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How to Tell if a Snake Is Venomous

What do you call a snake that makes a lot of noise when it drinks?

Do you get a gut-wrenching feeling when you hear the sizzling sound of a tail? Or does your hand snap back when you see stripes slither in the grass beneath the garden hose? You've either been there yourself or seen it in a movie...looking at you, Indiana Jones! We can't all be as fearless as Bindi Irwin, animal-loving daughter of famed conservationist Steve Irwin.

Instead of paralyzing fear, know how to ID the slinky creatures. It's true most snakes, in fact, are not venomous. But it's important to know which snakes can be harmful.

Of course, none of the below characteristics are dead-ringers for a venomous snake and there are always exceptions—so exercise caution no matter the snake's appearance. In general, here a few characteristics to keep in mind:

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  • Eyes Venomous snakes typically have a eyes with a vertical pupil slit, similar to cats, instead of a rounded pupil like humans.
  • Head shape Watch out for a more triangular head shape like those of pit vipers, which gives more room in the snake's jaw for the poison sacs. But remember, many non-venomous snakes also have triangular heads.
  • Teeth Most have two obvious front fangs. Bites from a non-venomous snakes are usually circular but venomous snakes create a two-dot puncture from the fangs. (But as a word of caution, please do not get close enough to the snake to inspect it's fangs.)
  • Body One of the largest groups of venomous snakes are "pit vipers", which all have additional small holes near the nostrils to help the snake detect heat and find prey.

Knowing the most common offenders in North America is a good place to start. Here are the top 10 types to stay (very far) away from:

  • Copperheads
  • Cottonmouths
  • Western coral snake
  • Eastern coral snake
  • Eastern diamondback rattlesnake
  • Western diamondback rattlesnake
  • Yellow-bellied sea snake
  • Timber rattlesnake
  • Massauga rattlesnake
  • Mojave rattlesnake

Related: How the Crocodile Hunter's Legacy Continues at the Australia Zoo

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