If you are ophidiophobic, you probably don’t want to hear that Florida is populated by nearly fifty different species of snakes, including six venomous varieties. But snakes are vital to the ecosystem. Thirty-five of these species, including four of the venomous species, thrive by eating rodents and amphibians bringing balance to the environment. Some eat various insects. There are also snakes in Florida that are harmful to the environment, invasive species like the Burmese Python. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates populations of Pythons to be in tens of thousands in the Everglades. About 1/3 of the population reports a fear of snakes, making ophidiophobia one of the most common phobias topping even arachnophobia (fear of spiders).
Common Florida Snakes (Non-Venomous)
There are certainly a significant number of snakes in Florida, but most of them are harmless. Likely the most common snake that people see in the Sunshine State are Garter Snakes. Mistakenly called “garden” snakes, two varieties exist in Florida. If the snake you see has yellow side stripes, you most likely have encountered an Eastern Garter Snake. If the stripes are blueish, and you are on the Gulf Coast, then you most likely have identified a Bluestripe Garter Snake. Garter snakes, like most snakes, are completely harmless. Snakes will generally only strike if threatened or disturbed. A garter snake diet consists mostly of worms, amphibians, fish, eggs, snails, and rodents.
If you catch a glimpse of what you think was a snake, the chances are that you probably spotted a racer. These fast-moving snakes can travel at 8-10 mph. It is a very anxious species and may be aggressive when encountered even if you attempt to leave it alone. It may strike out, bite or vibrate the tip of its tail, much like a rattlesnake (but without the signature rattle). It is non-venomous, but any bite by a wild animal, snake, or otherwise, should always be checked by a doctor. There are three varieties of racer snake in Florida, and you can easily identify them by color or location. If the racer you see you is an evenly colored blueish, greenish, or slate gray, you have encountered an Everglades Racer. This species is only found in the southern part of the Florida Everglades and near Cape Canaveral. If the snake is black with a brown chin and upper lip, and you are near the Apalachicola River drainage area, you have most likely spotted a Brownchin Racer snake. If the snake is black with a white chin and red or orange eyes, and you are anywhere else in Florida than the previously mentioned areas, then you have encountered the most common Southern Racer snake.
Corn snakes are also prevalent in Florida. These reptiles get their names from the old days when southern farmers stored harvested corn in wooden buildings called cribs. Rats and mice would come to snack on the ears of corn, and snakes would come to feed on the rodents. The Eastern Corn snake is widespread from Southern NJ to Florida and west to the Mississippi River. They are found in pinelands, swamps, agricultural fields, or residential areas. Anywhere there are rodents present, corn snakes are sure to follow. These snakes can be identified by their light orangish-brown coloring and bright orangish-red splotches, bordered with black. Their underbellies are usually a black and white checkerboard pattern. These snakes are both harmless and extremely common, but if you have encountered them more than once in a short time, you likely have a rodent problem nearby.
Rat Snakes are also a frequently encountered non-venomous snake, and several species exist in Florida. In the panhandle, west of the Apalachicola River, you’ll find the Gray Rat Snake. Its gray body with dark gray to black splotches will help you to identify this species. On the underbelly, the pattern continues but is lighter. These snakes often crossbreed with the Eastern Rat Snake in the Apalachicola region. East of the river and down to Key Largo, these snakes can vary considerably in color. From black and gray colorations to orange and reddish, even brown or golden colors occasionally present. Some will have stripes, others will display splotches, and some will show both splotches and stripes. They tend to be active at night and feed mainly on rodents, but also dine on lizards, frogs, birds, and their eggs. This snake is sometimes called a chicken snake because it will eat young chickens, chicks, and eggs.
While all Florida snakes are beneficial to the environment, helping to control populations of rodents, as well as insects, the Kingsnake and the Eastern Indigo should get honorable mentions. Both are non-venomous species, but actively seek out and consume venomous species. The Eastern Indigo is currently listed on the Endangered Species List, and none have had verified reporting in Florida since 1997. In areas where Kingsnake populations are declining, copperheads are booming. Currently, in Alabama and the Apalachicola River area of Florida, there are active Eastern Indigo replenishment programs in effect. Kingsnakes are unique in the fact that their blood contains a protein that makes them immune to the venom of poisonous snakes. Kingsnakes and Coral snakes are so similar in color that accidental killings may be a contributing factor in their decline. If the snake has a black nose, you can be confident it is a coral snake. This simple poem can help you differentiate between these two snakes:
Red touch yellow, kills a fellow
Red touches black, venom lack
Yellow touches red, soon you’ll be dead
Red touches black, friend of Jack.
