CaliforniaHerps.com

A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California





Identifying California Snakes

 






California Snakes:

EASY IDENTIFICATION SOFTWARE

Computerized Keys to Identifying Snakes of North America.





observation link

 

This is not a scientific key to identifying snakes found in California. It is meant to be used as a basic tool for the novice who wants to identify a snake primarily by appearance and location.

Look Here First: Commonly Encountered California Snakes

(based on email sent to me asking me to help identify them.) There is a very good chance you'll find your snake here, and you can skip the rest of this section.

Keep in mind that many species are similar in appearance, and may be hard to tell apart. Also, any type of snake can vary in appearance, and our galleries do not show all variations of all species, so your snake might not match our pictures exactly. Also, snakes can 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.

Often we only see a part of a snake, which also may not be enough information. In these cases, noting the location, habitat, and behavior may be helpful. For a brief overview of pictures of all of California's snakes, check our California Snakes Photo Index.

There is always the slight chance that a snake you find may not be native, but an introduced animal, such as an escaped pet, and it will not be depicted here. 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.

There is also a chance that your snake is not a snake. See our list of animals sometimes mistaken for snakes below.
Important Observations


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.


Geographical Location

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.


Habitat

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.


Behavior

Note how the snake moves, and how fast it moves, if it is climbing, hissing, making a rattling sound.




General Categories

To make them easier to identify, all species of California snakse have been separated here into the following general categories based on overall appearance. Click on the link to move to that category.


Striped Horizontal stripes lengthwise on the body.

(Sometimes there are blotches between the stripes.)
Patternless Unmarked.

(Sometimes light shining on the scales creates a spotted or patterned appearance.)
Banded Bands circle the body or stop at the bottom of the sides.

(Sometimes the bands create the appearance of wedges or triangles.)
Patterned Botched, spotted, or saddled with dark and light markings - without stripes or bands.
Rattlesnakes Patterned with spots and saddles.
Usually with a rattle at the end of the tail.

(Sometimes the rattle is broken off. Juveniles only have one rattle segment.)
 



Animals, etc. that are sometimes mistaken for snakes

I have received email asking me to identify the following animals which were thought to be snakes.

The California Legless Lizard is a lizard with no legs, and it looks very much like a snake.Unlike a snake, it has eyelids.

The Horsehair Worm or Gordian Worm, is a long and
slender worm which is sometimes mistaken for a very thin snake.
Western Skinks, especially bright-blue tailed juveniles, often look like snakes when their legs are not seen as they are moving quickly through grass or leaf litter. Sometimes the blue tail is all that is noticed, and it is mistaken for a small shiny blue snake. The tail is easily broken off and when it breaks, it wriggles for several minutes, again, looking very much like a little blue snake.

© Allison Rowe

Land Planarian, genus Bipalium
also called
Bipalium
Hammerhead Worm
Arrowhead Worm

Land planarians are worm-like creatures with a flattened head that eat earthworms along with slugs, insect larvae and other land planarians. Native to tropical and subtropical regions, they have spread around the world in potted plants. They thrive in high heat and humidity, but they are enduring cold temperatures and spreading in much of the US. They move and feed mostly at night.

Slender Salamander - when its tiny legs are not seen, this salamander can be confused for a very small worm-like snake. The tail is also easily broken off, and a detached tail wriggles on the ground for several minutes, moving like a tiny snake.
Toy Snakes

I have received requests to identify pictures of small unusually colored snakes that the photographer thought was either dead or not moving. In each case it was a rubber or plastic toy snake. The toy snake shown to the left, was found beside a hiking trail, where it might have been left as a practical joke. The person who sent the picture to me for identification was afraid to get too close to the snake, so she was too far to see that it was not a real snake. From a distance some of these toys could fool almost anybody. (In West Texas, some practical-joke-loving snake hunters make fake snakes and put them up on road cuts to fool other snake hunters when they see it in their spotlight at night. Other herpers put out rubber snakes on roads or line up rocks to look likes snakes to make other night drivers stop.)


Encounters with dangerous snakes


Always be cautious of a snake if you don't know for certain that it is harmless.

Some snakes carry dangerous venom which can be harmful and even fatal to humans. (Most of us call these snakes poisonous, which is actually a mis-nomer, since they do not inflict harm when they are consumed. It is more accurate to label them venomous.) The only dangerously venomous native snakes found in California are the seasnake, which occurs in the ocean off souther California and is rarely encountered, and the rattlesnakes, which occur throughout the state and have a rattle on the end of the tail. However, be aware that sometimes the rattle may be missing or broken off. The bite of non-dangerously venomous snakes, such as the Lyre Snake, may also cause a minor reaction in some people. Non-venomous snakes can also cause minor injury by biting.

