The heat and humidity of summertime is an active period for biting insects and slithering reptiles. Snakes are an often talked about reptile in that you either like them or hate them. The majority of folks tend to dislike snakes but they are a living species just like all the other animals that call this place home.
Snakes are cold-blooded vertebrates, meaning that their body temperature depends on the surrounding temperature of their environment. They are vertebrates because they have a backbone. Snakes are also the first animals in evolution to develop the amniotic egg.
Here in West Virginia we have 22 species of snakes with only two of them being poisonous. Copperheads and rattlesnakes are the only venomous snakes found in West Virginia. So if someone told you they saw a cottonmouth, water moccasin, cobra, boa constrictor or python in the wild here they are full of it.
Copperheads and rattlesnakes are classified as pit vipers because they have heat sensing facial pits located between the eye and nostril on each side of the head. These heat sensing pits detect changes in infrared wavelengths and are used to locate and accurately strike warm blooded prey. Both snakes also possess hollow fangs that contain toxic venom used to slow down potential prey.
One sure way to tell if a snake found in West Virginia is poisonous or not is to look at the eyes. Copperheads and rattlesnakes have vertical pupils like a cat. All the other non-poisonous snakes found here have round pupils like ours. Of course you should observe these reptiles from a safe distance. Most snake bites occur when the animal is being provoked so it’s better to just leave them be and walk a wide circle around them if you stumble upon one in the woods.
Another difference that rattlesnakes and copperheads have from other non-poisonous snakes is that they give live birth. They are ovoviviparous meaning that they retain the eggs within the body of the female until development is complete and the young are then born alive. Most snakes lay eggs in the soil or under leaf debris and are oviparous.
Each snake species is unique in its own way. The buzzing rattle from an agitated rattlesnake is like nothing else in nature. Each time the rattlesnake sheds its skin, a new rattle is added. It is still unsure why snakes shed their skin but one theory suggests it’s to allow growth. A healthy snake can go through four to five sheddings per year. Rattle segments are frequently broken as the snake crawls over rocks and other debris. This also keeps the rattle functional as with too many rattle segments, it would be impossible to get that loud warning signal as a long string doesn’t rattle properly.
The timber rattlesnakes found in West Virginia can reach lengths up to 4 feet long. They can vary in color from yellowish/ tan to coal black. The black timber rattlers tend to be found more in the higher elevations. I’ve actually seen both color phases in our West Virginia mountains. The difference in color is not an indication of the sex as both males and females can have both color phases.
Northern copperheads are smaller in size and rarely reach lengths greater than 36 inches long. They get their name from the copper orange to light brown coloring. It’s easily recognized by the brown hourglass-shaped crossbands found along its back.
Despite its bad reputation, copperheads are reluctant to strike unless provoked. Their bite is also less severe than rattlesnakes because they inject smaller amounts of venom and their venom is less virulent. Copperheads are the most widely distributed and most common of the two venomous snake species found in West Virginia.
The Northern black racer is one of the more common non-poisonous snakes found around here and is often seen on and along our roadways. It’s black in color with a white throat patch. They are the fastest snake found in West Virginia. They can become aggressive, especially when provoked. Oftentimes it appears that black racers are coming after you when you see one, but what they are really trying to do is get to cover or their hole as fast as they can. They seem to not care if you’re standing in the way.
Black racers have smooth scales whereas are other black rat snake has keeled, or rough scales. Black rat snakes tend to inhabit old barns and basements as that’s where their main prey species, mice, are also found. Another unique reptile species that lives here is the Eastern hognose snake. This species is unique in that when confronted it will inflate its body with air and flatten its head and neck while hissing and even short striking in the direction of the intruder.
It gets its name from its upturned short and flat snout that resembles a pig’s nose. Hognose snakes will even roll over on their back and play dead like a possum when messed with. When the intruder leaves, it simply rolls back over and slithers away.
Northern water snakes are of course abundant where there’s ample amount of water found. These snakes have a keeled or flattened tail to help with swimming. Their diet consists of fish, frogs, salamanders, insects, and crayfish. If you fish ponds regularly I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of water snakes.
These are but a few snakes that one could encounter here in West Virginia. Garter snakes are another common smaller snake that I’ve seen plenty of. Whether you like them or not, they live here too. For more information on snakes and other reptiles, I highly recommend the book “Amphibians & Reptiles in West Virginia” by N. Bayard and Thomas K. Pauley.