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Copperheads Vs. Garter Snakes

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Agkistrodon contortrix, better known as the copperhead, is a kind of pit viper that can be found in the eastern half of the United States, including the states of Delaware and Maryland. Every so often a customer (usually a visitor from an urban area) will say to one of our technicians, “Copperheads? You don’t have them around here, right?” Wrong! As a matter of fact, one of our technicians encountered a copperhead earlier this week in a housing development in Frankford, curled up in a half-moon crawlspace well, most likely feeding on trapped frogs.

Copperheads are one of several venomous snakes in North America. While not nearly as venomous as cottonmouths or rattlesnakes (which are not found in this area, though cottonmouths range as far north as Virginia), a copperhead bite requires immediate medical attention, and can damage muscle and bone tissue. When treated in a timely manner, the vast majority of copperhead bites are nonfatal.

On the flip side, sometimes a customer will casually mention that he or she sees copperheads “all the time.” This is possible, but unlikely, as these snakes (like most others) prefer to avoid humans. Copperheads are, for the most part, nonaggressive; they usually only bite when threatened or accidentally disturbed. It is more likely that the customer’s yard is frequented by common garter snakes, which are brown and yellow in color, enjoy sunning themselves in warm weather, and are harmless.

For the untrained eye, here are a few tips for distinguishing between copperheads and garter snakes.

Copperhead Snakes

  • Coloration: Tan and brown
  • Length: 2-3 feet
  • Characteristics: Broad head (sometimes described as looking like a penny from above), thick body
  • Venomous? Yes!
  • Nicknames: Death adder, highland moccasin, pilot snake, cantil cobrizo

Common Garter Snakes

  • Coloration: Yellow stripes on a brown background; coloration varies in other subspecies
  • Length: 2-4 feet
  • Characteristics: Brown background often features a row of darker diamonds
  • Venomous? No
  • Nicknames: N/A
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