Massachusetts Snakes Species Guide: How to Identify & Stay Safe

Massachusetts snakes are diverse, though there aren’t many of them. They range from the small and harmless Eastern worm snake to the large, venomous Northern copperhead.

Eastern milk snake coiled on top of rocks
Eastern milk snakes are one of the most striking species in Massachusetts.
Image credit: u/Forest_Dweller99 (via Reddit.com)

This guide will take a closer look at the snake species in the area, and help you to learn the ins and outs of living around snakes.

In Short

This article will teach you:

  • The basics of snake identification
  • Which snake species are most common
  • How to react when you discover a snake in the wild
  • How to recognize the two venomous species in the region

I’ll also share pictures of some of the snake species and a wealth of resources to help you deal with the snakes native to your area.

Snake Identification Basics

When you’re learning to identify snakes, you need to take note of some essential traits, such as:

  • The snake’s length
  • Its head shape and pupil shape
  • The snake’s color and patterning
  • The locality and habitat type where you find the snake

Below, we’ll take a closer look at why these things are important.

Length

Most snakes reach an average length beyond which they’ll never grow. While some specimens receive the genetics to grow longer, it’s not a common occurrence.

Eastern Garter Snake on white background
The Eastern Garter snake is a long snake, an identification characteristic which sets it apart from smaller species.

By taking note of a species’ average length and maximum length (the absolute largest snake ever recorded for a species) you can easily narrow down the identification for a species you find.

For example, the timber rattlesnake is a large snake, reaching sizes of over five feet.

Its large size sets it instantly apart from species like the Eastern worm snake which has a maximum length of under two feet.

You can use the length guideline for any species to tell you whether a snake you found could be that species. The only exception is if you find a baby snake, which hasn’t reached its full length.

Locality and Habitat Type

Most snakes prefer a specific habitat type. By taking note of the habitat type where you find a snake, you can narrow down your identification list to include species that use that habitat.

Northern Water Snake close-up and coiled.
The Northern water snake only lives near freshwater sources like rivers and marshes.

For example, the Northern water snake only lives near freshwater sources like rivers or marshes. The timber rattlesnake prefers rocky hillsides covered with trees.

Species like the Eastern ribbon snake and black rat snake are exceptions. They’ll live anywhere where the small mammals they feed on are abundant.

Most species, whether snakes or other creatures, have a well-defined distribution. Most professional field guides have distribution maps that you can check.

By taking note of where you find the snake, geographically, you can look only for species found in that area.

Head and Pupil Shape

The shape of a snake’s head can be a distinguishing characteristic too. For instance, pit vipers have wide, flattened heads.

Monterey Ring-necked snake in a defensive posture on top of twigs
The ringneck snake has round pupils, unlike pit vipers which have elliptical pupils.

The Eastern milk snake has a rounded, almost bullet-like head. Take careful note of the shape, as it might be an identification tie-breaker later.

Different groups of snakes also have different eyes and specifically, pupil shapes. Snakes typically have one of three pupil shapes:

  • Round
  • Slit-shaped
  • Horizontal

In Massachusetts, you’re only likely to see round or slit-shaped pupils.

The only snakes in the area with elliptical (slit) pupils are the pit vipers. If you see a snake with this type of pupil, you know it’s a timber rattlesnake or Northern copperhead.

Color and Patterning

While color and patterning vary significantly, even within a species, they’re still invaluable.

Species with a solid color rarely manifest crossed banding or a series of blotches. Patterned species rarely manifest solid colors, and so on.

If you find a black snake in Massachusetts, the brown and orange body of the red-bellied snake will quickly rule that out as a possible species.

However, the sleek body color of the Eastern rat snakes makes them a prime candidate.

Alone, none of the characteristics is likely to give you a definitive answer. But, by combining them all, you can quickly arrive at the right answer.

Quickly Identifying Venomous Snake Species

Since there are only two venomous snake species in Massachusetts, identifying them is fairly easy.

