Common Snake Terminology

We understand that if you are beginner to the snake world, some terms will sound like medical jargon. It may sound like military code, or even Greek. We decided to make this a running post of terms you may come across. Hopefully this helps!

Feel free to contact us on the contact form so we can edit as the blog grows

Ackie: acanthuris, as in Varanus

Aglyphic: snakes that do not have fangs for venom delivery.

Allele: one of two or more possible different forms of a particular gene.

Amelanistic: lacking melanin or black pigment

Anal plate: a modified ventral scale that covers covers and protects the vent (see vent). May be one scale in snakes possessing a single anal plate or two scales side by side in those snakes possessing a divided anal plate. The feature is useful in identifying snakes.

Anerythristic: lacking red pigment.

Arboreal: living in the trees. An animal that spends most of its time off the ground in the limbs of trees.

Axanthic: lacking yellow pigment

Bask: to lie in a warm area, as under a heat lamp or in the sun, in order to absorb heat.

Binomial: a scientific name comprised of two parts, genus and species. Ex. Crotalus adamanteus. Crotalus is the genus for Rattlesnakes and adamanteus is the species name for the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake.

Boar: A term sometimes used to refer to a male animal, occasionally used in reference to reptiles, especially Indigo Snakes.

Boid: snakes belonging to the family Boidae. It includes all of the boas and pythons.

Brumation: “cooling” a herp by lowering its temperature for usually 2 to 4 months to approximate conditions during the winter period. This is not the true hibernation of mammals. Brumation triggers the physical changes that stimulate egg production in females, sperm production in males and the breeding response necessary for successful captive propagation.

Burrow: to dig underground for shelter or for the purpose of concealment or hunting for food. The tunnel created by a burrowing animal.

Cannibal, Cannibalistic: an animal that feeds on others of its own kind.

Caudal: referring to the tail.

Class: a taxonomic category for a group of related animals or plants that share common characteristics. This category is between phylum and order.

Cloaca: the common terminal chamber for the intestinal and urogenital systems. Urinary and intestinal wastes collect here before passing out of the body. Eggs pass out of the oviduct through the cloaca when being laid. The cloaca terminates at an opening named the vent.

Clutch: a group of eggs laid by a reptile or bird.

Codominant: a mutant gene that changes the phenotype from normal when at least one mutant gene is present. The phenotype of a heterozygous individual is NOT the same as that of a homozygous individual. (See also dominant, recessive)

Colubrid: a snake belonging to the family Colubridae. The common snakes, including King Snakes, Rat Snakes, Garter Snakes, Indigo Snakes, etc. The vast majority of these snakes are harmless to humans, but there also exists a subfamily of Colubrid snakes, the Boigid snakes, which are rear-fanged and venomous. The venom ranges in toxicity level from mild to extremely toxic. A gland called the Duvernoy’s Gland produces the venom of these snakes.

Cool: brumate. To “cool” an animal is to place it in Brumation.

Crotalid: a venomous snake belonging to the sub:family Crotalinae. Pit vipers. These snakes have heat sensitive pits on the face and fangs in the front of the upper jaw that fold up against the roof of the mouth. Includes Cottonmouths, Copperheads, Rattlesnakes, Cantils, South American pit vipers and Asian pit vipers.

Dimorphism: having two forms. Sexual dimorphism means that the females and males are different in appearance. Dimorphism is a special case of polymorphism, in which a species has more than one form.

Disecdysis: some or all of the old skin did not shed off as it should have.

Diurnal: active during the day.

Dominant: a mutant gene that changes the phenotype from normal when at least one mutant gene is present. The phenotype of a heterozygous individual is the same as that of a homozygous individual.

Double clutch: to induce a snake to lay eggs twice in one season.

Double heterozygous (Double het): being heterozygous for two independent mutant genes, such as albino and anerythristic.

Drop: to lay eggs, or in the case of a live:bearing snake, to give birth.

Dry bite: a bite by a venomous snake in which no venom is delivered.

