Identifying Snakes in California

Identifying Snakes in CaliforniaMany species of snakes inhabit the state of California. Identifying these snakes can be difficult. However, by knowing what to look for in terms of a snake's color, habitat, size and behavior you can successfully use a field guide or online reference to correctly identify the reptile. (Pictured: Santa Cruz Gartersnake in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California)


Difficulty: Challenging

How to:

Things You’ll Need:
  • Field guide to snakes of California
  • Notebook
  • Pencil
  • Camera
Step 1
Take particular note of the color patterns of the snake. Look for stripes on its body, bands of colors, spots and irregular blotches. For example, California has several species of garter snakes that each have stripes running the length of their body. By differentiating the colors and patterns of these stripes, it is possible to name the snake.
Step 2
Use the snake's habitat to help identify it. Many ecosystems exist in a state as large as California, with mountainous terrain, deserts, forested regions, waterways and grasslands just to name a few. Certain species only exist in certain habitats, such as the spotted leaf-nosed snake, which lives only in sandy or gravel-strewn deserts.
Step 3
Employ range maps to narrow down what species a snake may be. In California there are very few snakes that are found throughout the entire state, again because of its great size. For instance, the southern rubber boa only occurs in certain areas, all of which are in southern California.
Step 4
Observe the features of the snake such as the thickness, the shape of its head, its length, and whether it has a sleek look or a dull one. These features are what separate species from each other. For example, the California king snake has a shiny appearance and a head that is only slightly wider than its neck.
Step 5
Remember that there are only six venomous snakes in California, and all are members of the rattlesnake family. These snakes are characterized by oval-shaped pupils in the eyes, triangular heads, a thick body and a rattle on the end of the tail. It uses the rattle to send out a vibrating warning when it feels threatened.
Step 6
Look at the behavior of the snake as an aid in identifying it. Many snakes are nocturnal, such as the Sonoran lyresnake, which searches rocky terrain for small lizards once the sun goes down. If you find this snake during the daylight hours it will almost always be hiding among the rocks and staying out of the California sun.

Tips & Warnings

When going in search of snakes take a notebook and pencil. You can also snap a picture for your records if the situation allows.


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