Poisonous snakes are some of the most feared creatures in the animal kingdom, but depending on where you live, you’re unlikely to ever encounter one. It’s estimated that around 85% of all snake species in the world are non-poisonous and, for the most part, completely harmless. Many of them serve a beneficial role by keeping vermin populations in check. There are a few easy ways to tell the difference. Poisonous snakes tend to have black vertical pupils, triangular-shaped heads, and two pits near the snout (though some non-poisonous snakes will mimic this appearance to deter predators).
It’s important to note that, at least in biological terms, venom and poison mean different things. Poisonous snakes tend to create their toxins, whereas poisonous snakes accumulate toxins from other sources such as their diets or environment. This article will cover some important facts about the most fascinating non-venomous and non-poisonous snakes in the world. Surprisingly, one name doesn’t make this list: the garter snake, which does have tiny amounts of venom, though not enough to harm a human.
#9: Green Snakes
The green snake is a genus of common non-venomous and non-poisonous snakes that thrives in habitats as diverse as marshes, meadows, and woods throughout the United States and down to Mexico. It is generally divided into two different species: the smooth green snake and the rough green snake (a few Asian species, also called green snakes, are closely related but belong to a separate genus). The main difference between them, as the name implies, is the arrangement of scales along the back. The smooth green snake has smoother scales, while the rough green snake has rough, keeled scales with a ridge running along the length of the body.
This very thin, sinewy snake, which generally grows between one and four feet long, is completely harmless and unremarkable to humans. The bright green skin helps it to remain camouflaged from predators against the vegetation. If threatened, they would prefer to flee rather than fight, though it can emit a foul-smelling chemical. Green snakes move around their environment, hunting insects and spiders, by sensing vibrations along the ground.
#8: Gopher Snakes
Also known as the pine snake or bullsnake, this non-poisonous snake is a genus of seven different species that also thrives in many different habitats across North America, including forests, deserts, prairies, shrublands, agricultural fields, and rocky bluffs. Many species of gopher snakes can measure anywhere between three and eight feet in size. They often have a yellow or pale body with dark brown or black patterns along the top and side to aid with identification.
When threatened, the gopher snake is particularly known for producing a hoarse hissing sound. It also can curl up its body and vibrate its tail in the manner of a rattlesnake to fool potential predators. But in general, these snakes are quite harmless. Gopher snakes like to feed upon rodents, birds, eggs, lizards, and gophers by constricting the prey’s lungs.
The racer is a very diverse group of snakes found throughout the tropical and temperate Americas. The most common of these species is the eastern racer, which prefers grasslands, swamps, and even suburbs throughout the United States. It can be identified by the long and thin body with a dark back and lighter colored belly (the blue racer, tan racer, and black racer subspecies are all named for the colors of their body). Most adults measure somewhere between two and four feet long, but some especially large females can reach five feet or more in size.
The term racer may refer to their very fast and agile movements when they spot a potential predator. They are also surprisingly good tree climbers so they can raid bird nests for eggs and young hatchlings with ease. Most prey items are simply swallowed whole. The diet consists mostly of rodents, lizards, amphibians, and other snakes.
#6: Hognose Snakes
Native to sandy or semi-arid habitats through North America (though some closely related species are also found in South America), the hognose can be identified most of all by the pointed and upturned snout, which allows it to dig in loose soil, possibly in search of food. Lizards and rodents are the most important components of its diet, but the eastern hognose specifically is specialized for eating toads.
The body colors of the hognose can run the gamut between tan, black, brown, gray, olive, and even orange and red. When threatened, the hognose may attempt to head-butt its opponent without actually biting. Another one of the amazing facts is that it can roll onto its back and play dead with its tongue hanging out; the effect is conveyed by the emission of a foul-smelling substance that mimics dead animals. While the eastern hognose does produce a toxic substance that may be harmful to toads, it’s generally considered to be non-venomous to humans.
#5: Rat Snakes
Rat snakes are a group of medium to large constricting snakes found all over the world. The eastern rat snakes, Texas rat snakes, and yellow rat snakes are probably the best-known species in North America. As the name suggests, they feed primarily on rodents. When threatened, they can vibrate their tail in an attempt to mimic the far more dangerous rattlesnakes and fool potential predators. However, despite their fairly large size, rat snakes are considered to be fairly harmless to people. Some of these species are downright docile. The corn snake, which can measure up to six feet long, is one of the most popular reptiles in the pet trade.
#4: Indigo Snakes
Clad in a dark bluish-black sheen, the indigo snake is native to the southeastern United States, Central America, and South America. The scale color makes identification very easy. About five species are recognized, but the eastern indigo snake is probably the best known. It is also, by all accounts, the largest snake species in all of North America, potentially measuring up to 9.2 feet long. The eastern indigo can be found residing in scrubs, hardwood or flatwood forests, prairies, coastal dunes, and freshwater marshes and ponds, but numbers have fallen in some areas due to habitat loss, accidents, and hunting. It eats all kinds of different prey, including rodents, turtles, lizards, and small birds and their eggs.
The kingsnake is a family of about 10 species, measuring anywhere between just one and seven feet long. They are among the most common snakes in all of North America, residing in river valleys, woodlands, fields, hillsides, rocky outcrops, and pine forests. They vary dramatically in color scheme and patterns, which makes identification difficult, but they generally tend to have some kind of dark rings or bands along the body. For this reason, it’s easy to accidentally mistake some of these species for the venomous coral snake. But in fact, kingsnakes kill and eat other venomous snakes, including rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. Their amazing resilience to toxins enables them to survive these dangerous encounters safely. They also consume lizards, rodents, birds, and eggs.
The boa is a family of large tropical snakes found mostly in South America, Africa, and southern Asia. While the boa constrictor and green anaconda are the best-known species, all 49 members of this family kill their prey through constriction. By wrapping their coils around it, the prey will eventually succumb to asphyxiation. Their preferred hunting strategy is to sit and wait for the prey to pass by so they can ambush it. Rodents, bats, monkeys, pigs, and deer are all major components of their diet. One of the most amazing facts is that the jaws can open remarkably wide to consume a whole animal at once. It then takes them several days to digest the food. While they’re generally not as large as pythons, some boas have been known to grow at least 18 feet.
The python is a family of non-poisonous snakes hailing from Africa, Asia, and Australia. As ambush predators, they remain motionless and camouflaged among dense foliage and then strike out at passing prey. The sharp, backward-curved teeth, arranged into four rows on the upper jaw and two rows on the lower jaw, serve to keep the prey held in place while the body is slowly constricted.
This family takes the crown for the largest snakes in the world. The reticulated python can grow up to 30 feet long. Many species have very elaborate colors for camouflage and additional heat-sensing pits on the face (like venomous snakes) to help them find warm-blooded prey. Smaller pythons tend to eat rodents, lizards, and birds, while larger species can consume pigs, antelope, and monkeys. Popular in the exotic pet trade, Burmese pythons escaped or were released into the Florida everglades in the 1990s, where it has decimated several local species.
Next Up: How Many Legs Does A Butterfly Have?
Discover the "Monster" Snake 5X Bigger than an Anaconda
Every day A-Z Animals sends out some of the most incredible facts in the world from our free newsletter. Want to discover the 10 most beautiful snakes in the world, a "snake island" where you're never more than 3 feet from danger, or a "monster" snake 5X larger than an anaconda? Then sign up right now and you'll start receiving our daily newsletter absolutely free.