Snake encounters are on the rise: Five North Carolina Snakes You Should Recognize On Sight

Snake encounters are on the rise: Five North Carolina Snakes You Should Recognize On Sight

Snake encounters and bites have been on the rise in North Carolina across the country. Why? One theory is increased human activity. Simply put, with indoor venues restricted due to Covid-19, more of us are spending more time outdoors.   There are 38 species of snakes native to North Carolina, so chances are good that you’ll run across one sooner or later.

But that doesn’t mean you need to forgo your favorite outdoor activity. It does, however, highlight the importance of knowing how to recognize common North Carolina snake species on sight.

Whether you’re a native or transplant, that knowledge, along with a little common sense, can help keep you, the kids and your pets safe.

What should you do if you do see a snake?  Stay calm and move away slowly.

Left alone, snakes, even poisonous snakes, are not a threat to humans.  Snakes play a critical role in North Carolina’s ecosystems. They help control pests and serve as a food source for some of our most loved wildlife, including eagles, hawks and owls.

In fact, snakes only bite humans when they are provoked.  That is, snakes bite when someone accidentally steps on them, or tries to pick one up, or attempts to kill one. The smart option if you come across a snake – stay calm and move slowly away.   

Here are Five North Carolina snakes you should learn to recognize – and why. 

1. Copperheads: the venomous snake North Carolinians are most likely to encounter

Statewide, North Carolinians are more likely to encounter a Copperhead than any other venomous snake.  That is because Copperheads are common across a wide variety of habitats, including most of the state’s urban environments. The pervasiveness of Copperheads, along with their propensity to bite when provoked, is what puts them at the top of our list of snakes you should recognize on sight.

Copperhead Snake. Image courtesy of Wilafa.

Copperheads are both easy to identify and hard to see. Adults are medium-sized snakes with a thick body, typically about 2-3 feet long. But the defining feature to look for is the distinctive brown hourglass pattern of a Copperhead’s skin. Quite beautiful, that patterning provides great camouflage – it lets Copperheads disappear into the leaves without even moving.

So when and where are you most likely to find a one? Copperheads are most active at night and in urban areas many of their encounters with humans happen at dusk – just when we are bringing out the trash or running out to lock up the car. Tip: don’t wear those flip-flops outside in the evening!

As importantly, fall gardeners often discover Copperheads under bushes, rock and woodpiles; hikers and runners spot them basking in the late afternoon sun. When you recognize one, even a juvenile, walk away. Though not inherently aggressive, Copperheads are likely to bite when provoked. However, while those bites are extremely painful, they are rarely fatal.  

2. Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin): easily confused with harmless water snakes

The only venomous water snake in North Carolina, the Cottonmouth is a species you should learn to recognize on sight. Why? Certainly, it’s important because they are venomous and they will bite if threatened. But identifying them is also important because the Cottonmouth is easily confused with nonvenomous swimming snakes. Many harmless water snakes are killed here each year due to mistaken identity.

Cottonmouth Snake. Image courtesy of Virginia State Parks.

Cottonmouth. The name alone gives people chills. You can save yourself anxious moments by learning to recognize them. As adults, Cottonmouths are long snakes, typically 3-6 feet with a patterned skin – dark crossbands over a dark background. Strong swimmers, you will find them in watery habitats of the Coastal Plains region and parts of the Outer Banks.

That also means Cottonmouths are not normally found in the Piedmont Region or in the NC Mountains. So, you remember that the long dark snake you saw swimming at Jordan Lake the other morning? It was most likely a just a water snake. 

3. Rat or Black snake: our most frequently sighted large snake

The Rat Snake (also known as a “Black Snake” or “Pilot Black Snake”) is not venomous, but it’s still an important snake for North Carolinians to recognize. Why? The Rat Snake is hands down the most common large snake you will encounter in North Carolina and it’s nice to know they aren’t a threat to humans.

Rat Snakes are found in every corner of the state and they commonly live in habitats frequented by humans. They are most active during daylight hours, in fact, you’ve probably seen one or more.

Remember that long black snake tail you glimpsed disappearing under your deck? It was most likely a Rat Snake.  They are also phenomenal climbers, don’t be surprised to see one atop a fence or in a tree. Fortunately, Rat Snakes don’t pose a danger to people. They might startle you if you come across one unexpectedly, but typically they only bite to defend themselves.

Black or Rat Snake. Image courtesy of Judy Gallagher.

Rat Snakes are easy to recognize. They have a substantial, long body, often five feet or more in length and a uniform black color with a white underside and chin. They are sometimes confused with the Black Racer – another native non-venomous snake. Racers, however, are longer, slim-bodied black snakes with smooth shiny scales. They move much faster than Rat Snakes.  

4. Eastern Worm Snake: the most common snake that nobody’s heard of

Surprisingly, the snake species that’s actually the most common in North Carolina is the little Eastern Worm Snake. It’s also the least recognized.

Often mistaken for worms or baby snakes, these tiny reptiles can be brown or grey in color; they are shiny and are typically less than a foot long.  

Eastern Worm Snake. Image courtesy of Greg Schechter.

Usually, Worm Snakes are unearthed when people move logs or mulch. Worm snakes don’t bite humans, but they do wriggle like crazy when uncovered.  It’s enough make you jump and to give your kids the giggles. 

5. Timber Rattlesnake: the bite can be life threatening

Finally, if you are among the hikers who enjoy North Carolina trails and natural areas, it’s important that you know how to recognize the Timber Rattlesnake. Why? This venomous snake made our list because its bite, though rare, can be life-threatening. If you or a companion are ever bit by a rattlesnake, get medical help as soon as possible.

Timber Rattlesnake. Image courtesy of Peter Paplanus.

Timber rattlesnakes are large creatures, 4-6 feet long and heavy-bodied, they have a distinctive and colorful pattern of dark chevron bands over a light background.  Fun Fact: Timber rattlesnakes can live 30 years in the wild and hibernate together in large numbers.

Timber Rattlesnakes are prevalent in the North Carolina Mountains and along Coastal Plain, particularly less populated areas. They thrive in numerous habitats, including forests, agricultural sites, marshes, ponds, rivers and fields.

Of note, Timber Rattlesnakes have virtually disappeared from the more populated Piedmont area, so you aren’t likely to encounter one here. 

Are these the only snakes in NC?

No. This list reflects five common snakes in North Carolina. For more information about the snakes you might find in North Carolina, visit NC Wildlife and Natural Sciences.


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