RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — We may be far from the dog days of summer, but outdoor enthusiasts should still be on their toes — because it’s snake season, baby.
Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. And when the first sunny days with elevated temperatures arrive, humans aren’t the only beings that flock to sunbathe outdoors.
Snakes of all ages return from brumation en mass to stake their claim to sunny spots along the shorelines and throughout the wilderness. While most snakes found natively in Virginia are not venomous, the three that are should be carefully, and steadfastly, avoided.
The Northern Copperhead
The most common of the three, copperheads are found statewide and are usually discovered in gardens and woodlots, often sunning themselves in open areas and on trails. But, don’t think they stick to the ground. Copperheads can even be found climbing into bushes and trees to feed and enjoy the sun’s rays, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
Copperheads are medium-sized snakes and can grow to a length of 24 to 26 inches. Although nightmare fuel for some, copperheads are generally non-aggressive. The DWR says most copperhead bites are due to an unfortunate misplaced step.
But how can you identify a copperhead?
- What does its head look like? — Copperheads are famous for having triangular heads much larger than their necks.
- What does the body pattern look like? — If it’s coppery-red colored with an hourglass pattern — or more commonly said, Hershey’s kiss — that is a darker brown on the outside of the shape and lighter brown on the inside, it may be a copperhead.
The second of Virginia’s big three is the timber rattlesnake. A state-endangered species, these snakes are only common to the mountains of western Virginia, and a small area in the very southeastern part of the state.
How to identify a timber rattlesnake:
- What makes it special? — Thanks to its name, one of the most unsurprising features of timber rattlesnakes is the hard segment at the end of the tail — the rattle. It’s the only snake species in Virginia with the feature, as much as the eastern ratsnake may try to steal its thunder.
- What do they look like? — The species can range in color from yellow to black, but will consistently have inconsistently-shaped dark chevron-shaped bands on its back.
Water Moccasins, AKA: Cottonmouths
Water moccasins — also known as cottonmouths — are an aquatic snake species partial to wet areas in southeastern Virginia, and can commonly be found in and around lakes, rivers, creeks, marshes and other water features.
The typical adult is usually anywhere from 30 to 48 inches long but has the potential to grow to a whopping 61 inches, around five feet. The head is also triangular in shape.
How to identify a water moccasin/cottonmouth:
- Why ‘Cottonmouth’? — Cottonmouths get their name from the white color of their mouths. When threatened, the snakes open their jowls in warning — an attempt to scare off would-be predators.
- Does it have a black tail? — Cottonmouths begin life with a brightly-colored tail tip that grows darker with age. They are yellowish-green to black with a banding pattern that darkens to black further down the tail. According to the Virginia Herpetological Society, older adult snakes may be a solid dark color without any discernable pattern.
Same, same — But different?
While they are three distinct venomous snakes, the Virginia Herpetological Society says they do share some similarities.
- Pit vipers — All three of Virginia’s venomous snakes are considered to be pit vipers due to the heat-sensing pit between the snakes’ eyes and nostrils which assists in finding prey.
- Eye shape — Out of all the species of snake in Virginia, the copperhead, timber rattlesnake and cottonmouth are the only species with a vertical pupil, an eye feature making the dangerous snakes appear even more so.
Is it always so?
But, even though these traits are commonly used guidelines, the facility supervisor of the Chesterfield Rockwood Nature Center, Coline Hay, said they shouldn’t be exclusively used to make a decision on if a snake is venomous at the drop of a hat.
“The main things to note are that head shape and pupil shape cannot exclusively be used to determine whether or not a snake is venomous, as both features are not stagnant,” Hay said. “Many harmless species flatten their heads into a triangle shape as a defensive mechanism when they encounter people, and pupils will become dilated and round in low lighting.”
Hay explained that non-venomous species can have similar markings to the copperhead’s “Hershey kiss” pattern and that other non-venomous snakes, like the eastern ratsnake, try their hardest to rattle their tails — even without a rattle.
Editors Note — This story has been updated for clarity.