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Snakes: Characteristics & Types

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. She has a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. She is also certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

In this lesson, we'll be looking into the world of some of the most feared animals on Earth, snakes. We'll learn about some of the most common types and some interesting facts about these misunderstood creatures.

What Are Snakes?

Snakes are some of the most feared animals, up there with spiders and centipedes for many. Some people even suffer from ophidiophobia, an intense fear of snakes. This fear is not unfounded. Our bodies have evolved to fear animals that could potentially harm us, and some snakes certainly can be deadly. Snakes are an order of reptiles distinguished by their long, limbless body and elongated tails. There are more than 2,900 species of snakes, all different in their own way and far from the feared man-eaters we may see on television. Many snakes are non-venomous and are even kept as pets. Today, we're going to learn about some of the most interesting types of snakes and their characteristics.


A rattle can be a soothing toy for a baby, but when hiking in the desert, a rattling noise takes on a different feel. Rattlesnakes are known for their diamond-shaped heads and sand-like, triangle-patterned skin. Their rattles are made of proteins like our nails and hair. When vibrated, the rattle gives off the characteristic hissing noise. This is meant to deter predators and give warning of a strike. Rattlesnakes are versatile, and although they are characteristic of the desert, they live all over North and South America in deserts, forests, swamps, and even high altitudes. Not all rattlesnakes are large. The Colorado desert sidewinder is only about two feet long and is named for its unique motion, swaying side to side across the sand.

A Colorado desert sidewinder blends in perfectly with the sand.
Colorado desert sidewinder


In the trees of sub-Saharan Africa in the forests and savannas live the graceful mambas. Mambas are slender snakes that are highly venomous. The black mamba is famed for its silver scales and contrasting black mouth. Black mambas grow up to 14 feet long and are quite fast, moving up to 12.5 miles per hour. That's faster than most humans can run!

Black mambas are some of the most venomous snakes.
black mamba

They can be found on the ground in rocky areas. Although they will not seek out humans to attack, human development is encroaching on their habitats, putting mambas in greater contact with people, leading to more aggressive encounters. Green mambas are less aggressive and smaller than black mambas. They are mostly found in the trees.


Walking through the crowded streets of India, you are likely to see traditionally dressed men sitting in front of a woven basket. As the men play the flute and tap the open basket, a cobra springs out. Snake charmers like this have been a staple in Indian folk art. The swaying motion of the charmer and the music are supposed to put the threatened cobra into a trance, preventing it from attacking its aggressor.

An Indian man charms a cobra snake.
snake charmer

Cobras are large, venomous snakes found in India, southeast and southern Asia, and Africa. One of the most impressive cobras is the king cobra. Growing up to 18 feet long, king cobras are the largest venomous snakes. When threatened they can raise one third of their body up from the ground, towering as tall as a grown man. These snakes are especially interesting as they only feed on other snakes, sometimes even other king cobras!


Not all snakes prefer a life on land. Anacondas are water loving snakes native to the tropical forests of South America. These snakes are constrictors, meaning that unlike the other snakes we've seen, they are not venomous but rather suffocate their prey by curling around it and literally squeezing the life out of it. But, don't think that a bite wouldn't be painful. Anacondas have sharp rows of teeth that curve backwards, preventing prey from pulling away.

Anacondas are adept swimmers in South American rivers.

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