This is not a scientific key to identifying snakes found in California. It is meant to be used as a basic tool for the novice who wants to identify a snake primarily by appearance and location.
Look Here First: Commonly Encountered California Snakes
(based on email sent to me asking me to help identify them.) There is a very good chance you'll find your snake here, and you can skip the rest of this section.
Keep in mind that many species are similar in appearance, and may be hard to tell apart. Also, any type of snake can vary in appearance, and our galleries do not show all variations of all species, so your snake might not match our pictures exactly. Also, snakes can 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.
Often we only see a part of a snake, which also may not be enough information. In these cases, noting the location, habitat, and behavior may be helpful. For a brief overview of pictures of all of California's snakes, check our California Snakes Photo Index
There is always the slight chance that a snake you find may not be native, but an introduced animal, such as an escaped pet, and it will not be depicted here. 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.
There is also a chance that 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 thrive in high heat and humidity, but they are enduring cold temperatures and spreading in much of the US. They move and feed mostly at night.
||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.
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 fake snakes and put them up on road cuts to fool other snake hunters when they see it in their spotlight at night. Other herpers put out rubber snakes on roads or line up rocks to look likes snakes to make other night drivers stop.)