There are 38 species of snakes found in South Carolina, but only six are venomous. The venomous snakes found in South Carolina are all pit vipers, except the coral snake. The pit vipers include copperhead, cottonmouth (water moccasin), pigmy rattlesnake, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, and timber/canebrake rattlesnake. Pit vipers get their name from having a heat-sensing pit located between their eyes and their nostrils, which helps these snakes locate their warm-blooded prey and avoid predators.
Out of all our venomous species that live in South Carolina, the copperhead is typically the one that people come across most often and typically misidentify. Oftentimes, people think they have come across a copperhead; however, often it is a non-venomous species that falls victim to mistaken identity. Some common non-venomous snake species that are mistaken for the copperhead are the corn snake, juvenile rat snake, and the northern water snake.
Ways to Identify the Copperhead
There are several ways to identify a copperhead. Once you are familiar with these key characteristics, you’ll be able to successfully distinguish between the copperhead and other venomous and nonvenomous snakes in the area.
The copperhead gets its name from the coppery-tan color found mainly on its head and throughout parts of its body down to the tail.
Since the copperhead is a pit viper, you’ll notice a very distinctive triangular-shaped head. Some people call it an “arrowhead-shaped” head. These wider parts of the head allow for space to fit the snake’s fangs and venom glands.
The pit vipers that live in South Carolina all have heavy, stocky bodies with pronounced heads. Nonvenomous snakes in our area tend to have long, slender bodies that align with their head. An adult copperhead’s average length ranges between 2 to 3 feet but can reach 4 feet.
Pattern and Camouflage
The body color of a copperhead is typically a pale tan to brown color with an almost light pink tint to it. They have a darker brown crossband pattern down the length of their body that resembles an hourglass shape. Copperheads are the only species of snake with this pattern. The hourglass shape lays somewhat “sideways” on the copperhead’s back; the wider portion of the shape starts on one side of the body, thins towards the spine, and then widens back out to the opposite side of the snake. Keep in mind that the hourglass shapes can occasionally “mismatch” and seem like they disconnect from the complete shape.
Copperheads are not aggressive, nor do they go out of their way to bite humans or other unsuspecting bystanders. It all comes down to their camouflage. When curled up, their camouflage resembles a pile of fallen leaves; this helps them remain hidden from potential predators – including you. A copperhead bite typically occurs when it’s least expected, after several attempts to discourage you, the “predator,” from coming close. When walking through potential copperhead habitat, the snake will likely spot you first and may try to move away. As you get closer, it will curl up into its camouflage pile, blending in with fallen leaf litter on the ground. As you get closer, the copperhead will start to shake, or “rattle,” its tail to resemble a rattlesnake. Get even closer, and the copperhead will lift its head to show you it’s ready to bite if you keep provoking. The last and final step is a strike. Even though you may have never noticed any of the prior warnings, all the snake knows is that he gave you all warnings to stay away and that you persisted. Even with these warning signs, they rarely strike unless stepped on or handled. The bite is a last resort to defend itself from an animal much larger than itself, which it certainly doesn’t see as a potential meal.
Eye pupil shape is a very easy way of identifying not only copperheads but also most venomous snakes in South Carolina, except for the coral snake. The copperhead has a yellow eye with a black vertical and elliptical pupil, similar to that of a cat’s eye. Please be advised that this does require great eyesight and an excellent viewpoint. However, don’t try to get too close to the snake to see this feature, as you might put yourself in danger and ultimately provoke a strike from the snake. The venomous coral snake and all other non-venomous South Carolina snakes have round pupils.
Juvenile Yellow Tails
Juvenile copperheads are known for having bright yellow tails that they use to lure their prey, such as frogs and small lizards. Be careful when you come across a yellow-tailed juvenile copperhead, and please do not approach. From birth, they already have functional venom glands and are venomous.
Ways to Differentiate Similar Species from Copperheads
The corn snake is one of several North American species of rat snake. Unlike copperheads, corn snakes do not have fangs but catch and subdue their prey by constriction (squeezing and suffocating).
Corn snakes are more colorful than copperheads – they have several color variants but are typically redder in color than the copperhead’s copper-tan complexion.
While copperheads have most of their hourglass shape on the sides of their body, corn snakes will have most of their thick “blotch” or square-shaped markings on the tops (or in the center of their back) of their body. These blotches are the widest down the center of the back. Corn snakes also have a distinctive black-and-white “checkerboard” pattern on their bellies.
Corn snakes have a smaller, narrower head that aligns with their slender body angle and size, different from the copperhead’s triangular head and thicker body width. It’s also important to note the corn snake’s round pupil, which is a common characteristic of our nonvenomous snakes.
Juvenile Rat Snake
Rat snakes are very common throughout South Carolina. Rat snakes are great climbers and are known for their ability to climb trees or even walls. Black rat snakes tend to be found in the Upstate and Midlands regions. Yellow rat snakes are green or yellow in color and have stripes down the entire length of their bodies. Yellow rat snakes are found in more coastal regions of our state. The juveniles of both subspecies are often mistaken for copperheads due to the blotchy square-shaped patterns on their backs that they use for camouflage. Like the corn snake, this pattern is found along the center of the back down the length of their bodies. They also have large circular pupils.
Northern Water Snake
The northern water snake is a large, nonvenomous common snake native to North America.
The pattern of the northern water snake is dark blotches that are narrow on the sides and wider towards the backbone. This differs from the copperhead’s pattern, which is wider on the sides and narrower towards the backbone.
Unlike copperheads, northern water snakes have round pupils, which, as stated previously, is a common characteristic of nonvenomous snakes. The northern water snake also has a narrower head compared to the copperhead’s “arrow-shaped” head since it lacks venom glands and fangs.
Final Comments Regarding Snakes
If you spend time in the outdoors, you will eventually encounter a snake. I encourage you to become familiar with some of the most common snakes you may encounter in your backyards and recognize the key traits that our venomous pit vipers share.
All venomous and nonvenomous snakes play a very important role in South Carolina’s environmental ecosystems. Also, from a human perspective, they play a large role in controlling rodents and many other small-sized nuisance wildlife populations. This helps to decrease damage to property and the spread of disease.
The main function of fangs and venom glands in venomous snakes is to obtain food, and they are used for defense only as a last resort. To best protect yourself against snake bites, always be aware and alert while in the woods, in your backyard, or in other outdoor situations. Be mindful of where you are placing your hands or feet, especially in areas where you can’t see them, and avoid reaching your hands under logs or rocks.
If you are in any way uncertain whether a snake is venomous or not, always exercise precaution and do not attempt to approach or catch it. When left alone, they normally move on once they believe the threat has left. Most people are bitten or injured when either harassing or trying to approach a venomous snake too closely. In the unlikely case you are bitten by a venomous snake, it’s best not to try and treat the bite yourself. The victim must stay calm and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Snakes of any type often evoke fear, to a large degree, because they are poorly understood by the general public. Respect snakes from afar if you prefer, and you should not run into any issues that are unpreventable.
Originally published 05/20