This is not a scientific key to identifying snakes found in California. It is meant to be used as a basic tool for non-experts who want to identify a snake primarily by appearance and location.
Look Here First: Commonly Encountered California Snakes (This list is based largely on emails that have been sent to me over the years asking me to help identify various species of snakes.) There is an excellent chance you'll find your snake here, and you can skip the rest of this section.
For a brief overview of pictures of all of California's snakes, check our California Snakes Photo Index.
Keep in mind that many species of snakes are similar in appearance, and may be hard to tell apart.
Any species of snake can vary in appearance, and our galleries do not show all possible variations of all species, so your snake might not match our pictures exactly. Snakes of the same species don't always have the exact same color and pattern, though they do look similar, so you need to also consider the body shape, the size, and the behavior of the snake. There can even be several color and pattern variations within one litter, so you can't always use only those characteristics to identify them. The camera can sometimes change the color, too, depending on the light and the color of the background.
Snakes can also look much different in motion than they do in still photos (where they are usually coiled up to fit in the picture.) When snakes move, the pattern and colors often blend together making them difficult to observe accurately.
Often we only see a part of a snake, which may not be enough information to identify it. In these cases, noting the location, habitat, and behavior may be helpful.
There is always the slight chance that a snake you find may not be a native species or a known established alien species, it might be a feral pet, which is not depicted in this identification section. If you cannot find a snake here, you can also look at our page of Escaped Pets which lists some common pet herps which have been reported to me as found in the wild in California.
Maybe your snake is not a snake. See our list of animals sometimes mistaken for snakes below.
Important Observations To Make
There are several observations you can make that will help you to identify a California snake.
Color and Pattern
Note the color and pattern - whether there are bands, stripes, blotches, spots, or the snake is plain in color.
Remember that the appearance of most snakes will change when they are moving, especially if they are moving quickly.The pattern will blur and your impression of the animal will not be accurate enough to identify it by appearance alone.
Many snakes occur only in certain parts of the state. Check our California Snakes Range maps page to find out what snakes occur in your general area.
Note where the snake occurs - desert, forest, mountains, marsh, in water, grassland, etc. Many snakes have a preferred type of habitat within their range.
Size, Shape, and Texture
Look at the body and head - is the body slim and round or heavy and thick, and is there an obvious neck setting off the head from the body. Note if the scales are small and smooth and shiny, or large and dull.
Note how the snake moves, and how fast it moves, if it is climbing, hissing, making a rattling sound, and whether it is active during the day or at night.
Animals and objects that are sometimes mistaken for snakes
To make them easier to identify, California snakes have been separated into the following general categories based on overall appearance. (There is some overlap between categories with some species, and some individuals have characteristics of more than one category - some may have stripes and blotches, or no pattern and one band, etc.)
When you determine to which category the snake you want to identify belongs, click on the link to look at snakes in that category.
I have received email asking me to identify the following animals and objects which were thought to be snakes.
Encounters with dangerous snakes
If you think you have a dangerous snake on you property, instead of trying to kill it, risking your own safety, and needlessly destroying an innocent wild animal, a better option is to have a professional come and catch and remove the snake. Some of them are free, but many of them charge a fee.
You can find information about venomous snake removal and relocation along with a good list of some of the venomous snake relocators in California at anapsid.org.
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