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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Identifying snake sheds, part III

I noticed that a huge proportion of the hits on this site are for the posts about identifying snake sheds (parts I and II), which I expect is a result of people searching for a key or guide to use to ID a snake shed that they have seen or found. Even though there is some useful information in those other posts, they are written more like detective stories with a particular conclusion in mind, and they certainly aren't comprehensive.

Here, however, I've attempted to put together a more complete how-to guide on how to ID sheds of snakes found in the United States and Canada. One excellent free reference on this subject is an electronic pamphlet by Brian Gray called A Guide to the Reptiles of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Even if you don't live in Erie County, Brian's section on shed snake skins is a very useful guide to many of the common species found in the eastern United States, because it contains many excellent, high-resolution images of the scale characters, and it is organized as a dichotomous key: a series of questions, each with two choices, that inevitably leads to an identification (it's sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure book). Brian's more comprehensive book, The Serpent's Cast, is also an excellent resource, containing images of shed skins that have been painstakingly prepared for viewing the details of the scales necessary for identification to species. Although shed skins that you are trying to identify won't always be that cleanly preserved, often many of the identifying features are still visible.

From Cardwell 2011; viper (top) and colubrid (bottom)
The first thing that many readers will want to know will be whether or not the snake whose shed skin they have found is a venomous species. This distinction corresponds nicely with determining what family the snake is in. In most of North America, there are two families: Viperidae (vipers, which are venomous) and Colubridae (colubrids, which are not1). The easiest way to distinguish these two families by their shed skins is to locate the sub-caudal scales (the scales under the tail). Colubrids have a double row of scales under the tail, whereas vipers have a single row. This is a pretty invariant character, especially near the anterior part of the tail, and it can help you tell the family of the snake whose shed you've found every time. Coral snakes, which are in the family Elapidae, also have a double row of scales under the tail, but if you think you have found a coral snake shed, post a pic because that's an amazingly lucky find. More about these, and a few other options, later. First, colubrids:

Divided anal scale
Single anal scale
Once you have figured out the family, a second pair of characteristics can help you narrow down which genus of colubrid you might have. These are 1) the texture (smooth or keeled) of the dorsal scales (these are the relatively small scales that cover the snake's entire back and sides) and 2) the condition (single or divided) of the anal scale or anal plate (the scale covering the cloaca). Keeled dorsal scales have a ridge running down the center, whereas smooth dorsal scales have no ridge, like so:

Smooth (left) and keeled (right) dorsal scales
Using these characteristics in tandem should allow you to divide the colubrids in to four groups: single/smooth, divided/smooth, single/keeled, and divided/keeled. These are not taxonomic groups (that is, not all single/smooth snakes are each others' closest relatives), but they are useful for distinguishing genera of colubrids when all you have to go on is the shed skin. All North American vipers have keeled scales and a single anal scale, so these characters are less useful for distinguishing them, but more on these later. Most of the species of North American snake are colubrids (about 80%, or 105 of our 131 species). Here is a quick guide to the colubrids of the US and Canada, by dorsal and anal scale characteristics:

A few genera are split among multiple categories: Gyalopion because G. quadrangulare has a single anal scale whereas G. canum has a divided anal scale, and Opheodrys and Virginia because one species of each has keeled scales and the other has smooth (these are helpfully called Rough and Smooth Green and Earth Snakes, respectively). It's also worth noting that anal scales of Farancia are pretty variable, although your chances of finding a Farancia shed are slim (but see part I).

As you can see, we are using the process of elimination to narrow down the possible candidate species for your shed. A quick look at the range maps in a regional field guide will allow you to cross off about half the genera on the above list, depending on where you live, probably leaving you with 2-6 possibilities. The overall size of the shed can also be of help, although keep in mind that large snakes are born small and that snake sheds stretch somewhat as they are removed. Still, many of the snakes on the above chart reach adult sizes of only 12-24", so they could potentially be eliminated on the basis of size. Width of the ventral scales can help too, because it gives you an idea of body shape, and this does not change as much during the shedding process. However, at this point, the most useful thing to do next is to look at another scale meristic. One that can help you distinguish among the several genera within each group requires counting the dorsal scale rows. Dorsal scales are arranged in rows, the number of which can be counted from left to right, like so:

