North Carolina Snakes Identification (Species Info, Pics, & More)

Identifying snakes can be tricky.

Many species have similar qualities and can be hard to tell apart without practice.

There are 38 species of snakes native to North Carolina. It’s unlikely that you’ll see all of them, but certain species are prevalent throughout the state, even in residential areas.

We’re here to help you identify North Carolina snakes! You’ll discover the basics of identifying the most dangerous and most common species in the state.

Find out why snakes are essential to have around and how you can safely coexist with them.

We provide you with contacts and useful resources at the end of this guide.

Snake Identification Basics

Looking at pictures of a snake and seeing one in the wild are surprisingly different.

It’s not uncommon for snakes of different species or families to have similar features.

You’ll also find individuals within the same species that look entirely unrelated.

Many snakes’ appearances vary based on location and habitat.

This guide is only for snakes found in North Carolina.

Even with our help, you should always be cautious when encountering a snake in the wild.

Quickly Identifying Venomous North Carolina Snakes

There are six venomous snake species in North Carolina.

They belong to two different families, Elapids and Vipers.

There are a few ways of quickly identifying these venomous species.

Unfortunately, many harmless species look similar to venomous ones. Even for those with experience, they can be difficult to distinguish.

You can never be too careful.

The best action is to take caution and give wild snakes their distance.

Pit Vipers

Five of the six North Carolina venomous snakes are pit vipers.

Several distinctive characteristics are useful for quickly identifying these venomous species:

  • Facial Pits – Their heat-sensing pits are between the eye and nostril on each side of the face.
  • Elliptical Pupils – They have thin, vertical pupils, like cat eyes.
  • Triangle-shaped Heads – Venom glands on either side of the head create an arrow shape.

Cottonmouth (Water Moccasins)

Cottonmouth Snake poised to strike
Cottonmouths are also called “water moccasins” because of their semi-aquatic lifestyles.

Scientific name:

Agkistrodon piscivorus

Range:

Eastern half of NC

Size:

Average 3 to 4 ft.

Description:

Black, brown, or olive-colored.

Crossbands that are darker along the edges and lighter inside.

Heavy-bodied.

Blocky head wider than the neck.

Habitat:

Aquatic habitats such as swamps, creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

Cottonmouth coloration varies between individuals.

They darken as they age. Older cottonmouths can be almost entirely black.

Juveniles have more distinct patterns, and the tips of their tails are bright yellow.

When threatened, a cottonmouth will vibrate its tail and open its mouth to show a bright-white interior. This display is where it gets its name.

It’s often mistaken for non-venomous water snakes.

Several features separate them. Watersnakes:

  • Lack facial pits.
  • Have round pupils.
  • Have striped upper lips.
  • Have narrow heads and slender bodies.

Copperhead

Copperhead Snake on the ground
The copperhead’s bite is agonizing but rarely fatal.

Scientific name:

Agkistrodon contortrix

Range:

Statewide.

Size:

Average 2 to 3 ft.

Description:

Light brown with brown, hour-glass-shaped crossbands.

Black and white ventral scales.

Heavy-bodied.

Juveniles have yellow-tipped tails.

Habitat:

A variety of habitats, but mainly woodlands.

Often inhabits urban areas.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

The copperhead is the most common venomous species in North Carolina. It’s responsible for the most venomous bites in the state.

Pygmy Rattlesnake

Pygmy Rattlesnake
The pygmy rattlesnake is the smallest species of rattlesnake in the US, usually reaching a maximum of 24 inches.

Scientific name:

Sistrurus miliarius

Range:

Southeastern NC

Size:

Average 19 in.

Description:

Gray with dark spots along its sides and back.

Black stripe from the eyes to the corner of the mouth.

Habitat:

Coastal plains and woodlands.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

Pygmy rattlesnake coloration varies geographically. Some individuals in eastern North Carolina have pink or reddish patterns.

You may not hear this rattlesnake’s warning rattle. It’s fragile and often breaks off. If it does have a rattle, it only produces a quiet ‘buzzing” sound.

Timber Rattlesnake

A Timber
The timber rattlesnake is also referred to as a “canebrake” rattlesnake in the southeast region of the state.

Scientific name:

Crotalus horridus

Range:

Most of the state, except north-central areas.

Common in the eastern Coastal Plains region.

Size:

Average 4 ft.

Description:

Black, gray, or brown with dark v-shaped bands.

Black tail.

Heavy-bodied.

Habitat:

Forests, scrublands, and wetlands.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

Coloration varies geographically. Timber rattlesnakes are sometimes yellow, gray, or black in mountain habitats.

Eastern NC snakes are often pink or reddish with a brown or orange dorsal stripe.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake outdoors
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake can weigh up to 10 pounds!

