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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 are elliptical, often appearing 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.
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.
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.
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 maintaining ponds on your Missouri property.
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.