This is not a scientific key to identifying snakes found in California. It is meant to be used as a basic tool for non-experts who want to identify a snake primarily by appearance and location.
Look Here First: Commonly Encountered California Snakes
(This list is based largely on emails that have been sent to me over the years asking me to help identify various species of snakes.) There is an excellent chance you'll find your snake here, and you can skip the rest of this section.
For a brief overview of pictures of all of California's snakes
, check our California Snakes Photo Index
Keep in mind that many species of snakes are similar in appearance
, and may be hard to tell apart.
Any species of snake can vary in appearance
, and our galleries do not show all possible variations of all species, so your snake might not match our pictures exactly. Snakes of the same species don't always have the exact same color and pattern, though they do look similar, so you need to also consider the body shape, the size, and the behavior of the snake. There can even be several color and pattern variations within one litter, so you can't always use only those characteristics to identify them. The camera can sometimes change the color, too, depending on the light and the color of the background.
Snakes can also look much different in motion
than they do in still photos (where they are usually coiled up to fit in the picture.) When snakes move, the pattern and colors often blend together making them difficult to observe accurately.
Often we only see a part of a snake, which may not be enough information to identify it. In these cases, noting the location, habitat, and behavior may be helpful.
There is always the slight chance that a snake you find may not be a native species or a known established alien species, it might be a feral pet,
which is not depicted in this identification section. If you cannot find a snake here, you can also look at our page of Escaped Pets
which lists some common pet herps which have been reported to me as found in the wild in California.
Maybe your snake is not a snake
. See our list of animals sometimes mistaken for snakes below.
Important Observations To Make
There are several observations you can make that will help you to identify a California snake.
Color and Pattern
Note the color and pattern - whether there are bands, stripes, blotches, spots, or the snake is plain in color.
Remember that the appearance of most snakes will change when they are moving, especially if they are moving quickly.The pattern will blur and your impression of the animal will not be accurate enough to identify it by appearance alone.
Many snakes occur only in certain parts of the state. Check our California Snakes Range maps
page to find out what snakes occur in your general area.
Note where the snake occurs - desert, forest, mountains, marsh, in water, grassland, etc. Many snakes have a preferred type of habitat within their range.
Size, Shape, and Texture
Look at the body and head - is the body slim and round or heavy and thick, and is there an obvious neck setting off the head from the body. Note if the scales are small and smooth and shiny, or large and dull.
Note how the snake moves, and how fast it moves, if it is climbing, hissing, making a rattling sound, and whether it is active during the day or at night.
Animals and objects that are sometimes mistaken for snakes
I have received email asking me to identify the following animals and objects which were thought to be snakes.
||The Legless Lizard is a lizard with no legs, and it looks very much like a snake.Unlike a snake, it has eyelids.
||The Horsehair Worm or Gordian Worm (Nematomorpha or Gordiacea)
is a long very slender worm that is usually found in water. They are sometimes mistaken for a very thin snake. There are no snakes as thin as these worms except for small blind snakes or thread snakes and they only ocur in the southern part of the state and are not usually found in water.
||Western Skinks, especially bright-blue tailed juveniles, often look like snakes when their legs are not seen as they are moving quickly through grass or leaf litter. Sometimes the blue tail is all that is noticed, and it is mistaken for a small shiny blue snake. The tail is easily broken off and when it breaks, it wriggles for several minutes, again, looking very much like a little blue snake.
© Allison Rowe
Land planarians are worm-like creatures with a flattened head that eat earthworms along with slugs, insect larvae and other land planarians. Native to tropical and subtropical regions, they have spread around the world in potted plants. They move and feed mostly at night. They thrive in high heat and humidity, but they are enduring cold temperatures and spreading through much of the U.S. because they can reproduce by themselves.
||Slender Salamander - when its tiny legs are not seen, this salamander can be confused for a very small worm-like snake. The tail is also easily broken off, and a detached tail wriggles on the ground for several minutes, moving like a tiny snake.
||Alligator lizards sometimes tuck their legs along the sides of their body when they move or when they remain still. Sometimes people think they are looking at a snake when they don't see the legs sticking out.
||Toy Snakes and other Fakes
I have received requests to identify pictures of small unusually colored snakes that the photographer thought was either dead or not moving. In each case it was a rubber or plastic toy snake. The toy snake shown to the left, was found beside a hiking trail, where it might have been left as a practical joke. The person who sent the picture to me for identification was afraid to get too close to the snake, so she was too far to see that it was not a real snake. From a distance some of these toys could fool almost anybody.
(In West Texas, some practical-joke-loving snake hunters make their own fake snakes and put them in places that snake hunters search at night with spotlights to fool them. Other herpers put out rubber snakes on roads or line up rocks to look likes snakes to make other night drivers stop.)