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How to Tell the Difference in Copperhead & Black Rat Snakes

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A snake encounter can be an alarming experience, especially if you are uncertain of its type. Snakes belong to one of two categories: venomous or non-venomous. Copperhead snakes (Agkistrodon contortrix) are the most populated venomous snakes in the United States. Harmless black rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta) live in areas at sea level and high altitudes in a wide variety of habitats. Taking a quick moment to look at an unexpected snake helps you to identify it.

Head Shape and Pupils

Copperheads are venomous snakes and have a large, triangular head. Venomous snakes are also called pit vipers and have a pit on each side of the head below each eye and nostril. The pits are heat sensors that are sensitive to as little as one degree change to identify a tasty meal. Copperheads sport a small, shiny cap of scales on top of their heads above the eyes.

Black rat snakes are non-venomous and have a small head shaped much like a turtle. Rat snakes do not have pits and have a large, smooth cap of scales on their heads above their eyes.

Copperheads have vertical pupils in their eyes, much like a cat’s pupils. Rat snakes have round pupils, as humans do.


A copperhead has four long fangs for injecting venom into his prey. Black rat snakes have many small teeth and no long fangs. Copperhead bites leave one or two holes in the skin and a rat snake bite appears as small scratches in the shape of a horseshoe.

Body Characteristics

A copperhead snake has a light tan or brownish body with dark or black hourglass figures on them and grows 2 to 3 feet long. Black rat snakes have shiny black scales on their backs, a lighter underside and white throats and chins. Adult rat snakes grow from 3 1/2 feet to 7 feet long.


Snakes like to live in dead leaves, branches, old wood and under rocks. When moving things in these conditions, use a long tool to overturn items, such as a shovel or rake. Turn the farthest side of an item towards yourself to create a barrier between a potential snake and yourself.