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FAQ Main Page What Kind of Snake is it?

I see a snake – what kind is it and is it venomous?

Only 6 of the 45 snake species found in the Midwest are venomous. Venomous snakes of the Midwest include copperhead, cottonmouth, four rattlesnakes (timber, massassauga, pigmy, prairie). All of these species belong to the pit viper family (Viperidae). Several characteristics can be used to distinguish pit vipers from harmless snakes. All pit vipers have 1) elliptical, cat-like eye pupils; 2) broad, spade-shaped head; and 3) heat sensory pits between the nostril and eye. Of course, rattlesnakes will also have a tail rattle. Be careful, this distinction does not hold true everywhere in the country. For example, the venomous coral snake found in the southeastern United States is not a member of the pit viper family, and thus, lacks these characteristics.

More people die of lightening strikes than venomous snake bites in the U.S. every year. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (2002), about 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year, and about five of them die.

Snakes benefit us all in many ways. Chemicals in snake venom may help treat heart attacks, blood disorders, some brain injuries, strokes, and Alzheimer's disease. A chemical agent in copperhead venom shows promise in cancer treatments. Snakes provide us all with free pest control; many species of snakes eat garden slugs, mice, rats, moles, and voles. Snakes are also food for other wildlife.

Do young venomous snakes have venom? Young pit vipers have the same venom as adults although in less quantity and venom potency can vary among individuals and species. Treat all venomous snakes the same – with respect and caution.

Are some Midwestern snakes other than pit vipers “mildly” venomous? This is under debate among the scientific community. For example, some believe that hognose snakes are mildly venomous since bites have resulted in bad burning and swelling. One thing that is apparent is that reaction to snake bites varies individually. People have had bad reactions to the bites of other non-venomous species. The reaction may be due to bacterial infection or allergic reaction. More studies are needed to answer this question.

Can a bite from a venomous snake kill a person? There is no simple answer to this because venom toxicity varies by species and even individuals of the same species. The amount of venom delivered in a bite also varies among species and individuals of the same species. Studies have shown that age, nutritional status and time of year can affect venom potency. Remember, being bitten by a venomous snake is extremely rare. So much so, that many states don’t track the number of people bitten. Most of our venomous snakes are uncommon and typically inhabit areas away from people.

What should I do if a venomous snake bites me? If you are bitten by a venomous snake, the American Red Cross recommends you should:

  • Wash the bite with soap and water.
  • Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
  • Get medical help.

If you are bitten by a non venomous snake, wash the bite with soap and water. If you have doubts, seek medical help.

How can I avoid snakebites? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has several recommendations for avoiding bites.

  • Keep at a safe distance (body length of the snake) away from the snake and leave it alone.
  • Keep hands and feet out of areas you cant’ see.
  • Be cautious and alert when climbing rocks or fallen logs.

For information about snakes, their identification, and education activities, see:

Snakes of the Midwest



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