What's the Difference Between Venomous and Non-Venomous Snakes?

Thursday, 13 July 2023

Robert watson holding an Eastern Brown Snake

Snakes are a diverse group of reptiles, and among them, some are venomous, while others are not. Understanding the distinction between venomous and non-venomous snakes is not only a matter of curiosity but also crucial for safety and conservation efforts. In this article, we'll explore the key differences between these two categories of snakes.

Venomous Snakes

Venomous snakes possess specialized glands and fangs that allow them to inject venom into their prey or potential threats. Here are some distinguishing features of venomous snakes:

  • Venom Glands: Venomous snakes have glands, usually located behind their eyes, that produce toxic substances. These glands are connected to hollow fangs.

  • Hollow Fangs: Venomous snakes have specialized, hollow fangs through which they can inject venom. These fangs are often retractable and fold against the roof of the snake's mouth when not in use.

  • Venom Functions: Venom serves various purposes for these snakes, primarily immobilizing and digesting their prey. It can also act as a defense mechanism.

  • Venomous Species: Examples of venomous snakes include the rattlesnake, cobra, viper, and coral snake. Venomous snakes can be found on nearly every continent.

  • Distinct Head Shape: Venomous snakes often have a more triangular or arrow-shaped head, in contrast to the rounded heads of non-venomous snakes. This feature, while not universal, can be a helpful indicator.

Non-Venomous Snakes

Carpet Python on back of Robert's Ute

Non-venomous snakes lack the specialized venom-producing glands and hollow fangs of their venomous counterparts. Here are key characteristics of non-venomous snakes:

  • No Venom Glands: Non-venomous snakes do not possess venom glands. Instead, they rely on constriction or other methods to subdue and consume their prey.

  • Solid Teeth: Their teeth are not hollow like those of venomous snakes. Non-venomous snakes have solid teeth used for gripping and swallowing.

  • Non-Venomous Species: The majority of snake species are non-venomous. Examples include the garter snake, corn snake, and the common garden snake.

  • Varied Head Shapes: Non-venomous snakes can have diverse head shapes, which can make distinguishing them from venomous snakes challenging based solely on this characteristic.

Visual Cues for Identification

Identifying venomous and non-venomous snakes can be challenging, but there are some visual cues that can aid in the process:

  • Head Shape: While not a foolproof indicator, venomous snakes often have a more triangular or arrow-shaped head, which can be useful for identifying certain species.

  • Pupil Shape: The shape of the pupil in a snake's eye can be a clue. Venomous snakes often have vertical, cat-like pupils, while non-venomous snakes typically have round pupils.

  • Coloration and Patterns: The coloration and patterns on a snake's body can also provide hints. Some venomous snakes have warning colors, such as the red and black bands of a coral snake.

  • Tail Characteristics: Venomous snakes may have rattles at the end of their tails, which are used for warning. Non-venomous snakes lack these rattles.

Importance of Knowing the Difference

Understanding the distinction between venomous and non-venomous snakes is crucial for several reasons:

  • Safety: Knowing how to identify venomous snakes can prevent potentially dangerous encounters and bites. It's especially vital for individuals living in areas where venomous snakes are common.

  • Conservation: Correctly identifying snake species is essential for conservation efforts. Many non-venomous snake species are mistakenly killed due to fear and misunderstanding.

  • Ecological Balance: Snakes, whether venomous or not, play crucial roles in ecosystems. Recognizing the importance of both types of snakes contributes to the preservation of biodiversity.


Distinguishing between venomous and non-venomous snakes is not always straightforward, but it is an essential skill for snake enthusiasts, outdoor enthusiasts, and anyone living in snake-prone regions. By understanding the differences and learning to appreciate the roles both types of snakes play in nature, we can coexist with these remarkable reptiles while staying safe and contributing to their conservation.

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