Three equally good ways to count dorsal scale rows (in C, scale 1 not shown). Modified from K. Jackson (2013)
You'll want to start with the first dorsal in contact with a ventral on one side and proceed over the back and down the other side so that the last scale counted is the dorsal scale in contact with a ventral on the other side of the snake. Although the conventional way (A) is for this to be the same ventral scale as the one your first dorsal scale row was in contact with (that is, count in a ‘V’ shape, as depicted above, so that you are counting all the scales associated developmentally with a single pair of ribs), you should get the same result even if your 'V' is asymmetrical (B), or even if you count in a straight line (C), which can be easier since you don't have to decide where to change direction on the 'V'. Often it doesn't matter, although it's worth noting that in some snakes the number of dorsal scale rows varies along the length of the snake. The best way to guard against this is to count a row in the middle of the body, which is the number meant if only one is given in most keys. More often, you will see numbers of dorsal scale rows given in the format “15-17-15”, indicating the number of dorsal scale rows at three places on the body (in order): the neck, midbody, and a bit (about one head length) before the cloaca.

In North America, you should almost always get odd numbers, and although these numbers can sometimes be fairly variable, combining them with decisions you made above based on the subcaudals, anal scale, dorsal texture, body size, and range should allow you to decide on a genus in almost 100% of cases. Here is a list of the dorsal scale formula ranges for the North American colubrids (remember, it's neck, midbody, and before the cloaca). Where ranges are given in parentheses, species within that genus have differing scale formulas. Where ranges are given without parentheses, there is regional or other variation within one or more of the species in that genus. In a few cases, only the scale row counts at midbody are given.

Knowledge of the number, shape, and relative size of the head scales is usually necessary to distinguish among species within a genus (for example, to tell a Scarlet Kingsnake from a Mole Kingsnake), and unfortunately many sheds are missing their heads or the heads are in poor condition. Other clues can be obtained from pattern, which is often visible in good light, and from counting the total number of subcaudal or ventral scales (impossible if you only have a partial shed). If you have taken your shed to genus and want to send me pictures of the head for help identifying it to species, feel free. I would recommend using your digital camera's macro setting (almost all cameras have one, the symbol is a little flower) to photograph snake sheds. You can also find details of the head scalation of all species of North American snakes in the book Snakes of the United States and Canada by Ernst & Ernst, and much of this information is available online as well. It's often helpful to keep the shed in a Ziploc bag for later reference. I like to write on the bag with a Sharpie the date, location, and tentative ID of the snake.


As I mentioned above, all North American vipers have single subcaudals, keeled dorsal scales, and a single anal scale, so these characters are less useful for distinguishing them from one another. However, there are only three genera: Agkistrodon (Copperheads and Cottonmouths), which have no rattles, and two genera of rattlesnakes, Crotalus (which have small scales on the tops of their heads) and Sistrurus (which have large scales on their heads). Telling the different species of Crotalus by their sheds could be tricky, but unless you live in Arizona, there are usually only one or two options in any given location in the US. Size and pattern could also be helpful. Feel free to share pictures (remember to use macro). Copperhead and Cottonmouth sheds can be hard to distinguish, but range, size, and habitat can help, as well as the presence or absence of a loreal scale (the scale on the face between but not in contact with either the eye or the nostril), which Copperheads have and Cottonmouths do not.

Micrurus fulvius
If you live in certain parts of the US, there are a few other snakes that aren't colubrids or viperids whose sheds you might find. One familiar group is the elapids, represented in North America by the Coral Snakes. One species is found in Arizona and New Mexico, and the other in the southeastern coastal plain from Texas to North Carolina. I have never seen a Coral Snake shed, but I would imagine that the highly contrasting, distinctly banded pattern would be easily visible. However, these can also be distinguished by their scale characteristics: Micrurus fulvius has smooth dorsal scales in 15 rows and a divided anal plate, and Micruroides euryxanthus has smooth dorsal scales in a 17-15-15 pattern with a divided anal plate. The other US elapid, the Yellow-bellied Sea Snake (Pelamis platurus, found in the Pacific Ocean off southern California) sheds at sea, so unless you are in very unusual circumstances the sheds will not be found. They have smooth scales with a 39-47, 44-67, 33-46 row formula and a divided anal plate.

