Kentucky Snakes Identification Guide: Species Profiles & Pictures

You’ll find a diverse assortment of snakes in Kentucky. From slender ribbon snakes to stout copperheads, this state boasts 32 different species of snakes.

I’ll cover how to identify the most common, most dangerous, and most iconic snakes in the Bluegrass State.

You’ll find individual species profiles, including Kentucky snakes pictures and facts.

Read through to the end for a list of useful resources and recommendations on how to coexist with these captivating animals.

In Short

The biggest takeaways from this guide are:

  • Kentucky has 32 species of snakes.
  • If you see a snake in the wild, it’s best to leave it alone.
  • Most snake bites result from people attempting to handle or harm a snake in some way.
  • There are only four species of venomous snakes in Kentucky, all of which are pit vipers.
  • Snakes are more beneficial than they are harmful and are an essential component of the Kentucky ecosystem.

Snake Identification Basics

The most important components to consider when identifying a snake are:

  • Size – Kentucky snakes range in size from seven inches to over six feet. Documenting the length of the snake you found can help set it apart from similar species.
  • Color and Pattern – A snake’s pattern and coloration can be some of your most useful identification tools. Some snakes are solid colored, while others have distinct patterns and markings. You definitely won’t mistake species like the scarlet snake or rough greensnake for rattlesnakes in Kentucky. However, some species appear similar and are easy to misinterpret.
  • Habitat and Location – Most snakes have certain geographic region restrictions and habitat preferences.
  • Pupil and Head Shape – All four venomous species in the state have elliptical pupils and broad, triangular heads. The non-venomous snakes have round pupils and varying head shapes that are generally the same width as their bodies.

For example, if you find a brown snake in Kentucky, it could be many of the species within the state.

You’re much more likely to reach a correct identification when also considering the length, head, pupil shape, and where you found the snake.

Quickly Identifying Venomous Snakes in Kentucky

There are only four venomous, often mislabeled as poisonous, snakes in Kentucky. All four species are pit vipers belonging to the Viperidae family.

Identifying these species is fairly straightforward due to their shared traits.

You can recognize pit vipers by their:

  • Elliptical Pupils – Vertical pupils, like cat eyes
  • Triangular Heads – Broad, triangular heads accommodating venom glands behind the jaw
  • Heat-Sensing Pits – Deep sensory pits between each eye and nostril help the snake locate prey
  • A Single Row of Scales Under the Tail – Most harmless species in the state have two rows of scales on the underside of the tail, behind the cloaca.

Although these features are excellent identifiers, many snakes have evolved to look or act like deadly vipers.

You’re also most likely to see these characteristics at close-range, which could present a dangerous situation.

Always proceed with caution if you aren’t 100% certain of a snake’s identity.

Copperhead

The copperhead is the most common venomous snake species in Kentucky.

Copperhead snake coiled surrounded dead grass and leaves
A copperhead’s rusty coloration helps it camouflage flawlessly with its surroundings.
Scientific Name: Agkistrodon contortrix
Range: Statewide
Adult Size: 20-37 inches

May reach four feet

Description: Elliptical pupils and sensory pits on a blocky head

Heavy-bodied with keeled scales

Copper-red or brown with chestnut, hour-glass shaped bands, and a distinct copper-colored head

May have dark spots between bands

Juveniles have yellow-green tail tips that fade as they age

Habitat: Rocky, wooded hillsides and lowland areas
Diet: Small mammals, frogs, insects, lizards, and birds
Venomous/Non-venomous: Venomous

Western Cottonmouth

Also called water moccasin, the cottonmouth prefers habitats near sources of fresh water.

They are a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” in Kentucky.

Cottonmouth flashes it bright white mouth on top of dead leaves and rocks
When threatened, the cottonmouth earns its name by exposing the bright-white interior of its mouth.
Scientific Name: Agkistrodon piscivorus
Range: Western Kentucky
Adult Size: Two to four feet
Description: A heavy-bodied snake with keeled scales, a stocky head, facial pits, and elliptical pupils

Dark brown to black bodies with dark crossbands, but may appear patternless

Juveniles have yellow-green tail tips and bold patterns that fade as they age

Habitat: Habitats near water, such as swamps, lakes, wetlands, and floodplains, but may also be found in upland areas
Diet: Fish, amphibians, small mammals, birds, and reptiles (including other snakes)
Venomous/Non-venomous: Venomous

Timber Rattlesnake

The timber rattlesnake is the largest of Kentucky’s deadly snakes.