Scientific name:

Crotalus adamanteus

Range:

Southeastern NC.

Size:

Average 3 to 6 ft.

The largest species of rattlesnake.

Description:

Gray or tan.

Dark diamond patterns run down the spine.

Dark stripes through each eye bordered by light-colored lines.

Heavy-bodied.

Habitat:

Sandy pine flatwoods

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

Eastern Coral Snake

A Eastern Coral Snake on dead leaves on the ground
A coral snake’s bright colors are a warning to predators to “stay back!”

Scientific name:

Micrurus fulvius

Range:

Southern NC.

Size:

Average 2 to 3 ft.

Description:

Red, yellow, and black bands. Red touches black.

Black nose.

Slender.

Habitat:

A variety of dry habitats.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Venomous

The coral snake has a small distribution in the state, and it’s extremely rare to encounter one.

It’s easily mistaken for the scarlet kingsnake and the northern scarlet snake.

These species have red noses, and their red bands touch black.

The well-known rhyme “Red touch yellow – kill a fellow. Red touch black – a friend of Jack”, and other variations aren’t always reliable.

There can be atypical individuals that don’t have regular band colors and patterns, and the rule only applies in the US.

Because of the uncertainty, the best action is to leave wild snakes alone.

Common Snakes in North Carolina

There are 38 species of snakes native to North Carolina.

You’re much more likely to encounter certain species than others.

The most common snakes in North Carolina include:

  • Rat Snakes
  • Kingsnakes
  • Copperheads
  • Worm Snakes
  • Brown Snakes
  • Water Snakes
  • Garter Snakes
  • Eastern Racers
  • Rough Green Snakes

Non-Venomous Species

Rat Snakes

Orange corn Snake on grass
Corn snakes are one of many nonvenomous snakes mistaken for copperheads because of their coloration.

Scientific name:

Pantherophis

Range:

Statewide.

Size:

3 to 8 ft.

Description:

The corn snake is orange, brown, or gray with large red blotches.

Rat snake coloration varies from solid black to yellowish-green with dark vertical stripes.

Both have black and white checkered ventral scales.

Keeled scales.

Habitat:

A wide variety of habitats.

Common in residential areas and barns.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Kingsnakes

Eastern Milk Snake
The eastern milksnake is known to interbreed with scarlet kingsnakes.

Scientific name:

Lampropeltis

Range:

Statewide.

Size:

1.5 to 3 ft.

Description:

Coloration varies depending on species.

The scarlet kingsnake has bright red, yellow, and black bands that go all the way around its body.

The eastern milksnake is gray or brown with dark brown or red blotches along its back.

The eastern kingsnake is black with white or yellow chain-like patterns.

The mole kingsnake is brown or gray with dark brown or red blotches on its back and smaller spots along its sides.

Habitat:

A variety of habitats, especially woodlands and grasslands.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Worm Snake

An Eastern Wormsnake on the ground
You can frequently find worm snakes burrowed in the soil or hidden under rotting logs.

Scientific name:

Carphophis amoenus

Range:

Statewide.

Size:

9 in.

Description:

Black, gray, or brown.

Pink or white ventral scales.

Small, pointed head.

Spine on tip of tail.

Small eyes.

Habitat:

Damp woodlands.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Brown Snake

Brown Snake on dead grass
You may find a brown snake in your garden. It eats slugs, earthworms, and snails.

Scientific name:

Storeria dekayi

Range:

Statewide.

Size:

10 to 15 in.

Description:

Gray-brown.

Light-colored stripe down the spine with spots on both sides.

Keeled scales.

Habitat:

Woodlands.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Another brown snake in NC, the red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata), can be distinguished by its red or orange ventral scales.

Water Snakes

Northern Water Snake resting on a rock
Northern water snakes are often mistaken for cottonmouths.

Scientific name:

Nerodia

Range:

Statewide.

Size:

Range 2 to 4 ft.

Description:

Most species are dark brown, gray, or black.

Some have brown or black bands or blotches.

The red-bellied water snake has bright orange or red ventral scales.

Keeled scales.

Habitat:

Near sources of water, including ponds, rivers, streams, and marshes.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

True water snakes belong to the genus Nerodia.

They’re semi-aquatic, and their diets mainly consist of fish and amphibians.

These nonvenomous snakes are often mistaken for cottonmouths.

Unlike cottonmouth snakes, water snakes have round pupils, narrow heads, and lack heat-sensing pits.

Garter Snakes

Eastern Ribbon Snake on the ground
Eastern ribbon snakes spend a lot of time in the water. They eat fish, amphibians, earthworms, and insects.

