Overcome the Fear of Snakes

Some people have such a dread of snakes that they actually avoid going outdoors to fish, hunt, hike, or picnic. Others kill every snake they see. This is too bad, both for the people who let the fear of snakes keep them from enjoying nature, and for nature itself. It's relatively easy to avoid direct encounters with snakes, and all snakes — even venomous ones — help control populations of rodents and other pests. Getting to know the kinds, natural history, and distribution of Missouri's snakes can help you overcome your fear of them and appreciate their role in nature.

Missouri's Wildlife Code Protects Snakes

Few Missourians realize that all snakes native to our state are protected. The Wildlife Code of Missouri treats snakes, lizards, and most turtles as nongame. This means that there is no open season on these animals, and it is technically unlawful to kill them. There is a realistic exception, however: when a venomous snake is in close association with people, which could result in someone being bitten. We hope that more people realize that snakes are interesting, valuable, and, for the most part, harmless.

Snakebites are Rare

Contrary to popular belief, snakes do not go looking for people to bite. In fact, snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them. As Jim Low says in his Snakebytes blog post, "Snakebite ranks just above falling space debris as a threat to human life." Read his post to learn more about who gets bitten by snakes, when, and why.

Fun to Study, Important to People and Nature

Missouri, with its variety of wildlife habitats, is home to a total of 47 species and subspecies of snakes. The majority (88 percent) of our snakes are harmless.

Snakes are reptiles — a group that also includes lizards, crocodiles, and turtles. Reptiles in general are covered with scales, are the same temperature as their surroundings, and have been around for millions of years. Snakes and lizards are closely related. Snakes are legless, have no external ear opening, and are not slimy. About half of our snakes lay eggs, and half give birth to completely developed young. As they grow, snakes shed their outer skins three to five times a year. All snakes can swim. The internal organs of snakes are elongated, which allows them to fit into the tubular body cavity. Most species have an elongated right lung and no left lung.

All snakes eat other animals and are classified as carnivorous. As noted above, they play an important role in controlling rodent populations, and they also serve as a food source for other wildlife, such as hawks, owls, mink, skunks, and herons. Some snakes even eat other snakes. Kingsnakes, which are immune to the venom of our venomous snakes, will kill and consume them if given the opportunity. Although many of our harmless snakes will bite to defend themselves, usually their bite produces nothing more than simple scratches. Many kinds of snakes, both venomous or nonvenomous, will vibrate their tails when alarmed or threatened.

How to Tell Venomous from Nonvenomous Snakes

Venomous snakes

  • All venomous snakes native to Missouri are members of the pit viper family. Pit vipers have a characteristic pit located between the eye and nostril on each side of the head. They also have a pair of well-developed fangs.
  • Note the shape of the pupil. The pupils of venomous snakes appear as vertical slits within the iris.
  • Our venomous species all have a single row of scales along the underside of the tail.
  • Missouri's venomous snakes include the copperhead, cottonmouth, western pygmy rattlesnake, massasauga rattlesnake, and timber rattlesnake. The western diamond-backed rattlesnake and coralsnake are not found in Missouri. The most common venomous snake in Missouri is the copperhead. To our knowledge, there have only been two human deaths attributed to venomous snakes in Missouri: a 1933 timber rattlesnake bite and a 1965 copperhead bite.

Nonvenomous snakes

  • Harmless snakes have round pupils and a double row of scales along the undersides of their tails.
  • A triangle-shaped head doesn't necessarily mean danger. Although the venomous snakes have a somewhat triangle-shaped head, several harmless species, such as watersnakes, gartersnakes, and hog-nosed snakes, can and do flatten their heads, which can cause them to appear triangular.

Discourage Snakes From Buildings

Although snakes are an interesting and natural part of our outdoors, there may be times and places where their presence is unwanted. Venomous snakes have no place around human dwellings, and even harmless species may cause problems because most people fear them. There are no really effective means of eliminating snakes completely, but it is possible to discourage them around homes by the same method effective for controlling other animal pests — eliminating their food and shelter. Piles of boards, fence posts, dump heaps, slabs of roofing paper, scrap corrugated steel roofing, burlap, slabs of bark, and piles of rocks provide hiding places for snakes and the food they eat. Removing these attractions and generally tidying up are the best ways to keep the premises free of snakes. Inspect foundations, doors, and low windows to make sure there are no openings where snakes might enter. We recommend that any harmless snake encountered be captured with a hoe or stick and released unharmed in an isolated, safe habitat.

Create Snake-Friendly Habitat on Your Land

In general, a diversified, well-managed habitat will support a variety of both game and nongame species of animals. Snakes benefit from the addition of various kinds of shelters, such as brush piles, logs, and rock piles. These shelters will provide security for snakes and may increase the availability of food animals (mice, native rats, lizards, toads, and frogs).

Ponds built near forested areas will also benefit several kinds of snakes and other wildlife as long as the pond is properly maintained. See our Pond Improvements section under Related Information below to learn more about building and maintainging ponds on your Missouri property.

Join a Herpetological Society

If you're interested in conserving Missouri's amphibians and reptiles, you might enjoy being a member of a herpetological society. These nonprofit organizations study amphibians and reptiles, help educate the public about them, and help conserve them and their habitat. See the list of Missouri's herpetological societies under External Links below.

