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How to spot and correctly identify North Carolina's six venomous snakes

How to spot and correctly identify North Carolina's six venomous snakes

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Cottonmouth snake

Cotton Mouth snake

How well do you know North Carolina's poisonous snakes?

Along with the warmer weather of spring and summer months, North Carolinians know anytime they are outdoors to keep an eye out for things that slither.

For many, the sight of any snake will cause the heart to race. But of the 38 species of snakes in North Carolina, the majority are nonvenomous and not aggressive toward people unless threatened.

Especially in the springtime, when snakes are becoming more active and are more likely to cross our paths, it's good to know the venomous (sometimes incorrectly referred to as poisonous) snakes from the harmless ones, which are beneficial to keep around.

How to tell whether a snake is venomous

What's the head shape? A good rule of thumb is that most venomous snakes have a triangular or diamond-shaped head, while nonvenomous snakes have a tapered head.

Can you see its eyes? If you are close enough to see the snake's pupils, know that venomous snakes have oblong pupils that look like a slit in the center of the eye. Nonvenomous snakes usually have a round pupil.

North Carolina's venomous snakes

There are six venomous snakes found in North Carolina: the copperhead, the cottonmouth (also called water moccasin), the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the timber rattlesnake, the pigmy rattlesnake and the Eastern coral snake.

The coral snake is extremely rare, but has a very serious bite.

Here's a quick overview of the six poisonous snakes in North Carolina.

Eastern Copperhead

Eastern Copperhead


Copperhead snakes are the most common venomous snakes in North Carolina.

They are brownish in color with an hourglass shaped pattern, which resembles a Hershey Kiss.

The Carolinas Poison Center in Charlotte says it receives about 10 times the number of calls about copperhead bites than all other snakes combined. Copperhead bites can be severe, but about half of copperhead bites result in only mild swelling and pain.

Adult copperheads grow to about 3 feet long, and they are found all over North Carolina.

(Source: Carolinas Poison Center).

Eastern Copperhead

Eastern Copperhead

Cottonmouth (water moccasin)

Cottonmouth snakes have dark bands on dark or olive skin, but are most well known for the white, cotton-like interior of their mouths.

Young cottonmouths can be lighter in color and resemble copperheads.

Juvenile cottonmouths have bright yellow or greenish tail tips, and the details of the cross-band pattern are most evident in this age group. Older cottonmouth snakes are often completely dark and with no pattern.

Cottonmouths are found mostly in the eastern part of North Carolina, and prefer freshwater environments (but can also be found on land).

The bite severity of a cottonmouth is similar to that of a copperhead.

Adult cottonmouths grow to about 3-4 feet in length but have been known to grow to 6 feet.

(Source: Carolinas Poison Center, NC Wildlife)

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake

The eastern diamondback rattlesnake has gray or yellowish skin with a dark diamond pattern outlined in black. They have large, broad heads with two light lines on the face.

These snakes are known for the bone-chilling rattle sound they make.

Bites from rattlesnakes are more severe than bites from copperheads or cottonmouths, and are considered a medical emergency.

The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the heaviest, though not the longest, venomous snake in the Americas, and it is the largest rattlesnake in the world. These snakes can weigh up to four or five pounds and typically grow to about 4-5 feet in length (the largest ever recorded was 8 feet long).

They are found in the southeastern parts of North Carolina, preferring sandy, coastal regions.

(Source: Carolinas Poison Center, Savannah River Ecology Lab)

Pygmy rattlesnake

Pygmy rattlesnake

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Pygmy rattlesnake

Pygmy rattlesnakes have gray, pinkish or red skin with a dark, spotted pattern.

Pygmy rattlesnakes do rattle, but the rattle sounds more like a buzz.

Bites from rattlesnakes are more severe than copperheads or cottonmouths, and are considered a medical emergency.

They grow only to about 1-2 feet in length, and they are found in the southeastern part of North Carolina, particularly in forests.

(Source: Carolinas Poison Center)

Timber rattlesnake

Timber rattlesnake

Timber rattlesnake

The timber rattlesnake can vary in color, but has dark bands on lighter skin with a rattle at the end of its tail. Coastal varieties have what looks like a brown or orange "racing stripe" down the middle of the back.

Bites from rattlesnakes are more severe than copperheads or cottonmouths, and are considered a medical emergency.

Timber rattlesnakes, which grow to about 4 feet in length, can be found throughout North Carolina, preferring forests.

(Source: Carolinas Poison Center)

Coral Snake

A close up of an Eastern Coral Snake

Eastern coral snake

Coral snakes are actually extremely rare in North Carolina and are considered endangered, but they are quite venomous.

They are slender with red, yellow and black rings. The coral snake closely resembles the scarlet kingsnake (which is harmless), but there's an easy way to tell them apart. Just remember this rhyme: "Red touches black, friend of Jack; red touches yellow, kills a fellow."

Another way to tell a scarlet kingsnake from a coral snake is by the color of its snout. A scarlet kingsnake has a red snout, and a coral snake has a black snout.

A coral snake's snout is also blunt shaped, especially compared to most snakes.

Coral snakes live in sandy areas near the South Carolina border and stay underground most of the time.

Coral snake venom attacks the central nervous system, and death, if it occurs, is usually the result of respiratory failure.

Scroll to the slideshow at the bottom of this story for more photos.

(Source: Herps of NC)

If you have been bitten by a snake, you SHOULD:

— Sit down and stay calm.

— Gently wash the bite area with warm, soapy water.

— Remove any jewelry or tight clothing near the bite site.

— Keep the bitten area still, if possible, and raise it to heart level.

— Call the Carolinas Poison Center: 1-800-222-1222.

Note: If a snakebite victim is having chest pain, difficulty breathing, face swelling or has lost consciousness, call 911 immediately.

If bitten by a snake, you SHOULD NOT:

— Cut the bitten area to try to drain the venom. This can worsen the injury.

— Ice the area. Icing causes additional tissue damage.

— Apply a tourniquet or any tight bandage. It's actually better for the venom to flow through the body than for it to stay in one area.

— Suck on the bite or use a suction device to try to remove the venom.

— Attempt to catch or kill the snake.

Call Carolinas Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 for questions about a snake bite or for more information.

(Source: Carolinas Poison Center)

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