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Distinguishing Between Venomous and Non-Venomous Snakes

North Carolina’s non-venomous snakes have many tiny teeth. These small teeth will make superficial cuts similar to briar scratches. If you, a child or a pet is bitten by a nonvenomous snake, the bite will look like a horseshoe of tiny scratches. Clean the area well with soap and water and wipe it with hydrogen peroxide. If only one or two puncture wounds are present, or if you are allergic to snakes, or if you are not sure the snake is nonvenomous, go to a doctor. Unlike venomous snakes, most nonvenomous snakes cannot bite through clothing.

Many times people kill snakes such as the young black or gray rat snake and the young racer snake, thinking they are copperheads. This is really a shame because rat snakes and others do no harm and help keep the rodent and insect population down. Besides, most snakes — even venomous ones — are not aggressive and would rather avoid a confrontation with people. A snake can only strike with authority within a distance of one- half its body length. So a reasonable distance will keep you safe. Give the snake time to go on its way.

If a confrontation is unavoidable, how can you tell the difference between a venomous copperhead and a harmless rat snake? The rattlesnakes, copperhead, and cottonmouth are pit vipers. They are characterized by a pit between and slightly below the eye and nostril, long movable fangs, a vertically elliptical “cat’s eye” pupil, undivided scales on the underside of the tail, and a large triangular-shaped head that has a small, smooth, shiny cap over the nose. Nonvenomous snakes have round pupils, a large smooth cap over the top of the head past the eyes, divided scales on the underside of the tail, no pits and no long fangs.

venomous versus nonvenomous snake head

venomous versus nonvenomous snake head

Of the 37 species of snakes throughout North Carolina, only six are venomous:

  1. Copperhead (found throughout NC)
  2. Canebrake Rattlesnake (found throughout NC)
  3. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (found in southeastern NC)
  4. Pigmy Rattlesnake (found in southeastern NC)
  5. Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin (found in wetland areas in the eastern half of NC)
  6. Coral Snake (the rarest, found in the south and southeastern areas of NC).

The odds of getting a serious snakebite in the Southeast are low for several reasons. The first is that only 6 of the more than 40 species of southeastern snakes are venomous. The second is that the five species with the most potent venom and greatest potential danger are less likely to bite a person than the sixth one. That sixth snake is the copperhead, North Carolina’s most numerous venomous snake.

Copperhead Snakes

Keep in mind the reason for the copperhead’s popular name. A copperhead has a rusty patch on the top of its triangular-shaped head. Copperhead markings look like a string of rust-colored hourglasses. Incidentally, the hourglass shape is a warning sign elsewhere in nature, the black widow spider and the brown recluse spider come to mind. So think, ‘Hourglass shape, move in haste.’ Young copperheads are easily distinguished from nonvenomous snakes by the lemon-yellow tail, which young copperheads will retain for about a year.

young copperhead

If you or your pet are bitten by any snake that you suspect is venomous, get medical attention immediately. For the most part, if you let snakes alone, they’ll leave you alone.

Information for this article came from NCADM No. 20, published by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.