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Love them or loathe them, snakes are essential to the food chain

It's important to know the species of snakes in the area you will be hiking, as well as how to identify a venomous snake from a non-venomous snake.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Are they cute and cuddly? No, not really.

The source of fear? Yes, for many.

Essential to our ecosystem? Absolutely!

I am talking about snakes and whether you love them or loathe them, they are an essential part of the food chain.  

There are over 3,000 species of snakes in the world, and they are found on every continent except for Antarctica, as well as Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, and New Zealand. 

Of those 3,000 species, only 600 are venomous, and only 200 of those, or 7%, are able to harm or kill a human.  

With less than one-third of the entire snake species being venomous, more than likely the snake you see will be harmless, but with that said, it's important to know the species of snakes in the area you will be hiking and how to identify a venomous snake from a non-venomous snake.  

Apart from the coral snake, which resides in the southeast of the United States, here is what to look for.

  • Elliptical pupils (slit-like eyes, like a cat). Pit vipers have these slit pupils for better depth of field to attack their prey. Non-Venomous snakes will have round pupils.
  • Triangular and broad head. While all snakes have a triangular head, pit vipers have an overtly triangular head for the venom sacs on the side of cheeks. Non-venomous snakes have a more rounded head and nose.
  • Rattles tail. If the snake lifts and shakes or rattles its tail, that is a sure indication of a venomous snake. Copper snakes do not have a rattle, but they will shake the tip of the tail as a warning to move away.
  • Heat pit between the nose and eyes. Pit vipers have this heat pit so that they may hunt nocturnally. This heat pit can "see" in the black of night, allowing them to visualize their prey by seeing their body heat. Non-venomous snakes do not have this feature.
  • Single-line scales. Venomous snakes have a single row of scales on their underbelly just below their vent. Non-venomous snakes have a double row of scales. If a snake has shed its skin, turn it over and look at it. You can then tell if it is a venomous snake or not.

Venomous or not, snakes are not interested in you. You are not on their menu, and they are not looking for a fight.

They will only attack if they feel they are being attacked. Watch where you are walking, wear long pants and boots, and never handle a snake, even if you think it is dead.