Venomous Florida Snakes
Of all the snakes found in Florida, there are only six venomous species. These include the Eastern Coral, Dusky Pigmy, Cottonmouth, Southern Copperhead, Eastern Diamondback, and the Timber Rattlesnake. If you do not know whether a snake is venomous or not, the best and safest thing to do is to leave it alone. Most snakes are not aggressive and will not strike or bite unless provoked. If you are bitten and are unsure what kind of snake bit you, immediately seek out medical attention. The only cure for a venomous snake bite is to receive an antivenin. While seeking medical care, remove any jewelry or clothing that could restrict circulation around swollen tissue. Additionally, any area that is swelling should be kept below the level of the heart.
Their signature sound can quickly identify Eastern Diamondback and Timber Rattlesnakes. However, this rattle, located at the end of their tail can fall off, and will not grow back until the snake sheds its skin. A common misconception is that rattlesnakes will coil, hiss and rattle before they strike. This myth is not valid. The rattle is simply a warning for other animals to stay away. Still, if you disturb a rattlesnake without realizing it, it can and will strike without warning. The diamond pattern with a brown center and light cream colored borders can help you to identify Diamondbacks. These snakes are often confused with Timber Rattlesnakes because of their similar coloring. However, the Timber rattlesnake has a V-shaped pattern instead of the diamond pattern and a reddish-brown stripe running down the center of its back. Their body color is also lighter than an Eastern Diamondback, with a pinkish hue to it.
If you live in South Florida, you are pretty safe from the Southern Copperhead. This snake takes up residence around swamps, stream beds and river bottoms, especially around the Apalachicola River area. The eyes of the Copperhead are vertically slit and covered by a large scale. This physical trait helps the snake to hunt at night, but they also leave humans shuddering in their shoes. Some misinformation out there claims that you can tell a venomous snake by whether or not it has this type of eye. This distortion is 100% false. Many species, venomous and non-venomous alike, have these elliptical eyes. The Copperhead is a pale-colored snake with darker brown to reddish-brown crossbands. Along the backbone, constrictions give these bands an hourglass appearance. On the sides of the body, the crossbands will have a lighter appearance.
There are two species of Cottonmouth found in Florida. Often called Water Moccasins, these snakes are agile swimmers. They get their name from the white interior of their mouth. Most of these snakes reside in the panhandle of Florida, and northward into Georgia and Alabama. Eastern Cottonmouths can be found as far north as Virginia. The difference between the Eastern and the Florida versions are located on the snakes head. If the cheek stripe is well defined and has two vertical dark marks on the snout, you’ve found yourself a Florida Cottonmouth. If the cheek stripe is less defined and no markings appear on the nose, then you could have spotted an Eastern Cottonmouth.
While venomous snakes are dangerous for obvious reasons, other snakes pose problems to both humans and animals alike. Florida is home to a variety of invasive species that wreak havoc on the fragile ecosystem. Among the nearly 500 species of intrusive flora and fauna that has taken up residence, the Burmese Python is at the top of the list. Alligators and Cougars were at the top of the Florida food chain until the Python started reproducing here. The Burmese Python is a persistent problem in South Florida, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission holds an annual contest to help wrangle up this invasive species. This year’s Python Bowl brought 80 of these giants in, and winner Mike Kimmel was responsible for eight captures. Runner up Tom Rahill brought in two beasts, both the longest measuring 12’ 7.3” and the heaviest weighing 62 lb. The FWC encourages the public to report python sightings. They even offer a free program called Python Patrol to help individuals identify and, in some cases, capture and kill this invasive species. Find out about an upcoming class here.
What To Do When You See a Snake
The best and safest way to interact with a wild snake is not to. If you happen to see a snake, it is best to make a wide path around it. Snakes can strike at about 2/3 of their body length. That means a six-foot snake can lunge up to four feet to land a strike. Many snakes have pits or heat-seeking sensors between their eyes that help them to locate and land on prey. Most snakes are adverse to humans and will likely flee. There is no good reason to kill a snake as they are beneficial to the ecosystem. They help to keep rodent, insect, and amphibious populations under control. If you have frequent sightings of any type of snake, you are most likely also having a rodent problem nearby. Clearing up lawn debris or lumber piles will discourage both rodents and snakes. If you see a large snake, it is likely long gone the following day. Most sizeable snakes travel great distances for food and shelter. If a snake invades your home and you can, with certainty, identify it as a non-venomous snake, you can attempt to remove and relocate it yourself. Directions for removing non-venomous snakes can be found on the FWC website here, or you can call a professional who has been trained in the removal of snakes. If you’d like to learn more about identifying the various snakes of Florida, check out the Florida Museum Snake Identification Key here.
Florida Museum: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/herpetology/fl-snakes/list/
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: https://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/snakes/