Snakes are majestic creatures and are beautiful to look at. However, some species are dangerous, and it can be difficult to tell them apart from friendly snakes. When in areas with threatening snakes, it’s good to know the differences between local variations.
Gopher snakes and bullsnakes are non-venomous and have a similar appearance and warning sound. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are venomous and produce a rattling sound when threatened.
While all 4 snakes have many similarities that make them appear similar to the eyes and ears, several key differences exist. Read on to learn how to distinguish between potentially lethal and non-lethal snakes.
Differences Between Gopher Snakes, Copperheads, Rattlesnakes, and Bullsnakes
The gopher snake, rattlesnake, bullsnake, and copperhead are all similar in appearance and the sound they make when threatened. Further, the bullsnake and gopher snake belong to the same snake family, Colubridae.
Despite these similarities, here are the main differences between each snake:
|Size||6-8 ft long (1.8-2.4 m)||2-7 ft long (0.6-2.1 m)||6-8 ft long (1.8-2.4 m)||2-4 ft long (0.6-1.2 m)|
|Coloration||Neutral tones with large patches of color||Desert Tones with geometric shaped patterns||Neutral tones with large patches of color||Copper color with hourglass shaped patterns|
|Range||Western parts of North and Central America||Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico||Western portions of North and Central America||Eastern and southeastern portions of the U.S.|
Lizards and snakes
Lizards and snakes
|Warning behavior||Hissing glottis||Rattles with tail||Hissing glottis||Hissing with mimic rattle|
Let’s evaluate these differences in greater detail:
The size of each snake depends on their killing method, with bull and gopher snakes reaching the longest length of 6-8 ft (1.8-2.4 m). These snakes rely on constriction to kill prey, using their large size to suffocate their meals.
Rattlesnakes are a bit smaller, reaching only 2-7 ft (0.6-2.1 m) long, and copperheads only reach up to 4 ft (1.2 m) in length. These snakes are pit vipers and rely on venom rather than constriction to subdue and kill prey.
Snakes are indeterminate growers and do not stop growing as they age. Larger snakes are older and more experienced than smaller snakes, meaning they are more likely to avoid humans.
However, larger vipers carry and deliver more venom, making them more lethal if they bite.
All four snakes come in various colors that help them to camouflage in their habitats, and alternate colors can represent different subspecies of each snake. However, the banding patterns remain the same across each species.
Gopher and Bullsnakes
Gopher and bullsnakes feature large spherical blotches of dark color against a lighter background. Their skin is typically neutral, mimicking the grays, browns, and yellowish colors of deserts or prairies.
Rattlesnakes, like bullsnakes, feature desert-toned skin to match their natural habitat. However, rattlesnakes in greener conditions can present more vibrant colors, such as orange, red, pink, or green.
Unlike the other snakes listed, rattlesnakes have a distinctive geometric pattern throughout their skin. While species differ, the designs are typically triangles, hexagons, diamonds, or rhombuses. These patterns make them easily recognizable, even without the rattle.
You can identify a copperhead snake by its reddish-brown color. While other snakes can also have this color, copperheads are unique because of their hourglass-shaped crossbands, which are much darker than the rest of their skin.
Their similar habitat types and coloration make these 4 snakes challenging to tell apart. Each snake prefers large open areas with minimal foliage and has a neutral or desert-toned coat to blend in with these environments.
The most popular habitats for all 4 snakes are:
- Coastal deserts
- Lightly wooded forests
Additionally, you can find copperheads in many aquatic habitats, including marshes, wetlands, and more heavily forested areas. Copperheads are also notable for occasionally living in suburban and urban habitats.
Each snake occupies an extensive range across all its subspecies. However, all 4 snakes inhabit most of North America, including the continental United States, northern Mexico, and southern Canada.
Bull and gopher snakes usually live in the major deserts of North America and in the western half of the continent. Living in altitudes of up to 8,000 feet (2,438 m), they prefer large open areas with a healthy rodent population.
Rattlesnakes live almost exclusively in deserts and prairies of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, with some extending as far north as Canada and down into South America.
Primarily an aquatic species, copperheads prefer the marshier areas of the western and southwestern United States and have the least overlap with the other species mentioned here.
Despite the size differences and various methods of subduing and killing prey, each snake has the same diet. Their prey typically consists of small animals living in the snake’s habitat
The main prey for all 4 snakes includes:
- Small rodents
- Small birds
- Small reptiles (including other snakes)
Additionally, copperheads enjoy fish and other aquatic animals native to their wetter habitats.
Many of these prey types are nocturnal, and snakes hunt at night for the best chances at catching prey. Bull and gopher snakes burrow underground or climb trees to find prey. Rattlesnakes and copperheads, being pit vipers, prefer to hunt their target based on heat alone.
Besides their coloration and habitat, each snake’s warning behavior makes them appear identical to those who walk near them. Warning signs are meant for predators or threats to deter them and are not used to attract prey.
In general, each snake will present the warning signs and sounds of a rattlesnake, regardless of whether or not they have a rattle.
Rattlesnakes are the most notable, as they coil and shake their rattle when threatened. The distinctive rattle on their tail immediately alerts predators to their whereabouts.
