Snake diversity varies by at least two orders of magnitude among extant lineages, with numerous groups containing only one or two species, and several young clades exhibiting exceptional richness (>700 taxa). With a phylogeny containing all known families and subfamilies, we find that these patterns cannot be explained by background rates of speciation and extinction. The majority of diversity appears to derive from a radiation within the superfamily Colubroidea, potentially stemming from the colonization of new areas and the evolution of advanced venom-delivery systems. In contrast, negative relationships between clade age, clade size, and diversification rate suggest the potential for possible bias in estimated diversification rates, interpreted by some recent authors as support for ecologically mediated limits on diversity. However, evidence from the fossil record indicates that numerous lineages were far more diverse in the past, and that extinction has had an important impact on extant diversity patterns. Thus, failure to adequately account for extinction appears to prevent both rate- and diversity-limited models from fully characterizing richness dynamics in snakes. We suggest that clade-level extinction may provide a key mechanism for explaining negative or hump-shaped relationships between clade age and diversity, and the prevalence of ancient, species-poor lineages in numerous groups.