Duvernoy’s Gland: a modified saliva gland that produces a type of venom in Colubrid snakes, varying in toxicity from very mild to extremely toxic depending on species.

Ecdysis: shedding of the skin.

Elapid: venomous snakes with fixed front fangs and usually strongly neurotoxic venom. Includes Cobras, Mambas, Kraits, Coral Snakes, Sea Snakes, Taipans, Tiger Snakes, etc. From the family Elapidae.

Endoparasite: parasites of the circulatory, digestive or pulmonary systems of reptiles. These include a variety of round worms, tapeworms, flukes, and protozoans. (See Ectoparasite)

Envenomation: the act of delivering venom to a victim by a snake or other venomous animal. The condition of having been envenomated.

Estivation: the lowering of metabolic rate during hot periods or droughts.

Extinct: a species in which all living examples have died. A species that no longer exists in life.

Extirpate, Extirpated: a species that has been eliminated or no longer exists in a particular area where it was formerly found.

Family: a taxonomic category of related species between order and genus.

Filial: generations of progeny in a genetic breeding project. Unrelated animals in the parental (P) generation are mated to produce the first filial (F1) generation. Two F1 individuals are mated (brother x sister) to produce the second filial (F2) generation.

Force feed: to feed an animal by force. To use some mechanical means to deliver food to an animal’s stomach.

Genotype: the genetic code that produces a phenotype. The genes passed to subsequent generations.

Gestation: The development of an embryo inside a female animal until it is fully developed and ready for birth. Gestation period: The period of egg development while the egg is still inside the female, before laying. The period of time it takes for an embryo to fully develop inside the female in live:bearing animals.

Glottis: the moveable stiff “tube” in the bottom of a snake’s mouth, which facilitates breathing while the snake is swallowing a prey animal.

Gravid: Female reptile which is carrying eggs.

Hemipenis: the organ used by a male snake to deposit sperm in the female. There are two hemipenis (plural is hemipenes) but only one can be used at a single time.

Herp: A slang term for any and all species of reptile and amphibian. It is much preferable to “herptile”.

Herper: A person who keeps, breeds, or collects reptiles or amphibians.

Heterozygous (Het): Having two different alleles of a particular gene in a gene pair.

Herbivorous, Herbivore: an animal that eats vegetation or plant matter.

Hide (Hiding box): reptile cage furnishing which provides a secure place for the animal to hide. A cardboard box, milk carton, orange juice jug are used for hides.

Homozygous: having two identical alleles for a particular gene in a gene pair (both genes are the same). The genes may be two wild type alleles, two identical dominant alleles…

Hook: A tool used for handling snakes, particularly venomous ones.

Hopper: A mouse 12-19 days old, after the eyes have opened but before weaning.

Hybrid: to herpers, the progeny from a breeding between two species of the same genus or between two genera. When used by non:herpers, it may also refer to the result of a man:made breeding between two subspecies or two inbred lines, as in hybrid corn. 

Impaction: a condition where a looped intestine or a plug of some foreign matter makes the animal unable to pass waste material through the intestine to the outside. Often a fatal condition. It is especially common in smaller animals that are kept on a substrate of sand or other small particulate matter, and caused by accidental ingestion of the substrate.

Incubate: to maintain eggs in conditions favorable to development and hatching.

Incubator: a device used to incubate eggs.

Inclusion Body Disease: A normally fatal and highly contagious disease seen primarily in Boas and Pythons in which symptoms include neurological impairment, “star:gazing”, respiratory disease, and regurgitation. The disease gets it’s name because of Cytoplasmic Inclusion Bodies seen in certain tissues of infected animals upon microscopic examination. Inclusion Body Disease is thought to be caused by a retrovirus. Also known as IBD.

Intergrade: 1. An animal that comes from an area where the ranges of two subspecies meet and that shows some characteristics of both subspecies. 2. A baby from a man:made mating of snakes belonging to two different subspecies. It would be desirable to use a term such as “subspecies cross” for the man:made mating to separate the two definitions.