Both of the venomous species are pit vipers, making them easier to spot. Pit vipers share the following characteristics:

  • Elliptical (slit-shaped) pupils
  • A robust, thick body (irrespective of the snake’s length)
  • Adapted tail scales (in rattlesnakes) that produce a low hissing sound
  • Neutral coloration that blends well with leaf litter and other natural materials
  • Wide, flattened heads with large heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils

Which Snakes Live in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts has a total of 14 snake species, including two venomous snakes:

  • Timber rattlesnake – Crotalus horridus
  • Northern copperhead – Agkistrodon contortrix.

The non-venomous snakes in the area are mostly singular representatives of their genera. However, the following two genera have more than one species in the area:

  • Brown Snakes
    • DeKay’s brownsnake – Storeria dekayi
    • Northern red-bellied snake – Storeria occipitomaculata
  • Garter Snakes
    • Eastern garter snake – Thamnophis sirtalis
    • Eastern ribbon snake – Thamnophis sauritus

The other nine species in Massachusetts have no closely related species in the area.

  • Black rat snake – Pantherophis alleghaniensis
  • Ringneck snake – Diadophis punctatus
  • Eastern black racerColuber constrictor
  • Eastern milk snake – Lampropeltis triangulum
  • Smooth green snake – Opheodrys vernalis
  • Eastern worm snake – Carphophis amoenus
  • Northern watersnake – Nerodia sipedon
  • Eastern hognose snake – Heterodon platyrhinos

Most Common New England Snakes (Including Massachusetts)

Massachusetts shares its wealth of species with the greater area of New England. Although New England comprises five other states as well, the diversity is the same.

According to iNaturalist, the following New England snakes are the most common in the region:

  • Common garter snake – Thamnophis sirtalis
  • Common watersnake – Nerodia sipedon
  • Eastern milk snake – Lampropeltis triangulum
  • Dekay’s brownsnake –Storeria dekayi
  • Ring-necked snake – Diadophis punctatus

Garter Snakes

Spotting a garter snake in Massachusetts isn’t hard to do. These habitat generalists are common wherever their preferred prey of small mammals and small birds is abundant.

Common Garter snake close up on top of dead grass
The Eastern Garter Snake has distinctive stripes along the length of its body.

Scientific Name:

Eastern garter snake – Thamnophis sirtalis

Eastern ribbon snake – Thamnophis sauritus

Range:

Throughout the state

Adult Size:

Up to 49 inches

Description:

Long slender snakes with narrow, elongated heads and round pupils.

Brown or black with light brown or yellow vertebral stripes ranging between two and four in number.

Habitat:

Habitat generalist, anywhere with abundant food

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Eastern Milk Snake

Eastern milk snake close up on top of dead leaves
The Eastern Milk snake has the strong body and flat snout that’s typical of its family.
Image credit: u/[deleted] (via Reddit.com)

 

Unlike most milk snakes, it isn’t easy to mistake a milk snake from Massachusetts for a venomous coral snake. Their muted coloration makes them quite distinct.

Scientific Name:

Lampropeltis triangulum

Range:

Throughout the state

Adult Size:

Up to 36 inches

Description:

A long, robust snake with a build typical of constricting species.

Colored with red, black, and yellow bands across all of the body.

It has a short, rounded head with round pupils and a tail that tapers to a point.

Habitat:

Diverse, but most often in forested areas

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Brown Snakes

Northern Brown Snake coiled on a tree branch
Brown snakes are small, unobtrusive species.

The brown snake and red-bellied snake are common and harmless inhabitants of the region that feed on slugs and other small animals.

Scientific Name:

DeKay’s brownsnake – Storeria dekayi

Northern red-bellied snake – Storeria occipitomaculata

Range:

Throughout the state

Adult Size:

Up to 13 inches

Description:

Short, thick-bodied species with a slightly elongated, but blunt-looking head and round pupils.

