NC Cooperative Extension

Separating the Sinister from the Safe: Spider and Snakes

Separating the Sinister from the Safe: Spiders and Snakes

By Mary Helen Ferguson, Extension Agent, Horticulture 

Both spiders and snakes have come to my attention lately, and I want to address ways to distinguish potentially dangerous spiders and venomous snakes from ones that shouldn’t typically cause concern. 

You might have noticed I used some specific language in the previous sentence.  Most, if not all, spiders are “venomous,” meaning that the stuff they inject when they bite is toxic, to some extent.  However, most spiders are not typically harmful to humans—beyond, perhaps, bit of discomfort—even if they bite.  The black widow and brown recluse are exceptions. 

Black widow adult females, as you’re probably aware, have a red hourglass-like shape on their “belly” (the underside of the rear body segment).  [Some sources suggest that the hourglass-like marking can be yellow or orange, rather than red.]  What you may not know is that males and juvenile females have different coloration than do adult females.  According to NC State University’s Dept. of Entomology, “Young black widow spiders are tan-to-gray in color and have orange and white stripes on their abdomens. … The male spider is smaller than the female and, like young spiders, has red and white markings on the back of its abdomen” ( 

Since I’ve had this job, no one had brought me a spider that they thought was a black widow—I guess most people are confident that they’ve found a black widow when they see the hourglass, without asking.  On the other hand, several suspected brown recluses have been brought in, but none of the suspects turned out to be the real thing.  That isn’t surprising when you consider that, here in central North Carolina, we are east of the natural range of the brown recluse.  However, one can sometimes hitchhike in with materials that have been moved from other areas.  

Brown recluses have a fiddle-shape on their front section (cephalothorax, if you want the scientific term).  The part that resembles the neck of the fiddle points toward the rear (abdomen) of the spider.  An additional distinguishing characteristic of brown recluses is that they have three pairs of eyes, for a total of six.  If you don’t care to get up close and personal with the spider to find out if it has six eyes but don’t mind getting familiar enough with it to get it into a jar, you can bring it by our office for more definite identification.  

Now, we’ll move on to snakes.  While numerous species of snakes live around here, Randolph County is only within the known range of two venomous ones: copperheads and timber rattlesnakes.  Both of these are pit vipers, which have several distinct characteristics.  Their heads appear more triangular when viewed from above than those of other snakes, being wider at the rear.  Pit vipers also have elliptical pupils (like the shape of a football, but more “flat”), while those of other snakes are round.  [The pupil is the black part of the eye.]  There are other differences, and if you’re interested in learning more, you can go to the following website:  North Carolina is home to one venomous snake, the coral snake, that is not a pit viper, but this one isn’t normally found in Randolph County.  If you’re interested in identifying venomous and non-venomous snakes more specifically, you can check out this Snakes of North Carolina webpage ( or bring it to see me. 

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