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 plains hog-nosed snake
Heterodon nasicus nasicus

The plains hog-nosed snake differs from the eastern hog-nosed snake by having a sharply upturned snout and black pigment on the underside of the tail. This species has always been rare in Missouri and has probably been extirpated.

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prairie kingsnake
Lampropeltis calligaster calligaster

The prairie kingsnake is fairly common over most of the state. The overall color is tan, brownish-gray, or greenish-gray. Numerous dark blotches down the back and sides are brown, reddish, or greenish brown. It lives in prairies and open woods and on rocky, wooded hillsides.

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Image of a massasauga
Sistrurus tergeminus tergeminus

This shy, reclusive, nonaggressive rattlesnake used to live in floodplain wetlands of the Mississippi, Missouri and Grand rivers, but as those wetlands have been drained and destroyed, the massasauga has disappeared with them. Now it is an endangered species.

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Image of a prairie ring-necked snake
Diadophis punctatus arnyi

Prairie ring-necked snakes are easily recognizable by their small size, uniform dark color on the back, bright yellow-orange belly, and distinct yellow ring around the neck.

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Image of a red milksnake
Lampropeltis triangulum syspila

One of Missouri’s most beautifully colored snakes, the harmless red milksnake often is misidentified as the venomous coral snake, which is not found in Missouri.

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Image of a rough earthsnake
Virginia striatula

The rough earthsnake is a small, plain-looking snake of open, rocky woodlands in the Missouri Ozarks. They normally don’t exceed 10 inches in length.

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Image of a speckled kingsnake
Lampropeltis getula holbrooki

This handsome snake is generally black, but a white or yellow spot in the center of most of the scales makes it look speckled. The belly is yellowish with some irregular black markings. Like the rest of our kingsnakes, this species vibrates its tail when alarmed.

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Image of a timber rattlesnake
Crotalus horridus

Missouri’s largest venomous snake is dangerously venomous, but there are few cases of rattlesnake bites in our state. It frequents rough country, is mostly nocturnal in summer and few Missourians ever encounter it.

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Image of a variable groundsnake
Sonora semiannulata semiannulata

The variable groundsnake is a small species with smooth, shiny scales and highly variable coloration. In Missouri, it is restricted to open, rocky hillsides of the southwestern corner of the state.

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Image of a western cottonmouth
Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma

Many people mistakenly believe that any snake seen in or near the water is this venomous “water moccasin.” But there are seven species of nonvenomous, semi-aquatic snakes found in Missouri. Harmless watersnakes vastly outnumber the much-feared cottonmouths. All are protected by law.

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Image of a western foxsnake
Pantherophis vulpinus

The western foxsnake is a moderately large snake with distinct brown blotches. In Missouri, it now rare and is found only in far eastern, northeastern, and northwestern sections.

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Image of a western mudsnake
Farancia abacura reinwardtii

This harmless swamp dweller is sometimes called the “hoop snake” or the “stinging snake” based on misinformation and imaginative folklore. In the case of this snake, it turns out that fact is more interesting than fiction.

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Image of a western pygmy rattlesnake
Sistrurus miliarius streckeri

The western pygmy rattlesnake is small and colorful, with a slender tail and tiny rattle. The sound of the vibrating rattle is a faint buzz that is like the sound of a grasshopper. It’s found in some Missouri counties bordering with Arkansas and in the eastern Missouri Ozarks.

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Photo of a western ratsnake curled up in grasses under a fence.
Pantherophis obsoletus

The western blacksnake, a glossy “black snake,” is one of Missouri’s largest and most familiar snakes. Its size and dark color makes it seem imposing, but it is as harmless to humans as it is bad news for rodents!

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Image of a western smooth earthsnake
Virginia valeriae elegans

The western earthsnake is a small, slightly stout snake with a conical head. It is plain-colored, generally gray, light brown, or reddish brown, with no distinct markings. It is found statewide, except for the northwestern corner.

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Photo of a western wormsnake on a white background.
Carphophis vermis

The western wormsnake is a small, two-toned snake that lives in wooded areas or rocky hillsides. It is usually purplish brown above and salmon pink on the belly and lower sides. It is found statewide, except for the Mississippi Lowlands.

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Image of a yellow-bellied watersnake
Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster

The yellow-bellied watersnake is a medium-sized, heavy-bodied, dark-colored, semiaquatic snake with a plain yellow belly. It is found throughout southeastern Missouri and north along the Mississippi River floodplain.

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