Northern Water Snake vs Copperhead

It’s almost a daily occurrence, I’d be watching a water snake coiled up and snoozing in the grass on the north side of the Wetlands, point the snake out to someone passing by and they’d say, “That looks like a Copperhead,” or, “Is that a moccasin, cottonmouth?” or most often, “Is it poisonous?”

The answer to that statement and those questions is always no.

In explaining my no response, last question first, no snake in our area is poisonous. It’s an honest mistake but the correct word for a biting snake with fangs that injects toxins into its prey, or enemies, is venomous.

Moving forward, water moccasins, or cottonmouths as they are often called, are scarce above the fall line, or coastal plain in our state. This too is an honest mistake for some folks. The Museum, in Durham, is not very far from the fall line (just one county east) and many people who visit us live below the fall line where they are likely to encounter cottonmouths. That’s not to say that a cottonmouth has never been or never will be seen above the fall line or in Durham, but the chances are pretty slim.

The copperheads? The pictures below do a better job of replying to the statement, “That looks like a Copperhead,” than simple words.

A Northern Water Snake crossing the path in Explore the Wild (5/7/13).
A Copperhead crossing the path in Explore the Wild (5/17/13).

And here they are again in direct comparison.

Water snake (top) and copperhead.

Putting aside the broad, copper-colored head of the bottom snake, look at the pattern. Although variable, the pattern on the northern water snake is never as clean and bright as it is on the copperhead, at least in our area.

Both patterns serve their wearer well in their respective habitats. The close banding on the water snake works well in the reflective, dappled light of a watery domain while the wide-spaced, hourglass pattern on the copperhead suits its leaf-littered wooded haunts. They’re easy to see on the pavement, but not so easy to spot in their natural habitats.

If you like to hike in the woods you’ve probably walked past more copperheads than you’d care to know about. You may have even stepped directly over one without realizing it. But that’s a story for another time.

Look at the patterns on the snakes above and you should have no problem differentiating a northern water snake from a copperhead. As I said, the water snake’s pattern is variable, some may be darker, lighter, or may even be quite red, but the pattern on the copperhead is locally consistent.

Have fun!


10 responses to Northern Water Snake vs Copperhead

  1. Sheri Greene says:

    Is there a way I can send you a picture of one of many snakes we have killed in our yard. I would love to find out that it is a water snake instead of a copperhead! We live in Johnson County. Thank you

  2. Barbara says:

    Just found your site when I was looking up a snake that was near my husband (who was outside – in Durham – mowing the lawn). Wasn’t sure what it was, and didn’t want to kill an innocent creature, now I know it was a copperhead. Thank you for posting this! It was very helpful.

  3. Kat Squibb says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I used to work as an assistant wildlife biologist in NJ specializing in T&E surveys and it drives me crazy the amount of people down here who see a snake and just assume its venomous and kill it. The NC Herp Society doesnt seem to really update their NC Snake guide or website with regard to changes in scientific names and ranges so it makes it very hard to direct people to the proper resources for them to decide for themselves.

  4. Robin Sheedy says:

    This is a useful comparison of the markings on the two snakes. I have seen both in this area, around the Eno River, in particular.

    • Greg Dodge says:

      Yes, the question of “Is that a Copperhead?” comes up so often here at the Museum that I thought it a good idea to point the differences out in simple photos.

  5. Bill Knighton says:

    thanks. Everyone thinks I’m a dork for dissing their supposed copperhead. Now I point them here.

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