Brown with a light vertical stripe flanked by spots. A red belly in the case of the Northern red-bellied snake.

Habitat:

Diverse, but prefers moist soils

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Ring-Neck Snake

Pacific ring-necked snake coiled on top of dead leaves and branches
The ringneck snake has striking colors to warn potential predators off.

The ring-neck snake, or ring-necked snake, is a beautiful species with a bright orange belly and a distinctive ring around its neck.

Scientific Name:

Diadophis punctatus

Range:

Throughout the state

Adult Size:

Up to 15 inches

Description:

A small snake with a brown body and an orange or red underside.

It has a short head with round pupils and a colored band around its neck.

Habitat:

Moist woodlands and forests

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Water Snakes in Massachusetts

There aren’t many water snakes in Massachusetts. In fact, there’s only one species: the Northern water snake.

Northern Water Snake close up on top of grass
Northern Water Snakes are the second most common species in Massachusetts.

Scientific Name:

Nerodia sipedon

Range:

Throughout the state

Adult Size:

Up to 55 inches

Description:

A large brown snake with bands, or alternating blotches, all along its body.

A slightly enlarged head with round, glossy scales, and round pupils.

Habitat:

Rivers, swamps, marshes, and other habitats with fresh water

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Venomous Snakes in Massachusetts

Massachusetts is fairly lucky to only have two venomous species: the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake.

Both of these species are protected by the Massachusetts endangered species act.

Northern Copperhead

Copperhead coiled on top of rocks
The copperhead gets its name from its distinctive coloration.

Spotting a copperhead snake in Massachusetts is a privilege. These snakes are listed as endangered species in the state, and killing or harassing them is punishable by law.

Scientific Name:

Agkistrodon contortrix

Range:

Throughout the state, but not common and rarely seen

Adult Size:

Up to 40 inches

Description:

A wide, partially flattened head with slit-shaped pupils and large heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils.

A robust body blotched with neutral colors, including the coppery color for which the snake is named.

Habitat:

Densely vegetated areas near water.

Often the edges of swamps and marshes

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

Timber Rattlesnake

timber rattlesnake coiled with it's rattle showing
The timber rattlesnake is the largest pit viper in the region.

The timber rattlesnake is also an endangered species in this state, and under protection by law. These large snakes prefer forested areas and are rarely seen.

Scientific Name:

Crotalus horridus

Range:

Western regions of the state

Adult Size:

Up to 60 inches

Description:

A large tan or brown snake with dark brown bands.

Adapted tail scales form a “rattle” which produces a low hiss.

Large head with heat-sensing pits and slit-shaped pupils.

Habitat:

Rocky terrains with forested areas

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

Iconic Snakes in Massachusetts

If you go to Massachusetts, which snakes should be on your bucket list? Here are some of my favorites from this region.

Eastern Worm Snake

Midwestern Worm Snake on the ground with dead leaves and rocks
The Eastern worm snake is a small burrowing snake that won’t bother you.
Image credit: dmills727 (via CreativeCommons.org)

The Eastern worm snake is a protected species under the Massachusetts endangered species act. It’s classified as an endangered species in this region.

Scientific Name:

Carphophis amoenus

Range:

Only known in South-Central Massachusetts

Adult Size:

Up to 11 inches

Description:

A small, glossy, brown snake with a rounded head and a pointy tail.

Its pupils are round.

Habitat:

Soft, moist, sandy soils

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Black Rat Snake

Eastern Rat Snake close up with rocks in the background
The black rat snake is a powerful constrictor, despite its small size.
Image credit: Wildreturn (via CreativeCommons.org)

Although the black rat snake is common in many places in the United States, it’s considered an endangered species in Massachusetts.

Scientific Name:

Pantherophis alleghaniensis

Range:

Connecticut Valley and Southern Worcester County

Adult Size:

Up to 101 inches

Description:

A robust snake with an intensely black body and a rounded head.

