Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes can look eerily similar to the untrained eye. With similar square- or diamond-shaped markings and no-nonsense temperaments, these two species are often mistaken for each other. However, it’s important to recognize the differences between non-venomous gopher snakes (members of the Pituophis genus) and venomous rattlesnakes (members of the Crotalus genus and viper family).
Size and Shape
Gopher snakes are often longer than rattlesnakes. The average adult gopher snake measures between 6 and 9 feet long, while (depending on the species) rattlesnakes come in between 3 and 6 feet long. However, while the gopher snake is longer, its body is slender and whip-like compared to the rattlesnake’s heavy-bodied, broad appearance. Rattlesnakes also have a flat, triangular head in comparison to a gopher snake’s narrow, rounded head.
While rattlesnakes and gopher snakes both have round eyes on both sides of their heads, it’s their pupils that give away their identity. Rattlesnakes have vertical, cat-like pupils, while gopher snakes have rounded pupils.
Members of the pit viper family, rattlesnakes possess unique openings between their nostrils and eyes called heat-sensing pits. These pits look like tiny holes or divots and allow rattlesnakes to detect temperature changes and effectively hunt prey in the dark. Only members of the pit viper family, which the gopher snake is not, have these heat-sensing pits.
A gopher snake will often hiss and vibrate its tail when agitated. This aggressive behavior and tail “rattling” mimics the rattlesnake. Although the buzzing sound of a gopher snake’s tail vibrating against the ground sounds nearly identical to the vibration of a rattlesnake’s actual rattle, gopher snakes lack the rattle found on the end of a rattlesnake’s tail. Additionally, a rattlesnake’s tail is wide and blunt while a gopher snake’s tail is slender and pointed.
One of the most obvious differences between a gopher snake and a rattlesnake is their reproductive process. Rattlesnakes give live birth to young, whereas gopher snakes lay eggs. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) gives birth to a brood of six to 21 live young. Gopher snakes, on average, lay two clutches of two to 24 eggs each year.
Christina Stephens is a writer from Portland, Ore. whose main areas of focus are pets and animals, travel and literature. A veterinary assistant, she taught English in South Korea and holds a BA in English with cum laude honors from Portland State University.