Jacobson’s Organ: the olfactory organ in the roof of a snake or lizard’s mouth in which it inserts the tips of its tongue after sampling its surroundings. This organ is responsible for the senses of taste and smell.

Juvenile: a young animal, not yet sexually mature.

Labial pits: Heat:sensitive pits present on the lips of Boas and Pythons.

Lateral: on the side, as in the stripe along the side of a Garter Snake is called a Lateral Stripe.

Litter: the group of babies to which a live bearing snake gives birth.

Loreal Pit: Heat-sensitive pit located within the loreal scale on Pit Vipers.

Mental Groove: the groove in the skin along the midline of the lower jaw. It allows great expansion of the lower jaw during feeding.

Metabolic Bone Disease: A disease commonly seen in lizards and turtles that affects bone development resulting in malformed bones. It is normally caused by dietary or vitamin deficiencies.

Morph: usually refers to the different colorations and patterns produced by one mutation or a combination of mutations in a particular species. Snow Corns are one morph of Corn Snakes, and Motley Sunglow is another.

Mouth rot: see Stomatitis.

Musk: a foul smelling substance produced by scent glands in the base of the tail of some reptiles. Discharging musk out the vent may discourage an attacker.

Neonate: a newly hatched or newborn animal.

Neoteny, Neotenic: the characteristic of some salamanders of retaining larval features such as gills into adulthood.

Nocturnal: active at night.

Nuchal scute: the scutes, or scales, on a tortoise or turtle’s carapace located above the neck.

Ocular: referring to the eye. Ocular scales are those contacting the eye. They are divided into 4 groups, preoculars, supraoculars, suboculars, and postoculars.

Omnivorous, Omnivore: an animal that eats both plant and animal matter.

Opaque: used to describe the part of a snake’s shed cycle when its eyecaps are “cloudy”.

Ophidian Paramyxovirus: A highly contagious virus related to Hantavirus that infects snakes in captive collections and is usually fatal. It is most commonly seen in Viperid snakes, but has been reported in others recently. Also known as OPMV.

Ophiophagous: feeding on snakes.

Opisthoglyphic: rear:fanged snakes.

OPMV: see Ophidian Paramyxovirus

Pinkie: a baby rat or mouse in the first seven days of life before it begins to grow fur.

Pinkie Press: a trade name for a device designed to facilitate force:feeding reptiles.

Pip: The act, by a baby reptile or bird, of cutting it’s way out of the egg using a special egg tooth or caruncle.

Pit: A heat sensitive organ in Crotalid snakes and some Boids. In pit vipers (crotalids) it is located between the nostril and the eye. In boids there are several located on the lips.

Pop: to sex a snake by everting the hemipenes. Usually done on neonate snakes.

Postocular: the scales just behind the eye.

Prehensile: grasping. A prehensile tail describes a tail that is capable of grasping.

Preocular: the scales just forward of the eye.

Prey: an animal that is captured and eaten for food. To capture and eat an animal.

Probe: the tool used for sexing snakes, or the act of using a probe to sex a snake. It is usually made of surgical steel, is tapered and has a “ball:end” in most cases. There are various sizes for use on smaller or larger snakes. The probe is inserted through the vent to check for the presence of a hemipenis.

Proteroglyphic: snakes that have fixed front fangs. Elapid snakes are Proteroglyphic.

Recessive : a mutant gene that changes the phenotype from normal only when two identical mutant genes are present. When a recessive mutant gene is paired with a normal gene, the animal looks normal.

Regurgitate: vomit. In reptiles, to bring partially digested food items back up from the stomach and out of the mouth. Usually caused by some irritation of the stomach by parasites or bacterial or viral infections, or by temperatures that are too high or too low.

Reptilia: the taxonomic class of vertebrates that includes snakes, lizards, turtles, tortoises and crocodilians. The reptiles.

Restraining tube: a plastic tube normally used for the purpose of restraining venomous snakes so that medical procedures, etc. can be safely performed.