Copperheads also coil and rattle their tail, despite not having a rattle. This practice is common among many pit vipers, whose main predators are large birds that attack them from above.
Despite being much larger and more subterranean than pit vipers, bull and gopher snakes face the same threats from above. These snakes will coil up and hiss through a unique organ called a glottis, creating a loud guttural sound not unlike a rattle.
Bull and gopher snakes kill by constricting and suffocating their targets. They burrow, travel across flat areas, or climb trees to find small animals to constrict.
Copperheads and rattlesnakes, as pit vipers, kill by injecting venom into the prey through biting. They generally lie in wait for their prey during the day or use the specialized pits in their heads to seek out prey at night.
Despite being similar in appearance to rattlesnakes, gopher, and bullsnakes are non-venomous. While they are non-lethal, they are generally much more aggressive than rattlesnakes or copperheads and are known for actively pursuing prey.
Rattlesnakes and copperheads are venomous and semi-lethal. However, most urban and suburban areas have adequate treatment for pit viper bites, and the venom is not fatal as long as the bite is treated immediately. These snakes are also afraid of humans and won’t attack unless provoked.
Which Snakes Are the Most Dangerous?
While all 4 of these snakes can appear similar to each other in their natural habitats, they each pose different threats to humans. In general, the safest action is not to disturb or interact with these snakes in the wild.
However, due to the practice of hiding from predators, humans often come upon them by surprise. In these situations, it’s good to know the potential threat each snake poses and the appropriate course of action to take.
Overall, pit vipers are more dangerous than constricting snakes because of their venomous bite. Rattlesnake venom is far more potent than copperhead venom, and these snakes pose the most significant risk. While most modern hospitals carry treatment for rattlesnake bites, you should still seek immediate medical treatment if you’re bitten.
In general, the larger a pit viper is, the more venom it will deploy. However, adult rattlesnakes are generally much more cautious around humans than younger snakes and are more likely to hide than attack humans.
Copperheads still carry a venomous bite, but it’s only considered semi-lethal to humans. While not deadly, their bites are painful and will cause extreme discomfort until they are treated medically. These snakes are generally much smaller than rattlesnakes, prefer to hide, and don’t typically interact with humans.
The least dangerous snakes of the 4 are bull and gopher snakes. However, these snakes aren’t as cautious as pit vipers. While they won’t try to attack humans, who are far too large, they are very defensive of their territory and aren’t afraid to charge predators.
Gopher and bullsnakes are relatively docile in captivity and make excellent pets, especially for first-time snake owners. Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other pit vipers are not safe to keep as pets.
How To Determine If a Snake Is Venomous
The greatest danger in habitats with local snakes is encountering a venomous species by accident. Because these snakes typically hide in wait for prey, it’s much more likely to accidentally encounter one than find it in the open.
When encountering a snake, you can generally tell if it’s venomous by the shape and size of its head. Venomous snakes have venom ducts in their skulls, and pit vipers have heat-sensing pits between their eyes and nostrils.
Because of these features, venomous snakes have large, triangular heads with cheeks much wider than the mouth. Their eyes are generally slits, similar to cats, and the snakes are usually shy at first but coil up and unhinge their jaws when threatened.
Non-venomous snakes generally have rounder heads and rounder eyes because they don’t rely on venom or pits to find and subdue prey. However, many non-venomous snakes mimic deadly snakes, and some species can flatten their heads to appear triangular.
Regardless of whether or not a snake is a mimic, if it shows signs of being venomous, treat it as such and consider the safest practice around dangerous snakes. I’ll discuss this below.
What To Do Around Dangerous Snakes
When encountering dangerous snakes in the wild, whether venomous or otherwise, the best practice is to keep your distance and not make sudden movements. Snakes have no desire to harm humans and don’t consider us prey.
In general, snakes, especially smaller venomous ones, will avoid humans at all costs. Any coiling or defensive behaviors are meant to deter predators and threats. In some cases, it may be helpful to identify the snake from a distance to determine its level of lethality.
Is It Safe To Handle Bull, Gopher, Rattle, or Copperhead Snakes?
The safest practice around wild venomous snakes or their mimics is never to handle them yourself. Regardless of whether or not the snake is lethal, these snakes find being handled very uncomfortable and may lash out if mistreated.
If a snake is in an urban setting, such as in a basement or barn, it’s best not to try and remove it yourself. Instead, keep your distance and contact your local animal control service to remove the snake safely.
In the case of captive snakes, it is generally safe to handle gopher and bullsnakes. These species are pretty docile as pets and much less aggressive than their wild counterparts.
Bull and gopher snakes make excellent pets if raised from a young age. However, it’s best not to try and domesticate a wild adult snake, as they have already formed a temperament, may contain parasites, and won’t appreciate being relocated.
Knowing which snakes are safe and which aren’t can be difficult when traveling through America’s great outdoors. However, with a little knowledge, you can tell them apart.
While all four snakes mimic rattlesnakes, especially when threatened, gopher and bullsnakes are non-venomous.
The non-venomous trait is distinguishable by their heads, which are round with round eyes. Rattlesnakes and copperheads, as pit vipers, have triangular-shaped heads and slitted eyes.
Further, rattlesnakes use a rattle, gopher and bullsnakes use their glottis, and copperheads hiss when threatened.