The pupils are round.

Habitat:

Generalist

Anywhere with abundant food

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake coiled on top of twigs
The hognose snake is a medium-sized snake that feeds mainly on frogs and toads.

The Eastern hognose snake is an odd-looking snake with a flattened head and an upturned mouth. It often dwells in dry, sandy areas.

Scientific Name:

Heterodon platyrhinos

Range:

Scattered populations in Central and Eastern Massachusetts

Adult Size:

Up to 46 inches

Description:

A brown to orange-brown snake with a flattened neck and head.

The mouth is upturned, and the pupils are round.

The robust body has light tan or black bands.

Habitat:

Habitats with dry, sandy soil

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

What You Need to Know

Several species of snake in the state are protected by the Massachusetts endangered species act. If you kill, harm, harass, or keep any of the following snakes, it’s punishable by law:

  • Black rat snake
  • Timber rattlesnake
  • Eastern worm snake
  • Northern copperhead
  • Eastern hognose snake

Other than that, you need to know the following things about snakes:

  • Snakes consider humans to be predators, not prey.
  • Unless it feels cornered, a snake will flee rather than bite.
  • Snake bites are rarely fatal – of the 7,000 bites in the US every year, only five lead to fatalities.

Snake Safety 101

In Massachusetts, the venomous species are endangered and you’re unlikely to encounter them.

However, even snakes like the Eastern ribbon snake and Eastern garter snake may bite if provoked.

To keep yourself and your loved ones safe, follow the following safety precautions.

  • Wear sturdy shoes when you go hiking or jogging.
  • Keep your pets on leashes and your children close to you.
  • Stay vigilant, and pay careful attention to where you’re walking.
  • When entering potential snake habitat, always stick to well-defined hiking and jogging trails.
  • Try not to enter overgrown and densely vegetated areas where you can’t see what you’re stepping on.

Above all, never try to catch, kill, or otherwise bother a snake. Even the most peaceful animal may turn on you if you insist on persecuting it.

About Venomous Snakes

Venomous species, like most snakes, prefer to avoid you if they have the opportunity.

However, both venomous Massachusetts snakes are pit vipers. Pit vipers rely on camouflage to conceal them from potential predators, which makes them easy to step on.

While snake bites are rarely fatal, they’re painful and best avoided. I recommend following the safety tips offered above to keep you and your loved ones safe.

If You Encounter a Snake

In most cases, when you encounter a snake, there’s no reason for you to do anything. If you find yourself close to it, simply back away to a safe distance.

You can observe the animal, and take photos if you like. Never try to catch or kill a snake, or harass it in any other way.

If the snake is in a place where it endangers someone or is in danger, call a removal service to move it to a safe location.

When to Call for Help

Very rarely will you need to call for help when dealing with a snake.

The only times to call for help are:

  1. When the snake is in danger or poses a danger to someone else.
  2. When you or someone else (including a pet) has suffered a snake bite.

You’ll find contact details to use in either of these scenarios in the resource section below.

Useful Resources

I’ve constructed a list of useful resources to help you manage your encounters with snakes native to this region.

Emergency Poisoning Advice

Poison Control Center’s national hotline: 1-800-222-1222

ASPCA Poisoning Hotline: 1-888-426-4435

Snake Relocation Services

It’s illegal to relocate snakes in Massachusetts. However, it’s also illegal to kill or capture several species.

If you’re faced with a snake that poses a problem, I suggest contacting the Department of Fish and Game and following their recommendations.

Educational Resources

There are many useful resources for learning about snakes in Massachusetts. I suggest having a look at the following:

Related Articles to Massachusetts Snakes Identification Guide

If you’re interested in reading more identification guides for the other states, check out my:

You can also have a look at some of my other articles about snakes – I have vital guides that you can learn from!

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Join the discussion! Leave a comment below nowx
()
x