timber rattlesnake coiled with its tail showing
Although it looks fierce, the timber rattlesnake is withdrawn and nonaggressive.
Scientific Name: Crotalus horridus
Range: Statewide except for the Inner Bluegrass Region and Northern Kentucky
Adult Size: 2.5-3.5 feet, up to five feet
Description: Stout body, keeled scales, elliptical pupils, facial pits, and a distinctive rattle at the end of the tail

Gray, yellow, brown, or green with dark V-shaped crossbands, some individuals appear completely black

Habitat: Heavily forested areas, rocky outcrops, and bluffs, especially South and Southwest facing hillsides
Diet: Small mammals, mostly rodents
Venomous/Non-venomous: Venomous

Pygmy Rattlesnake

The pygmy, or pigmy, rattlesnake is the smallest pit viper in Kentucky.

Pigmy rattlesnake coiled on top of dead leaves with grass in the background.
The pygmy rattlesnake’s modest rattle is difficult to hear and sounds like an insect.
Image credit: FunkyHumanBeing (via creativecommons.org)
Scientific Name: Sistrurus miliarius
Range: Only found in Calloway, Lyon, and Trigg counties
Adult Size: 12-25 inches
Description: Keeled scales, elliptical pupils, and sensory pits

Gray or brown body, dark spots along the back and sides, and a dark bar from each eye to the jaw

May have a rust-colored dorsal stripe

Habitat: We know little about their habitat preferences within Kentucky, but pygmy rattlesnakes, in general, prefer forested areas near water
Diet: Small mammals, reptiles, frogs, and centipedes
Venomous/Non-venomous: Venomous

Most Common Snakes in Kentucky

According to sites like iNaturalist, you’re most likely to find these types of snakes in Kentucky (in order from most common to least common):

  1. Common garter snake
  2. Gray rat snake
  3. Eastern copperhead
  4. Common watersnake
  5. Ring-necked snake
  6. North American racer

Garter Snakes

There are three species of garter snakes in Kentucky. You’re most likely to encounter the common garter snake.

Garter Snake on top of dead leaves with a tree bark behind
The common garter snake has an impressive range from Northern Canada to Southern Florida.
Scientific Name: Thamnophis sirtalis

Eastern garter snake: Thamnophis s. sirtalis

Range: Statewide
Adult Size: 18-26 inches
Description: Round pupils and keeled scales on a slender body

Coloration varies, but most are brown or black with three light-colored stripes along the body

Dark bars on the lip scales help distinguish the common garter snake from its relatives, the ribbonsnakes

Habitat: Habitat generalists, including woodlands, farms, wetlands, and urban areas

Especially common near sources of fresh water

Diet: Amphibians, mice, insects, and birds
Venomous/Non-venomous: Non-venomous

Rat Snakes

If you hear of a cow snake or chicken snake, it may be a gray rat snake in Kentucky. These nicknames come from its preference for consuming small rodents, birds, and bird eggs.

Some farmers utilize rat snakes as pest control around their barns.

Rat snake with its tongue out on top of grass
Rat snakes are the largest snake species in Kentucky, with some individuals exceeding six feet in length.
Image credit: Will Brown (via creativecommons.org)
Scientific Name: Pantherophis spiloides
Range: Statewide
Adult Size: 42-72 inches
Description: Round pupils and weakly keeled scales

Black or gray bodies with dark blotches

Habitat: A variety of habitats, including woodlands, farms, and suburban areas

They’re good climbers, often seen in trees

Diet: Small mammals, birds, and eggs
Venomous/Non-venomous: Non-venomous

The gray rat snake is one of several Pantherophis species that was once considered a subspecies of black rat snake.

After an update to their taxonomy, they’re now classified as individual species.

Water Snakes

There are five species of water snakes in Kentucky. The common watersnake, or Northern water snake, is the most abundant in the state.

Northern water snake basking on top of a rock surrounded by water
Watersnakes often bask on rocks and vegetation where they can easily slip into the water if disturbed.
Scientific Name: Nerodia sipedon
Range: Statewide
Adult Size: 22-42 inches
Description: Heavy-bodied with keeled scales and round pupils

Brown, gray, or black with brown or reddish-brown markings along the body

Older adults may appear patternless

Habitat: Habitats in or near sources of fresh water
Diet: Fish, amphibians, and insects
Venomous/Non-venomous: Non-venomous

People often mistake watersnakes for cottonmouths because of their shared habitat preferences and similar appearances. However, there are several ways to tell them apart:

  • Watersnakes have round pupils and lack facial pits.
  • When intimidated, cottonmouths vibrate their tails; watersnakes don’t.
  • Watersnakes swim with their heads at the water’s surface. A cottonmouth typically swims with its head sticking out of the water.
  • A cottonmouth will “gape” when it feels threatened, showing the white lining of its mouth. It’s uncommon for watersnakes to exhibit this behavior.