Snakes do not aggressively attack humans. They attack only in self-defense or when feeding. If you find a venomous snake, your best option is to leave it alone. For your own comfort and safety, and the well-being of the snake, try to avoid being bitten by any snake, including those that are non-venomous. If you want to have a dangerous snake removed from your property, contact someone in your area with experience in snake removal and re-location. There is no reasonable need to kill any snake that is encountered, which often occurs due to our instinctive and emotional fear of snakes. Snakes are a natural and necessary part of any healthy environment. They play an important role in the food chain, and can be especially beneficial to humans when they consume and control rodent populations.


Snake Removal

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.

 
Striped Snakes - Stripes along the length of the body

These are a few examples of striped snakes found in California. Not all types are shown here. Click on a picture to enlarge it for a better view. If a picture looks similar to the snake you want to identify, click on the link below the picture to get more information about that snake or the family of snakes to which it belongs. Look here if you need more help sorting out the striped snakes.
Common Gartersnake
Terrestrial Gartersnake
Aquatic Gartersnake
Striped California Kingsnake Racer or Whipsnake Sharp-tailed Snake
Gophersnake Yellow-bellied Sea Snake Rosy Boa
   
Patch-nosed Snake    
 
Patternless Snakes - The back is mostly plain, with no stripes or pattern.

These are a few examples of patternless snakes found in California. Not all types are shown here. Click on a picture to enlarge it for a better view. If a picture looks similar to the snake you want to identify, click on the link below the picture to get more information about that snake or the family of snakes to which it belongs. Look here if you need more help sorting out the patternless snakes.
Rubber Boa Juvenile Rubber Boa Sharp-tailed Snake
Racer Black-headed Snake Two-striped Gartersnake

Threadsnake or Blind Snake Ring-necked Snake
 
This is the rarest snake in California, known from only one museum specimen.  A good number of people have written to me telling they have found this snake out of range, but that, and the possiblity of a released pet, are very unlikely. Most likely it was another species of snake they saw. If you find a plain brownish snake, check the patternless snakes above, especially the Western Yellow-bellied Racer.
 
 
Banded Snakes - Bands circle the body.

These are a few examples of banded snakes found in California. Not all types are shown here. Look below at patterned snakes for some snakes that appear to have bands along with some pattern. Click on a picture to enlarge it for a better view. If a picture looks similar to the snake you want to identify, click on the link below the picture to get more information about that snake or the family of snakes to which it belongs. Before making your identification, be aware that many of the small banded snakes look alike. Look here if you need more help sorting out the banded snakes.
Shovel-nosed Snake Shovel-nosed Snake Shovel-nosed Snake
California Mountain Kingsnake California Kingsnake Ground Snake
Long-nosed Snake Long-nosed Snake (pale phase)
 
Patterned Snakes- Blotched, saddled, spotted, irregularly banded, with no rattle on the tail.

These are a few examples of patterned snakes found in California. Not all types are shown here. Click on a picture to enlarge it for a better view. If a picture looks similar to the snake you want to identify, click on the link below the picture to get more information about that snake or the family of snakes to which it belongs. Look here if you need more help sorting out the patterned snakes.
Glossy Snake Juvenile Western Racer Gopher Snake
Leaf-nosed Snake Leaf-nosed Snake Night Snake
Lyre Snake Coachwhip Aberrant California Kingsnake
 
Sierra Gartersnake Watersnake  
 
Rattlesnakes- Patterned, most often with a rattle on the tail.


These are a few examples of rattlesnakes found in California. Not all types are shown here. Click on a picture to enlarge it for a better view. If a picture looks similar to the snake you want to identify, click on the link below the picture to get more information about that snake or the family of snakes to which it belongs. Look here if you need more help sorting out California rattlesnakes.
Caution! These are all venomous and potentially harmful.
Sidewinder Speckled Rattlesnake Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
Red Diamond Rattlesnake Northern Mohave Rattlesnake Western Rattlesnake
Western Rattlesnake
A sign in the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum describing some
differrences between rattlesnakes and non-venomous snakes in California





Western Rattlesnake

Home Site Map About Us Identification Lists Maps Photos More Lists CA Snakes CA Lizards CA Turtles CA Salamanders CA Frogs
Contact Us Usage Resources Rattlesnakes Sounds Videos FieldHerping Yard Herps Behavior Herp Fun CA Regulations
Beyond CA All Herps


Return to the Top

 © 2000 -