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It’s a snake! But what kind?

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 6:00pm

It’s a snake! But what kind?

Snakes! Just thinking about snakes can strike fear into the biggest and bravest people. People are often afraid when they feel unsafe or think something is dangerous. The fear of snakes, as with any fear, can be decreased with a little bit of knowledge about our legless park reptiles. So here are a few ranger tips to help you out!

Often, the first question a ranger gets is “What kind of snake is this?” While some are interested in the actual identification, most are really interested in one characteristic - venomous or not. Truth be told, most ask if the snake is poisonous or not. North Carolina has 37 species of snakes. None are poisonous, and only six are venomous. What's the difference? It’s all in how the toxin of an animal or plant is delivered. Let’s compare the venomous copperhead to our eastern newt. The copperhead has toxins that are delivered through a unique body part - in this case, their fangs.  The eastern newt has toxins on their skin that are usually picked up by a predator interested in eating it; no fangs or stingers involved. In the typical struggle for survival in our park natural areas, the toxins of a newt are used as a defense against predators that try to eat them. While park visitors may think that venomous snakes are frightening, the venom of snakes is simply to immobilize their prey and start digestion. It’s just how they eat!

So, how do you know if a snake is venomous? All but one of NC’s venomous snakes have triangular or diamond shaped heads and elliptical pupils (cat like eyes). While venomous snake species are located in different parts of North Carolina, one species is located in all 100 counties of the state; the copperhead. Here are some quick physical characteristics to help you identify this wide-ranging snake:

Copperhead Characteristics:

  • Copper colored head
  • Reddish to light tan/brown body
  • Dark chestnut hourglass-like cross bands
  • Tails fade to dark brown/black on adult snakes
  • Tails are neon green on young snakes
  • Average adult lengths ranges from 24”-36”

While venomous snakes deserve a little extra respect, the first and most important rule is to keep a safe distance from any snake. If you don’t give the snake an opportunity to bite you then you don’t have to worry about whether it’s venomous or not. When you encounter a snake, take a few photos (from a safe distance, remember!), see if you can identify it, and then leave it be and it will return the favor.

While we explored some basic ID tips for snakes, we’ve only scratched the surface of these intriguing and important animals. As with any topic that generates anxiety or fear, it is important to remain open-minded and try to learn something new. So the next time you’re exploring our state parks, keep that open-mind. Our natural world will never disappoint, snakes included.

I hope to see you in the woods.

Ranger Kevin
*Ranger recommended resources:

  • A Guide to the Snakes of North Carolina, by M. Dorcas
  • Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia, by J. Beane, A. Braswell, J. Mitchell, W. Palmer and J. Harrison III
An inviting trail at William B. Umstead State Park

8801 Glenwood Avenue
Raleigh, NC 27617



Map of North Carolina

GPS: 35.8905, -78.7502


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The gate at Crabtree Creek opens at 7 a.m. daily as part of a pilot program to allow early access to the trails system.
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