Cottonmouths only live in Western Kentucky.

Ring-Necked Snakes

Look for these snakes hiding with their preferred diet of earthworms and snails under rocks, logs, and debris.

Ring-necked snake coiled on top of dirt and dead grass
When startled, the ring-neck snake flashes its bright orange belly as a warning to stay away.
Image credit: 2ndPeter (via creativecommons.org)
Scientific Name: Diadophis punctatus
Range: Statewide
Adult Size: 10-18 inches
Description: Slender-bodied snake with smooth scales and round pupils

Solid colored bodies; either gray, black, olive, or somewhere in-between

Distinguishing yellow, orange, or red ventral scales and a ring around its neck

Habitat: Forests and moist habitats
Diet: Earthworms, slugs, snails, amphibians, and small reptiles
Venomous/Non-venomous: Non-venomous

Eastern Racers

These black snakes in Kentucky are difficult to keep up with. As their name suggests, racers are fast-moving.

Eastern racer coiled on top of dead leaves
There are 11 different subspecies of Eastern racers throughout North America.
Image credit: 2ndPeter (via creativecommons.org)
Scientific Name: North American Black Racer – Coluber constrictor
Range: Statewide
Adult Size: 20-60 inches
Description: Slender bodies with smooth, shiny scales and round pupils

Uniformly black or blue-gray with a white chin

Juveniles have dark-colored blotches

Habitat: A variety of habitats, with a preference for grasslands, forest edges, and near wetlands

Excellent climbers; often found in trees and shrubs

Diet: Generalists, including rodents, birds, amphibians, insects, and reptiles, including snakes
Venomous/Non-venomous: Non-venomous

Iconic Snake Species

Snakes are unique, variable animals. Some species are especially remarkable, standing out from the rest.

Let’s take a look at some of the most iconic species of Kentucky snakes.

Eastern Hognose Snake

The Eastern hognose, Heterodon platirhinos, is an unusual species with dramatic tendencies.

Hognose snakes have unique defensive displays. When threatened, a hognose widens its head and neck, inflates its body, and releases a long hiss.

If this isn’t enough to ward off a predator, the hognose will play dead. It rolls over, twitches, lets its tongue dangle from its open mouth, and emits a foul-smelling musk.

Eastern hog snake with its tongue out with grass on the side
The defensive display of a hognose snake has earned it the nickname “puff adder.”

You’ll find these snakes in an assortment of habitats throughout Kentucky, but they prefer areas with sandy, loose soil.

Its upturned snout helps it burrow and dig for prey.

Scarlet Kingsnake

Although it isn’t one of the most common snakes in Kentucky, the scarlet kingsnake is memorable for its flashy pattern.

Many people easily and frequently misidentify these snakes as venomous coral snakes.

Their imitation of the coral snake’s pattern is called Batesian mimicry. The scarlet kingsnake tricks predators into thinking it’s venomous.

Scarlet kingsnake on top of dead leaves and twigs
The popular rhyme for recalling which species are harmless, “Red touch black, friend of Jack. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow,” is only applicable in North America.
Image credit: LandBetweentheLakesKYTN (via creativecommons.org)

Don’t worry about remembering which is which, because coral snakes don’t live in Kentucky.

The scarlet kingsnake is deemed a Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

It only resides in extreme Southern, Eastern, and Western Kentucky.

Snakes Native to Kentucky

Below is a comprehensive list of Kentucky snakes, organized by family and genera.

Colubridae

All but four of the 32 snake species native to Kentucky belong to the family Colubridae.

The Colubrids are a family of non-venomous snakes found throughout the world. It’s the most extensive family of snakes, and the most diverse.