Retained eyecap: a condition in which a snake fails to shed the transparent skin structure that covers each eye along with the rest of his skin.

Rostral: referring to the tip of the snout. The scale on the end of a snake’s snout is the rostral scute.

Rough: a term used to describe reptiles that have keeled scales.

Scale clip: to mark a reptile for later identification by clipping scales in a particular pattern.

Scute: an enlarged scale, especially in turtles, tortoises and crocodilians. The large scales on the head and venter of snakes are also sometimes referred to as a scute.

Shed: a skin that has been shed by a reptile. See also, Ecdysis.

Smooth: a term used to describe a reptile that has smooth scales.

Smooth scale: a scale that has no median ridge. Smooth scales give a reptile a glossy, shiny appearance and a smooth feel.

Spur: a small appendage located on either side of the vent in Boas and Pythons. Vestigial hindlimbs. It is more pronounced in males.

Solenoglyph: a solenoglyphic snake. A venomous snake that has moveable fangs, which fold up against the roof of the mouth when not in use. Viperid and Crotalid snakes are solenoglyphic.

Subcaudal: referring to the underside of the tail.

Subocular: scales just below the eye and above the Supralabial scales, in between the lip and the eye, as in Trans:Pecos Rat Snake. Not present in all snakes.

Subspecies: a taxonomic division of a species into geographic races.

Substrate: material used to cover the bottom of a cage. Newspaper, bark chips, Aspen chips, Cypress mulch and sand are commonly used substrates.

Supralabial: the scales on the upper lip.

Supraocular: the scales just above the eye.

Sympatric: species that occur within the same geographic range without interbreeding.

Taxonomy: the systematic naming of animals and plants. The scientific name of a plant or an animal.

Terrestrial: living on the ground. An animal that spends most of it’s time on the ground.

Thermal gradient: a gradual change in temperature from one part of a cage to another.

Thermoregulate: moving from a warm area to a cooler one or vice:versa in order to regulate body temperature.

Tongs: A tool for handling venomous snakes. A handle of varying length with a lever at one end that is connected by a cable to jaws at the other end. The jaws are for gripping the snake’s body while keeping the animal a safe distance from the handler.

Triad: a group of three rings, usually red, white (or yellow) and black, encircling (or nearly so) the body of a snake and repeating for the length of the body, usually Coral Snakes, milk snakes and mountain kingsnakes.

Tri:color: refers to the pattern of rings comprised of three colors, usually red, white(or yellow) and black found on Coral Snakes, milk snakes and mountain kingsnakes. These snakes are sometimes referred to as “Tri:colors”. 

Tube: 1. a tube used for tube:feeding. 2. a tube used to restrain a snake. 3. to place a snake inside a restraining tube. 4. to feed a snake by use of a tube. 


Venom: a toxic compound secreted by some animals for the purpose of defense or obtaining prey. 


Venom Gland: a modified saliva gland, located at the back of the upper jaw in venomous snakes, which produces the venom. The venom moves from the gland to the fangs via the venom duct. Venom glands are present in Crotalid, Viperid and Elapid snakes.

Venemoid: a naturally venomous snake that has been surgically rendered non:venomous.

Vent: the opening at the end of the cloaca (see Cloaca) where urinary waste, intestinal waste, and eggs leave a herp’s body. Externally, it is usually on the herp’s underside and marks the end of the body and beginning of the tail, if there is a tail.

Venter, Ventral: pertaining to the belly of an animal.

Ventral scales: belly scales

Viperid: snakes belonging to the subfamily of true vipers, Viperinae. These snakes have fangs in the front of the upper jaw that fold up against the roof of the mouth, like crotalids. But they lack the crotalids’ heat sensitive pits. Examples include the Gaboon viper, puff adder, European viper, and others.

Viviparous: bearing live young instead of laying eggs.

Wild type: 1. The most common phenotype in the wild population. 2. The genes required to produce the wild type phenotype. 3. The standard or normal allele for each location (locus) in the genome.

Xanthic: yellow or orange in color.