Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and rat snakes are abundant throughout the US. They even look similar at first glance. But what’s the difference between the copperhead, the rat snake, and the rattlesnake?
The copperhead snake is venomous, around 24-36 inches long, with a reddish to golden tan color. The rat snake is larger, can be either black, yellow, or gray, and is non-venomous. Lastly, the rattlesnake is venomous and identified by its tell-tale rattle.
In the rest of this article, I will elaborate on the differences between these three snakes based on appearance, habitat, and venomosity. If you have a lot of snakes in your area and want to identify them, then this article is for you.
Key Differences Between the Copperhead Snake, the Rat Snake, and the Rattlesnake
Unfortunately, many people aren’t knowledgeable about snakes. Many snakes are harmless, but most people mistake them for their venomous lookalikes.
Below are the main differences between copperheads, rat snakes, and rattlesnakes.
|Appearance||Reddish to golden tan in color|
Juvenile copperheads have yellow-tipped tails
Brown hourglass-shaped bands
|Varies in color – amber with brown stripes, black with small white spots, or gray with brown spots|
Medium to long length
Keeled scales and round pupils
|Grayish-brown body with black or brown spots|
Prominent rattle on the tail
Prominent holes between eyes and nostrils
|Venomosity||Venomous||Non-venomous but releases a foul musk||Venomous|
|Survives in various environments including deserts, scrub brushes and urban areas.|
|Hunting Habits||Uses venom to kill|
Adapts to its environment by camouflaging
Makes use of its climbing and swimming skills
|Uses venom to kill|
Makes use of its excellent sense of smell
While appearing similar at first glance, these snakes have key differences. You should also remember that there are sub-types of each snake.
For example, the rattlesnake has two sub-types, including the Eastern Diamond-backed rattlesnake and the Western diamond-backed rattlesnake, among others.
Copperhead Snakes Are Light Red To Golden Tan
As its name suggests, the snake’s head is as red as copper and triangular in shape.
Unlike the cobra, the copperhead’s head isn’t that prominent. If you look at its spots, you will notice that they are hourglass-shaped, much like Coca-Cola bottles.
Its body is also reddish, although some are golden or tan.
If you turn the copperhead around, which I highly advise you not to, you will see that its belly is cream-colored to gray. They are only about 2-3 feet (24-36 in) long. Baby copperheads are around 7-9 inches (18-23 cm) long.
Some young copperheads have yellow-tipped tails. They wiggle them as a way to attract prey, but this color fades as they get older.
Generally, copperheads are quite light, weighing around 3.5-12 ounces (99-340 grams).
Rat Snakes Vary in Color
Rat snakes, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more intimidating. They are between 3.5-7 feet (42-84 inches) long and have different colors, depending on location.
Here are some of the most common color combinations in rat snakes.
- Black rat snakes: a shiny black color with hints of white.
- Yellow rat snakes: amber-colored with a brown hue that tints the length of its body.
- Gray rat snakes: can be light or dark gray with brown spots all over their body.
The color variety can make it difficult to identify rat snakes. Instead, you can identify them by the ridge on their scales. Also, rat snakes have round pupils, unlike others with slit pupils.
The Rattlesnake Has a Rattle In Its Tail
Identifying the rattlesnake is easy. You just have to listen for the rattle!
Rattlesnakes have triangular heads like copperheads, and most have a grayish-brown body with brownish-black spots. They’re bigger than the copperhead but smaller than the rat snake, with adults ranging from 1-7 feet (12-84 inches) in length.
They also have holes between their eyes and nostrils which is probably their best weapon. These holes are called loreal pits and can detect heat, allowing them to identify prey by their heat signatures.
Young rattlesnakes are about 6-12 inches (0.5-1 ft) in length and can easily masquerade as a blade of grass.
Copperheads and rattlesnakes are venomous. Rat snakes, on the other hand, are not venomous and pose very little threat despite their large size.
Copperhead Venom Causes Severe Pain, Edema, and Diarrhea
A study documented how some species of copperhead cause severe edema in their victims.
Edema is when fluids get trapped under your tissues, and the affected skin swells. You know it’s edema when you pinch a part of your skin, and the pit doesn’t disappear immediately.
However, the first symptom of copperhead venom is a loss of breath and severe pain. The onset ranges from a few minutes to a few hours after the bite. Some patients also experience vomiting and diarrhea.
While extremely painful, the copperhead’s venom is not usually life-threatening. Reports of deaths from copperheads are infrequent, but it’s best to be cautious. Children and the elderly generally experience the most adverse effects of copperhead venom.
The Rat Snake Is Essentially Non-Venomous
Rat snakes in the Western Hemisphere are not venomous at all. In the Eastern Hemisphere, while some species have small traces of venom, their venom isn’t potent enough to have adverse side effects.
What you will have to worry about is the bite. They’re still snakes, after all. Rat snakes are normally quite peaceful and try to avoid biting as much as possible. Instead, they release a horrid-smelling musk on the base of their tails to drive away any threats.
