Baby snakes are hard to identify

Eric and I were swimming one evening when I noticed a small stick floating in the corner of the pool. Upon closer inspection, it was no stick, but  an elongate limbless vertebrate in the group Serpentes (i.e., a snake!). Remember, all snakes can swim. And it was having a fine time in its little corner of the pool, but it seemed like a good idea to get it out, just so Eric wouldn’t wander over there and either get too excited or too scared.

I don’t have much experience with snakes, but I’m pretty sure it was a baby snake, not just one of the small species, for several reasons.

First, the body length is only about 12 inches.  As you can see in the full-body shot below, it fits easily into the deck drainage crack, which is only about 1/8 inch wide:

Second, as you can see from that picture, the tail is very long and skinny; no rattles, either. (Woo-hoo! We just ruled out 3 of the 30 or so Florida snake species!) To me, that means this snake hasn’t finished growing. Of course, I could easily be wrong here.

Third, in its threat displays, it tried very hard to bite me, despite having teeth too small to do any damage, and it never managed to get me, but it did put a healthy fear into me.

And fourth, I can’t find a picture of anything like this snake in my guides, and it’s well known that baby snakes often have vastly different markings from the adults.

Going through the identification steps suggested on one helpful website, we can classify this snake as having:

  • “typical” body shape (on the range slender—typical—stout)
  • “medium” head size (on the range “no neck”—medium—broad headed)
  • blotched markings
  • round pupils (therefore not a pit viper)

Unfortunately, there are quite a few typically shaped, medium-headed, blotched snakes with round pupils in Florida and the southeast, making identification quite a bit more difficult for the non-herpetologist like me. Despite the vague descriptions above, which might be incorrect, I have no idea what kind of snake this is; do you?

Here are a few more pictures:

The pool fence you see in the background looks inordinately large; to give you a sense of scale, the black trim on the bottom is a whopping one inch high, and the portion of the snake on top of the “grout line” in the deck surface is about 3 inches long.

This little guy did not show much gratitude for me “saving” it from the swimming pool (yes, I know snakes can swim and they can climb things that you wouldn’t think they can, but still…). Once it was on the deck, it wasted no time trying to strike at me. Here’s a head shot, showing its fierce disposition:

It’s a good thing I knew enough about snakes to know that this was not a venomous snake, but that didn’t stop me from being a little weirded out anyway. Something about snakes evokes some primal sense of unease, dating back to our distant ancestral past, I’m sure (almost all apes apparently react strongly to snake and snake-like objects). In fact, modern snake genera differentiated from the rest of the serpents over 20 million years ago; on the other hand, we hominins branched off from our common ancestor in the primate group less than 5 million years ago. So we’re probably pretty hard-wired to avoid snakes when we can.

Even dogs have this same response; expose a dog to a snake for the first time in its life, and it “knows” not to attack.

Even though fewer than 20% of advanced* snake species worldwide (and only 16% in Florida) can defend themselves with venom, it’s just not worth the risk to take on a bluffing threat display from an elongate limbless vertebrate.

All in all, I was just glad to get this aggressive little guy out of the pool and still have time to run inside and grab my camera, so maybe someone who knows more than I do can help me figure out what the heck it is.

*Biologists classify snakes into three groups: blindsnakes (300 species worldwide), two different basal groups (160 species between them worldwide), and the Colubridae, often called advanced snakes (all the rest). The basal snakes include the charismatic megafauna among Serpentes: pipesnakes, boas, pythons. One noted researcher characterizes their outsize appeal in these terms:

I can probably recall every individual basal snake among thousands of other serpents I’ve seen in the field.

This group’s popularity has of course led to some problems; here in the Everglades we have a potentially explosive population of Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) to deal with. The advanced snakes, the Colubridae, make up about 80% of the world’s snakes, so I’m sure there’s going to be some taxonomic shuffling soon; no grouping of nearly 2000 species is safe from splitting.


Ashton, R. E. (1988). Handbook of reptiles and amphibians of Florida, part 1: the snakes. 2nd ed. Miami: Windward.

Gibbons, W. (2005). Snakes of the southeast. Athens: U of Georgia P.

Greene, H.W. (2000). Snakes: the evolution of mystery in nature. Berkeley: U of California P.