Image of a broad-banded watersnake
Nerodia fasciata confluens

The broad-banded watersnake is a beautiful semiaquatic snake with broad, irregularly shaped bands that can be brown, red-brown, or black and are separated by yellow and gray. This nonvenomous species is restricted to the southeastern corner of the state.

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Image of a bullsnake
Pituophis catenifer sayi

Missouri's largest snake may hiss loudly and vibrate its tail when alarmed, but it is nonvenomous. This species is extremely valuable in controlling destructive rodents.

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eastern coachwhip
Coluber flagellum flagellum

This large, slender, nonvenomous snake usually escapes in an explosive burst of speed. It is fast-moving and thrashes when captured, which led to the stubborn myth that this snake can whip a person to death.

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Eastern gartersnake
Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis

Of the five kinds of garter snakes in Missouri, the eastern gartersnake is the most common. Though the color is variable (dark brown, greenish, or olive), there are normally three yellowish stripes, one down the back and one on each side.

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Photo of an eastern hog-nosed snake.
Heterodon platirhinos

The eastern hog-nosed snake has an upturned snout and can hiss loudly and spread its neck like a cobra. If this defense fails to ward off an enemy, the snake may thrash around, open its mouth, roll over, and play dead.

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Photo of an eastern yellow-bellied racer.
Coluber constrictor flaviventris

The color of eastern yellow-bellied racers is uniform but varies from olive, tan, brown, or blue to nearly black. The belly may be yellow, cream, or light blue gray. This nonvenomous snake occurs nearly statewide.

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Photo of a flat-headed snake held in someone’s hands
Tantilla gracilis

The flat-headed snake is found in the southern half of the state except the far southeastern corner. The general color of this small snake is tan, gray brown, or reddish brown. The head sometimes is slightly darker than the rest of the body or is black, and the belly is salmon pink.

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Image of graham's crayfish snake
Regina grahamii

This medium-sized, dull-colored, semiaquatic snake is known from prairie streams, marshes, and ponds. Like most other snakes associated with water, it is often misidentified as a cottonmouth and needlessly killed.

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Image of a Great Plains ratsnake
Pantherophis emoryi

This member of the ratsnake group is seldom seen. It has numerous brown blotches along the body, a brown eye stripe, and a spearpoint marking on top of the head.

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Image of a lined snake
Tropidoclonion lineatum

This small, secretive snake looks similar to a garter snake. It is mainly brown to grayish brown, with three lighter-colored stripes down the length of its body and a distinctive double row of half-moon-shaped markings along the belly.

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midland brownsnake
Storeria dekayi wrightorum

This small, secretive species prefers moist environments. Its color ranges from gray to brown to reddish brown, and there is usually a tan stripe running down the back, bordered by two rows of small brown spots. The top of the head is usually dark.

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Image of a Mississippi green watersnake
Nerodia cyclopion

The Mississippi green watersnake is a medium-sized, heavy-bodied, dark-colored semiaquatic snake that was once somewhat common in southeastern Missouri. The back is dark greenish brown, and the belly is dark gray with numerous yellow half-circles.

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Nerodia rhombifer rhombifer

The northern diamond-backed watersnake is our largest watersnake. It has diamond-shaped light markings along the back. Absent from the Ozarks but common in the southeastern corner and over northern and western Missouri, it doesn’t occur in our extreme northern counties.

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Photo of a northern red-bellied snake on a rock.
Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata

The northern red-bellied snake is of our smallest snakes. It is generally gray brown or reddish brown on top, bright red or orange below. This harmless species is sometimes mistaken for a young copperhead and needlessly killed.

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northern rough greensnake
Opheodrys aestivus aestivus

This long, slender snake is common in the Ozarks. It is light green above with a white or yellowish belly, and the scales on the back have small ridges or keels that feel rough to the touch. Its beautiful green color helps this mild-mannered insectivore blend in with the trees that are its home.

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Photo of a northern scarletsnake on a rock surface in Georgia.
Cemophora coccinea copei

One of Missouri's most brilliantly colored snakes is extremely rare to find. The northern scarletsnake is similar in pattern and color to the more common red milksnake but has a red or orange snout and a spotless, white belly.

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Photo of a northern watersnake rearing back in grass on land.
Nerodia sipedon sipedon

The northern watersnake is gray to reddish brown with dark brown crossbands. The belly is cream-colored with black and reddish half-moon markings. This is Missouri’s most common watersnake.

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Thamnophis proximus proximus

Our subspecies of western ribbonsnake is named for the attractive orange (or yellowish) stripes running the length of its body. A member of the gartersnake group, this species is found statewide, but seldom far from water.

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Image of an osage copperhead
Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster

Copperheads are pit vipers, with an opening on each side of the head and (in daylight) eyes with catlike, vertical pupils (our nonvenomous snakes have round pupils).

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Photo of a plains gartersnake taken in Lakewood, Colorado.
Thamnophis radix

An attractive, medium-sized snake of wet meadows and marshes, the plains gartersnake spends warm summer days basking in the sun or searching for food. Winters are spent underground, probably in abandoned rodent tunnels.

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