Rattlesnake Venom Is Painful and Affects Breathing
Rattlesnake bites are quite common in the United States, with the CDC placing the number at about 7,000-8,000 per year. However, rattlesnake venom is not usually fatal. It becomes fatal only when it leads to other complications if left unattended.
The onset of symptoms ranges from a few minutes to a few hours, and the pain is intense. Most people report a tingling, searing sensation near the bite and a numb face. There’s also some swelling and discoloration around the bite.
Additionally, rattlesnake bites tend to affect breathing. In extreme cases, it halts breathing completely. As such, many experts advise assessing the airways if you think a rattlesnake has bitten you.
If you are from North America, there’s a high chance you will encounter one or all three of these in the wild. Some of them prefer the American wetlands and avoid open fields, while some prefer extreme climates such as deserts.
Copperhead Snakes Prefer the Forest
Copperhead snakes live mostly in the Southeast United States, with two major species having different habitats. The broad-banded copperhead is almost exclusive to Texas, with medium-sized populations in Oklahoma and Kansas.
The Eastern Copperhead, on the other hand, is mostly found between Connecticut and Southeastern Texas.
Copperheads thrive in areas where they can easily hide. They prefer the forest because of its abundance of fallen logs, leaves, and rocks. Sometimes, they can also be found in metros, as demonstrated by a study in the Journal of Urban Ecology.
Copperheads feed on small rabbits, lizards, birds, moles, grasshoppers, cicadas, and even small turtles.
Rat Snakes Live in the Woodlands and Prairies
Rat snakes are found across multiple habitats. Most of them live across the Southeastern United States. Each type prefers a certain kind of habitat.
- Yellow rat snakes prefer the river swamp areas of the south. They also frequent areas with pine and cypress trees. Unlike copperheads, yellow rat snakes live in open areas such as prairies and agricultural fields.
- Black rat snakes prefer swamps and marshes, but many live in hillsides and mountainous terrain. You can find them in the Piedmont regions of Georgia and South Carolina.
- Gray rat snakes live in the forests of Central and Eastern United States. Some even live as far north as Ontario in Canada.
This video shows the gray rat snake in action in Ontario and highlights necessary conservation efforts.
As their name suggests, the rat snake primarily eats rats. Occasionally, it feeds on other rodents, such as moles and chipmunks. It also eats frogs, small lizards, and bird eggs.
Rattlesnakes Thrive in Multiple Habitats
Rattlesnakes can survive and thrive in various forms of terrain, including scrub brushes and desert environments. In fact, there are many species of rattlesnakes, and each has its own habitat range.
- Prairie rattlesnakes live in desert and tundra climates. They live in the central parts of the United States, stretching as far north as southern Alberta in Canada and as far south as Northern Mexico.
- Western Diamond-backed rattlesnakes live across the Sonoran Desert in Nevada, California, and Arizona. You can find them as far east as Texas and as far south as central Mexico.
- Eastern Diamond-backed rattlesnakes live in Florida and Georgia.
- Timber rattlesnakes love trees and live in hardwood-rich areas. They occupy the southeastern United States, with some living in New York and Vermont. During the wintertime, they use openings in rocks and logs to hide.
Rattlesnakes eat frogs, toads, salamanders, mice, birds, bird eggs, and even small crocodiles!
While all three snakes tend to enjoy similar prey, they have varying methods of hunting. Rattlesnakes and copperheads use venom and ambush tactics, while rat snakes use constriction.
The Copperhead Snake Is A Sneaky Hunter
Copperhead snakes use their loreal pits to detect their prey’s body heat. They also use their environment to camouflage and often lie motionless for a long time to lure their prey into complacency.
They hunt at night during the warmer summer months, using venom to kill their prey.
The Rat Snake Is A Versatile Hunter
While the rat snake enjoys rats and other rodents the most, it occasionally eats chicken eggs. In fact, some rat snake varieties are called chicken snakes.
Rat snakes are also good at climbing trees and gladly use this ability to snag prey. They can also swim, using this ability to scoop up tadpoles and small frogs.
They also make excellent use of their bodies both offensively and defensively. While the copperhead snake relies on its venom, rat snakes rely on their large bodies to constrict their prey and swallow them whole.
The Rattlesnake Is A Patient Hunter
Rattlesnakes have a helpful hunting organ called the Jacobson’s organ, located along the nasal cavity. This organ allows them to literally taste the air because it’s connected to the roof of the mouth.
Rattlesnakes are also patient hunters. They wait for their prey to come close and then strike suddenly, injecting their prey with venom. This hunting technique is known as ambush predation.
Snakes are some of the most misunderstood creatures on the planet. While some of them are quite harmful, many of them are completely harmless and even quite friendly.
Thus, it’s crucial to know the differences between venomous snakes, like rattlesnakes and copperheads, and non-venomous snakes, like rat snakes.