There are 46 species of snakes in Florida and only 6 of them are venomous. These creatures play an important role in our Florida ecosystems. One described even eats venomous snakes and is a federally protected threatened species. Read on to learn about some of Florida’s most commonly confused snakes.
Many snakes have similar characteristics, making it difficult to differentiate between them. However, it is important to be able to accurately identify snakes for your own safety due to the fact that many venomous and non-venomous snakes look alike. Another reason accurate identification is important is that some management decisions depend on the presence or absence of certain species. This is especially true for species that are considered threatened or endangered.
Water Moccasins vs. Southern Water Snakes:
Water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus) are venomous snakes with thick bodies. They are dark in color with various banding on their bodies. Water moccasins have a dark, broad, band from their eyes to the corner of their mouth. Their heads are thick and blocky with vertical, or “slit” pupils, and a distinct neck. Although they are venomous, water moccasins will not attack humans unless they are threatened. They sometimes display their white mouths to scare off threats, earning them the common name of “cottonmouth”.
Cottonmouths can be found near the water in:
- Cypress swamps
- River floodplains
- Heavily-vegetated wetlands
Southern water snakes (Nerodia fasciata) are harmless snakes with slender bodies. They are also dark in color with various banding on their bodies. Their heads are dark brown with round pupils and have vertical lines along their lower jaw. As their name suggests, water snakes can also be found living in nearly all freshwater habitats such as:
Because both snakes are dark in color with various banding on their bodies, it can be difficult to distinguish between water moccasins and southern water snakes. Both snakes can be found in and around water feeding on fish and other small animals. The best way to tell these two snake species apart is by observing their heads and looking for the water moccasin’s distinct dark band. Another way to distinguish the two snakes is by their bodies. Water moccasins have very thick bodies, while southern water snakes have more slender bodies.
Coral Snakes vs. Scarlet Kingsnakes
Coral snakes (Micrurus fulvius) are venomous snakes with black, yellow, and red coloring. Coral snakes have narrow yellow rings separating wider red and black bands along its body. Sometimes, coral snakes have a dark splatter pattern, like spray paint, on the red bands. Coral snakes have round pupils and smooth scales. Coral snakes reside in a variety of different habitats such as:
- Dry flatwoods
- Wet hammocks
- Swamp boarders
Scarlet kingsnakes (Lampropeltis elapsoides) are harmless snakes with red, black, and yellow bands along their bodies. Scarlet kingsnakes have wide red bands separated by narrower black and yellow bands along its body. Scarlet kingsnakes have smooth scales and round pupils. They are quite abundant and can be found in:
- Hardwood hammocks
While it is possible to remember the color pattern of the coral snake and scarlet kingsnake, the best way to tell coral snakes amd scarlet kingsnakes apart is by observing their snout coloration.
A coral snake has a solid black snout but a scarlet kingsnakes has a red snout.
*We do not recommend using rhymes to remember harmless snakes from venomous snakes. The order of the snakes’ vibrantly colored band patterns can be easily confused.*
Juvenile Southern Black Racers vs. Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnakes
Adult southern black racers (Coluber constrictor priapus) are nearly solid black; however, juveniles are gray with reddish-brown blotches that fade into a solid colored tail. Juvenile southern black racers have very slender bodies with smooth scales. They also have round eye pupils.
Like the juvenile southern black racer, dusky pygmy rattlesnakes (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri) also have patterned bodies. Pygmy rattlers are venomous snakes with thick bodies and rough, dull scales. They also have vertical slit eye pupils. Pygmy rattlers often live near water sources such as creeks, marshes, and swamps. However, they are found in a variety of other habitats such as:
- Pine and scrub oak sandhills
- Scrub pinewoods
- Mixed pine and hardwood forests
- Longleaf pine-wiregrass forests
- Xeric (dry) uplands
Both the dusky pygmy rattlesnake and juvenile southern black racer are common in urban areas. These two snake species look very similar and are best observed from a distance due to the potential danger of the snake in question being a pygmy rattlesnake.
The best way to tell these species apart is to look at the head. The size of the eye on a juvenile eastern racer is significantly larger than the smaller eye size of the dusky pygmy rattlesnake. It should also be noted that the pupil shape of the dusky pygmy rattlesnake is difficult to see without use of binoculars due to the distinctive dark eye-band that runs along the side of the head. You will note this dark eye-band is absent on the juvenile eastern racer.
Mature Southern Black Racers vs. Eastern Indigo Snakes
Mature southern black racers (Coluber constrictor priapus) are black with white markings on their chins and throat.The bellies of black racers vary from grayish to black, and they have round pupils. Southern black racer snakes have slender bodies and smooth scales.
They are commonly found in:
- Hardwood hammocks
- Cypress stands
Eastern indigo snakes (Drymarchon couperi) are long, bluish-black snakes. They commonly have reddish or orange-brown chins and cheeks; however, they can also be white or black. Their bellies are black to cloudy blue-gray. Eastern indigo snakes have mostly smooth scales. However, adults have ridges, otherwise known as keels, on some of their scales. Eastern indigo snakes typically reside in:
- Pine flatwoods
- Hardwood forests
- Moist hammocks
- Areas surrounding cypress swamps
Although these snakes are often mistaken for one another, one way to tell the two apart is that southern black racers have distinctive white chins, while Eastern indigo snakes usually have reddish or orange-brown chins. Additionally, black racers are slender and fast moving. Eastern indigos are stockier and slower-moving.
Although these snakes are often mistaken for one another, it should be noted that Eastern indigo snakes are very rarely seen as they are classified as a Threatened species. Eastern racers on the other hand are one of the most commonly encountered black snakes.
Fun fact: Eastern indigo snakes will eat other snakes and most importantly, they will eat venomous species! They are North America’s largest native snake, growing up to eight feet long!
For More Information:
For more information on snake identification, please visit the University of Florida’s Florida Museum’s Division of Herpetology webpage.
If you would like to watch a webinar where I describe several varieties of snakes in Central Florida and talk about basic do’s and don’ts for snake emergencies, you can watch that webinar on youtube, here: https://youtu.be/cWQC1FKE1io
If you enjoyed this series and would like to read more about commonly confused plants and animals in Florida, you can find more here:
Originally Published: Apr. 2018
Last Updated: Jul. 2020
This blog post was written by Natural Resources Extension Program Intern, Ms. Paxton Evans, under the supervision of Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Agents, Mrs. Shannon Carnevale and Mrs. Lara Milligan.
University of Florida IFAS Extension is committed to diversity of people, thought and opinion, to inclusiveness and to equal opportunity.
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.