venomous snake’s appearance.
Unlike most snakes in North Louisiana, cottonmouths come in multiple colors and may be grey, brown, or black. These colors and their occupation of habitats near water often cause them to be confused with other nonvenomous, water snakes, including the banded water snake, the Mississippi green water snake, the yellow-bellied water snake, and the diamond-backed water snake. Cottonmouths are easy to identify because unlike these other snakes, they have a black mask at their eyes.
Nonvenomous snakes such as the northern and southern brown water snakes and hognose snakes have similar coloration to copperheads. One way to tell other snakes from the copperhead is the pattern found on copperheads. Whereas the pit might be obstructed, you can generally spot the pattern from a safe distance. A cottonmouth and other water snakes will generally have evenish bands, while the copperhead will have an hourglass pattern. In addition, water snakes tend to have thicker bodies than copperheads.
Our photos below highlight some of the physical differences between venomous species and the nonvenomous snakes that are often misidentified as them.