Racers
Eastern Racer Coluber constrictor
Mud Snakes
Red-bellied Mudsnake Farancia abacura
Rat Snakes
Gray Ratsnake Pantherophis spiloides
Red Cornsnake Pantherophis guttatus
Pine Snakes
Northern Pinesnake Pituophis melanoleucus
Kingsnakes
Black Kingsnake Lampropeltis nigra
Prairie Kingsnake Lampropeltis calligaster
Scarlet Kingsnake Lampropeltis elapsoides
Eastern Milksnake Lampropeltis triangulum
Worm Snakes
Common Wormsnake Carphophis ameonus
Brown Snakes
Dekay’s Brownsnake Storeria dekayi
Red-bellied Snake Storeria occipitomaculata
Earthsnakes
Smooth Earthsnake Virginia valeriae
Greensnakes
Rough Greensnake Opheodrys aestivus
Water Snakes
Common Watersnake Nerodia sipedon
Plainbelly Watersnake Nerodia erythrogaster
Broad-banded Watersnake Nerodia fasciata
Diamondback Watersnake Nerodia rhombifer
Mississippi Green Watersnake Nerodia cyclopion
Garter Snakes
Eastern Garter Snake Thamnophis sirtalis
Eastern Ribbon Snake Thamnophis sauritus
Western Ribbon Snake Thamnophis proximus
Scarlet Snakes
Scarlet Snake Cemophora coccinea
Hognose Snakes
Eastern Hog-nosed Snake Heterodon platirhinos
Crayfish Snakes
Queensnake Regina septemvittata
Centipede Snakes
Southeastern Crowned Snake Tantilla coronata
Kirtland’s Snake
Kirtland’s Snake Clonophis kirtlandii
Ring-necked Snakes
Ring-necked Snake Diadophis punctatus

Viperidae

All four venomous Kentucky snakes belong to the Viperidae family.

American Moccasins
Copperhead Agkistrodon contortrix
Cottonmouth Agkistrodon piscivorus
Rattlesnakes
Pygmy Rattlesnake Sistrurus miliarius
Timber Rattlesnake Crotalus horridus

What You Need to Know

Snakes aren’t the scary beasts much of society has made them out to be. In fact, many snakes make excellent pets!

Most wild snakes are reclusive and prefer not to be around people. Coming across one in the wild is just as startling, if not more, for them as it is for you.

Other than accidentally stepping on or grabbing a snake, most bites occur when someone is purposefully trying to injure or handle a snake.

The best thing to do if you see a snake is to leave it alone.

Coexisting With Snakes

Snakes are essential elements of the Kentucky ecosystem.

They help keep pest populations balanced by consuming rodents, insects, and other invertebrates that cause damage to crops and spread disease.

Snakes help prevent the spread of disease by consuming sick animals or animals that host Lyme disease-carrying ticks.

They’re also an important food source for numerous animals, including mammals, birds, fish, and other reptiles.

Snakes do more good than harm, and we need to keep them around. The most suitable way to overcome a fear of snakes is by educating yourself.

Snake Safety

Venomous Snakes

You’re more likely to accidentally step on a pit viper than you are many of the harmless species in Kentucky.

Instead of running away when startled, they prefer to stay as still as possible and camouflage with their environment.

Don’t let this worry you too much; venomous snake bites are far and few between in the United States, and fatal bites are extremely rare.

Except for the copperhead, most of Kentucky’s dangerous snakes live in remote areas away from civilization. It’s unlikely that you’ll come across one.

If you see one of the state’s venomous species, respect its space, and you’ll stay safe.

Treading Carefully in Snake Habitat

There are a few simple steps to keep yourself and your loved ones safe around snakes.

The best measures to take while in potential snake habitats:

  • Wear sturdy boots and long pants while hiking.
  • Stay on marked paths that are well-worn or paved.
  • Watch where you step, sit, and where you place your hands.
  • Keep your pet on a leash and monitor where they put their noses.

Snakes commonly hide under rocks, wood, debris, and in vegetation.

If You Encounter a Snake

If you encounter a snake in the wild, stay calm.

Admire it from a distance and continue on your way, or let it leave on its own.

If the snake is in an area that poses a threat to you or it’s at risk, contact a professional wildlife handler to remove it.

Never attempt to capture or kill a snake.

When to Call for Help

Few situations warrant calling for help. The only times you’ll need professional assistance are if you or your loved ones are in danger.

If a venomous snake bites you, call 911 immediately.

Don’t wait for symptoms to appear. Antivenom is most effective when administered within a few hours.

Seek emergency veterinary care if a venomous snake bites your pet.

Utilize the resources below to find professionals in your area.

Useful Resources

Emergency Resources

Pet Emergencies

  • Pet Poison Hotline 800-213-6680
  • ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center 888-426-4435

Educational Resources

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Is there something we missed that you’re dying to know about Kentucky snakes? Let us know in the comments!

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