Lichanura trivirgata
If you live in southern California or the intermountain west, there are two species of temperate boids, the Rubber (Charina) and Rosy (Lichanura) Boas, whose sheds you could find. Boa sheds are very different from those of other snakes. Boas have small, round dorsal scales that are very numerous - Charina and Lichanura have 32-53 and 33-49 dorsal scale rows, respectively, so you should be able to tell a boa shed by the small size and number of dorsal scales. Rubber Boas have blunt tails and specialized head scales, whereas Rosy Boas have long tails and unspecialized head scales, and their ranges do not overlap. If you live in southern Florida, you might find sheds of Boa Constrictors or Burmese Pythons, which you should be able to tell by their huge size, or any number of other exotic snakes (good luck with those).

Rena humilis
Finally, the southwestern US is home to several species of scolecophidian blindsnakes in the genera Rena and Leptotyphlops. These are tiny and have undifferentiated body scales, meaning that all scale rows around the entire body (including the underside) are the same width. They are iridescent and extremely difficult to count, which has given rise to one of my all-time favorite quotes from a scientific paper: "We castigate the ancient lineage that begat Liotyphlops, for it is obviously the worst designed snake from which to obtain systematic data" (Dixon & Kofron 1983). An additional species, Ramphotyphlops braminus, is introduced in Florida, Louisiana, and Hawaii, as well as in many other locations around the world (it's parthenogenetic and so a really good invader because it only takes one!). Blindsnakes shed their skins in a series of rings rather than in a single piece, and they are so small that any sheds found would be unlikely to belong to any other kind of snake and so fairly easy to identify.

Feel free to comment or email with questions or photographs. Happy herping!

1 I am making a distinction between North American snakes that are dangerously venomous to humans (vipers & coralsnakes) and those that aren't (colubrids). Although some species of colubrid snake possess deadly venom, such as boomslangs and twigsnakes, these are not native to North America. Other colubrids, including some North American species such as Hog-nosed Snakes (Heterodon), are venomous in the sense that their Duvernoy's gland secretions are toxic to their prey, but are harmless or nearly so to humans. For a very thorough discussion of this issue, check out the book "Venomous" Bites from Non-Venomous Snakes.


Thanks to Brian Gray, Jack Goldfarb, and JD Willson for their excellent photographs.


Cardwell MD (2011) Recognizing Dangerous Snakes in the United States and Canada: A Novel 3-Step Identification Method. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine 22:304-308. <link>

Dixon JR, Kofron CP (1983) The Central and South American anomalepid snakes of the genus Liotyphlops. Amphibia-Reptilia 4:2-4. <link>

Ernst CH, Ernst EM (2003) Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. <link>

Gray BS (2011) A Guide to the Reptiles of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Natural History Museum at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, Erie, Pennsylvania. <link>

Weinstein SA, Warrell DA, White J, Keyler DE (2011) "Venomous" Bites from Non-Venomous Snakes: A Critical Analysis of Risk and Management of "Colubrid" Snake Bites. Elsevier, Amsterdam. <link>

Creative Commons License

Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Brian G said...

Very nicely done! I look forward to reading more. I'm including a link to my Guide to the Shed Skins of the Snakes of Canada. Hope your readers find it of use.

Andrew Durso said...

Thanks Brian! Your work was what inspired this guide!

Brian G said...

Here's the updated link to the Canada Snakeskin Guide.

here2offend said...

I think I have your coral snake shed! It is high contrasted with smooth dorsal and divided anal plate. I have some pictures for you also.

Andrew Durso said...

Cool! Where are you located? Feel free to post photos here or email.

snhorne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Durso said...

@snhorne: I see you removed your comment but feel free to email me photos of the shed or send them to me over Facebook or Twitter if you still need help with ID.

Renee Roberts said...

How do I attach picture from my phone? Copy and paste?

Andrew Durso said...

I think it depends on your phone. You can also email me at amdurso@gmail.com