Updated: Jun 15, 2022
It's snake season baby 🐍 - So to be sure you don't make a lethal misstep, let's go over a very important distinction.
Unfortunately, these two snakes are commonly confused for one another. But, as you'll learn here, despite some similarities in color, there are plenty of easy distinctions between the two.
Below is a table distinguishing the non-venomous Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sepidon) from the venomous Eastern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix).
Expansive wilderness habitats, from mountain forests to lowland brackish plains, typically never more than 300' from a water source
Wide variety of habitats including most commonly forests, but also fields, swamps, rocky areas, and woodpiles
Series of complete crossbands, closely spaced
Series of hourglass-shaped crossbands
Brown to gray with variable amounts of red, yellow, and/or white with blotches & crossbands from reddish-brown to solid black
Cream, tan to pinkish tan, with crossbands chestnut brown, dark brown to nearly black
24" - 32" / 61 - 81 cm
24"-36" / 61 cm - 90 cm
Wide or diamond-shaped
Small, black, round with rounded pupils
Larger, amber to brown colored with vertically slit pupils
The main distinction that's easiest to recognize is the different patterns, and these patterns are based on habitat and camouflaging techniques. Here's how I like to think of it:
The Northern Watersnake's coloration and pattern resembles ripples and reflections in water over a shallow, rocky creek.
The Eastern Copperhead's coloration and pattern mimics dry leaves and debris piled on a forest floor.
*Note that the Northern Watersnake (left) has a sheen, or reflective texture, shown particularly on it's head in the above photo - vs the Eastern Copperhead (right) who's texture is matte, or seemingly dry, helping it blend into the dry leaf litter around it.
Now that we've covered the distinction between the two, let's go over a few safety tips for avoiding any close-encounters with the venomous Eastern Copperhead.
According to the Virginia Herpetological Society's data shown in the image to the left, the Copperhead is considered less lethal than the Northern Cottonmouth or Timber Rattlesnake (two other venomous snakes found in the Eastern region of the US).
Though this may seem like good news overall, the bad news is copperheads are masters of disguise, and they won't warn you with the sound of a rattle. If you're walking through the wilderness this summer, especially through a mixed woods forest, be sure to carefully choose your footing and stay alert. It's best to wear close-toed shoes and long pants, or even tall boots when you know you're in Copperhead territory.
And just in case you're feeling like you can finally distinguish Northern Watersnakes from Eastern Copperheads, keep in mind that Copperheads do swim.
BUT don't fret! With everything we covered here today, you'll still be well-equipped to spot those differences.
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