Meet Virginia’s Three Venomous Snakes, and a Common One That’s Harmless

By Colleen O’Hara  
Photos by John White/Virginia Herpetological Society

Snakes love summer’s heat, so you’re more likely to spot them these days while out on a hike or even in your yard. But don’t worry: There’s typically nothing to fear from these encounters.

Of the 34 snake species and subspecies in Virginia, nearly all are harmless to humans. This includes the intimidating yet nonvenomous Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus) (formerly known as the Black Ratsnake), which can grow up to six feet, making it the longest snake in Virginia. It’s one of the most common snakes in our area.

Only three of Virginia’s snakes are venomous: the Eastern Copperhead, the Northern Cottonmouth, and the Timber Rattlesnake.  Here’s what you need to know about them:

Eastern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)
Eastern Copperhead photo by John White/Virginia Herpetological Society

The only venomous snake you’re likely to encounter in the Arlington area is the copperhead. This snake is one of the most widespread snake species in Virginia and can be found throughout the state in forests and upland rocky areas, alongside streams, in rock walls and wood stacks, and other locations.  

The best way to identify a copperhead is by the dark bands across its back that look like two Hershey kisses touching, or an hourglass. They also have vertical pupils (if you happen to be that close to one to see) and a triangular head. Baby copperheads have a yellowish tail, but this goes away as they mature. A common perception is that baby copperheads are more venomous than adult copperheads, but they are not, according to Dr. Arianna Kuhn, Assistant Curator of Herpetology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.  

In fact, snakes typically only use their venom when they are targeting a food source, she said during a recent webinar on Virginia’s snakes. It’s in their best interest to warn something away or slither off rather than to engage. “There are more opportunities (for the snake) to become injured if it interacts or engages with the prey or predator,” Kuhn said.  

If you want to protect yourself from copperheads and discourage them from your yard, the Virginia Herpetological Society has some suggestions: Keep vegetation trimmed, move piles of brush and leaves away from walkways and play areas, remove spilled bird seed that attracts rodents (a favorite food of copperheads), and wear heavy gloves if you are working with stacks of firewood.

Another good idea to avoid any snake, especially if you’re working in garden beds or hiking in vegetative areas, is to shuffle your feet so you don’t accidentally step on a snake. They will generally want to get out of your way rather than interact with you.   See more about safety around copperheads at the VHS website.

Northern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
Northern Cottonmouth photo by John White/Virginia Herpetological Society

You’re not likely to encounter a venomous cottonmouth unless you live in the southeastern part of Virginia. However, they are often confused for harmless Northern Water Snakes (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) that are frequently found in the rivers and streams of Northern Virginia, and throughout the state.  

Cottonmouths are semiaquatic, found in swamps, marshes, streams and rivers, and like to bask on the shoreline close to wet areas. They are sometimes referred to as Water Moccasins.  Generally, cottonmouths are scared of people, Kuhn said, and it’s hard to get close to one, even to snap a picture. If you happen to irritate one, though, you might see it tilt its head back and open its mouth wide to scare you off. This is a behavior a water snake would never do, she said.

Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
Photo of Timber Rattlesnake by John White/Virginia Herpetological Society

The third venomous species in Virginia is the Timber Rattlesnake, which is endangered. They are found in southeastern Virginia, and also in the mountainous part of the state, but their range is fragmented, and their habitat is shrinking, Kuhn said. They prefer upland forests with ledges facing south in the spring and fall, and open woods and grass fields in the summertime.  

The telltale rattle at the end of their tail starts out as a button, and then grows over time. (Contrary to popular belief, though, the length of the rattle does not indicate the age of the snake.) These snakes use their rattle to warn potential predators and also to distract prey. Timber Rattlesnakes prefer to eat mammals, but will also eat birds and frogs, according to the Virginia Herpetological Society.  

Snakes are beneficial and probably won’t hurt you

Snakes often get a bad rap, but they are important to the ecosystem, Kuhn said. They help keep the rodent population in check and are food for larger predators. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than die of a snake bite. In fact, only about five people die each year in the U.S. from a snake bite. The best way to not get bitten by a snake, she said, is to not handle one.

How well do you know Virginia snakes? Take the VHS quiz.

Global snake trivia: The longest snake in the world is the reticulated python, native to South and Southeast Asia. It can grow up to 32 feet and weigh up to 170 pounds. Meanwhile, weighing in at 550 pounds, the Green Anaconda, native to South America, is the heaviest snake in the world.   

For more on snakes and other reptiles and amphibians, check out the Virginia Herpetological Society and Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.

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