Copperhead vs Northern Water Snake

A slightly different version of this was posted in May of 2013.

I know, it’s cold outside. Temps are in the mid-20s as I write and snakes are nowhere to be seen. Most of you are probably not going to spend a whole lot of time outdoors during the next few days, so why not sit back, grab a cup of joe (or cocoa), and brush up on your snake identification skills. Besides, we start seeing water snakes in our Wetlands here at the Museum in March, just a few weeks away.

There are often snakes seen lying about the Wetlands during the warmer months of the year. Most of the snakes observed here at the Museum are seen in or near the water, or crossing the path on their way to and from the water. More than a few times I’ve heard visitors, guests here at the Museum, proclaim, “Water moccasin!” or, “Cottonmouth!” upon seeing a snake at the water’s edge. I’m often asked, of a snake coiled up at the grassy edge of the pond, “Is that a copperhead?” The truth about those proclamations and answer to that question is no.

Northern water snakes are very common in our area. Just about every body of water here in the piedmont has its share of water snakes, usually more than most people care to know about. On the other hand, and according to the references I’ve read, cottonmouths or moccasins (same thing) do not occur above the fall line. In other words, you have to go to the coastal plain to see one. Personally, I’ve never seen a cottonmouth on the piedmont, stepped around plenty of them in the Sandhills and elsewhere on the coastal plain, but not here.

Copperheads are a different story. They’re common just about everywhere you go in this part of North Carolina. But, they’re typically found in different habitats than are water snakes. And, besides sharing brown hues on their scaly reptilian skin, the patterns they exhibit are quite different.

See for yourself.

First, northern water snake.

The water snake.
The water snake.

Next, copperhead.

The copperhead.
The copperhead.

The two together (n. water snake – top).

Water snake (top) and copperhead.

See the difference?

Northern water snakes can vary in their coloration, some more red than brown, some very dark, some very dull, but the pattern is the same.

Some references make much of the fact that a copperhead’s head is arrow-shaped or more broad than the non-venomous water snakes. And, the pupils of the eye are slit-shaped in the copperhead as opposed to round in the water snake. Both true, but some snakes flatten themselves, the head included, to appear more threatening when disturbed, and getting close enough to a copperhead to see the pupils of its eyes is probably too close, unless you have binoculars in hand. Go with the pattern.

Easy to see on the pavement, the banded pattern on the water snake makes for good camouflage in the dappled light of a watery domain. Likewise, the pattern on the copperhead renders the snake virtually invisible in their preferred habitat of a leaf littered forest floor.

Both snakes were photographed on the same patch of pavement on different days.

Stay warm.

9 responses to Copperhead vs Northern Water Snake

  1. Peggy says:

    Remember that babies cannot control the amount of venom they inject. Adults can give a dry bite when babies give everything the have.

    • gregdodge says:

      Young copperheads have the same pattern and body shape as adults, only smaller and with a bright yellow or yellow-green tip to their tail. I guess what we should all remember is, if you see a copperhead, leave it be. Look at it from a distance, but let it be.


    • Baby says:

      So what? Babies have less venom. This is a myth that baby bites are worse.

      • gregdodge says:

        The thought behind “baby bites are worse” is that adult copperheads can control the amount of venom they inject into whatever it is they’re striking. In other words they inject as much venom as is necessary, per instance. The theory is that juveniles have venom that is just as potent, but may not be able to regulate the amount of venom injected into the intended recipient thereby giving that individual more venom than is needed to immobilize the bitee.

  2. Thomas Nichols says:

    I was looking to identify a baby snake for some reason I can’t find what I’m looking for, I Googled many sites and feel like I’m getting the run around , at first I thought it could be a copperhead , they is a site that has my little guy or girl and they show a snake that is a copperhead my individual is only about 3 inches long and looks just what they are claiming to be a copperhead but I’ve found out that copperheads are 6 to 7 inches long at birth where as this guy is 3 inches long.

    • gregdodge says:

      Send me a photo and include information on your location (geographic location where you saw snake and habitat it was in). Dekay’s brown snake (Storeria dekayi) is about 3 inches at birth, but they’re pretty distinctive being dark brown to black with a light colored band on the nape.
      For future reference, young copperheads have a bright yellow or green tail tip.

  3. Jo J. Leverette says:

    Having grown up in AL at the foot of a mountain, have seen many Copperheads & Timber Rattlers. Living in GA the past yrs. built our home with a 3 ac. pond and have seen Copperheads coiled at water’s edge, probably waiting on fish or birds, also have seen only one Cottonmouth, shorty & stubby (like a fireplug). In the deep south you learn at an early age the ones to stay away from. I always carried a long handle hoe on the golf cart. Good article you wrote & the pictures.

  4. Of all the sites I have tried to read up on copperheads and water snakes, this is the clearest!

    Too true about the slitted eyes comment. How often can you get that close to really tell? Even if you could, it is closer than I want to be.

    Great article! Thanks.

  5. Angela Duggins says:

    This is what I was searching for as my many “wise” neighbors at the lake have seen many copperheads lately. We’re in northern Indiana, and all I’ve ever seen are Northern water snakes. Thanks for posting!

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