Scientific name:

Thamnophis

Range:

Statewide.

Size:

Average 18 to 26 in.

Description:

Slender and fast-moving.

Keeled scales.

Large eyes.

Brown or black.

The eastern ribbon snake has three distinct yellow or white horizontal lines.

The eastern garter snake has a yellow or white line along its spine and dark lines on its lips. Some individuals have checkered patterns along their sides.

Habitat:

In a variety of habitats near sources of water.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

Eastern Racer

Black Eastern Racer Snake
The claim that these fast snakes chase people is a myth.

Scientific name:

Coluber constrictor

Range:

Statewide.

Size:

4 to 6 ft.

Description:

Solid black, sometimes have white chins.

Smooth scales.

Slender body.

Large eyes.

Juveniles have gray, brown, or red patterns.

Habitat:

A variety of habitats near water.

Frequently found in residential areas.

Venomous/Non-Venomous:

Non-venomous

The eastern racer is often confused for a black rat snake (colloquially referred to as “black snake” in NC). Racers are completely black, even on their bellies, and have smooth scales.

Snakes Native to North Carolina

Listed below are all 38 species of snakes native to North Carolina organized by family.

Colubridae

Most species of North Carolina snakes belong to the Colubridae family.

The Colubridae family has more species than any other snake family in the world.

All colubrids in North America are harmless. Even without venom, their bites can be especially painful.

Racers

Eastern Racer

Coluber constrictor

Rat Snakes

Corn Snake

Pantherophis guttatus

Rat Snake

Pantherophis obsoletus

Kingsnakes

Eastern Kingsnake

Lampropeltis getula

Milksnake

Lampropeltis triangulum

Mole Kingsnake

Lampropeltis rhombomaculata

Scarlet Kingsnake

Lampropeltis elapsoides

Coachwhips

Coachwhip

Masticophis flagellum

Worm Snakes

Worm Snake

Carphophis amoenus

Pine Snakes

Pine Snake

Pituophis melanoleucus

Earth Snakes

Rough Earth Snake

Haldea striatula

Smooth Earth Snake

Virginia valeriae

Water Snakes

Banded Water Snake

Nerodia fasciata

Brown Water Snake

Nerodia taxispilota

Northern Water Snake

Nerodia sipedon

Red-bellied Water Snake

Nerodia erythrogaster

Green Snakes

Rough Green Snake

Opheodrys aestivus

Swamp Snakes

Carolina Swamp Snake

Seminatrix pygaea

Garter Snakes

Eastern Garter Snake

Thamnophis sirtalis

Eastern Ribbon Snake

Thamnophis sauritus

Scarlet Snakes

Scarlet Snake

Cemophora coccinea

Crayfish Snakes

Glossy Crayfish Snake

Regina rigida

Queen Snake

Regina septemvitatta

Crowned Snakes

Southeastern Crowned Snake

Tantilla coronata

Hognose Snakes

Eastern Hognose Snake

Heterodon platirhinos

Southern Hognose Snake

Heterodon simus

Pine Woods Snakes

Pine Woods Snake

Rhadinaea flavilata

Ring-necked Snakes

Ring-necked Snake

Diadophis punctatus

Rainbow/Mud Snakes

Mud Snake

Farancia abacura

Rainbow Snake

Farancia erytrogramma

Brown/Red-bellied Snakes

Brown Snake

Storeria dekayi

Red-bellied Snake

Storeria occipitomaculata

Elapidae

Snakes in the Elapidae family are all venomous and have short, fixed fangs.

The eastern coral snake, Micrurus fulvius, is the only Elapid in North Carolina.

Other members of the Elapidae family include mambas, cobras, and death adders.

Coral snake venom affects the nervous system.

There are no records of coral snakes biting humans in North Carolina.

Viperidae

Pit vipers are the only members of the Viperidae family found in the US.

The name “pit viper” stems from the presence of their heat-sensing pit organs. These sensory pits help them locate prey.

They inject their complex venom through a pair of hollow fangs. When not in use, a pit viper’s fangs fold against the roof of its mouth.

Vipers found in North Carolina:

Copperheads/Moccasins

Copperhead

Agkistrodon contortrix

Cottonmouth

Agkistrodon piscivorus

Rattlesnakes

Timber Rattlesnake

Crotalus horridus

Pygmy Rattlesnake

Sistrurus miliarius

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Crotalus adamanteus

What You Need to Know

For many people, the sight of a snake incites panic.

There’s no need to be alarmed. Snakes are often shy creatures that want to be left alone.

They won’t chase or attack you. Most people are bitten by snakes when attempting to kill, relocate, or handle them.

In the US, you’re more likely to die from a dog attack than from a venomous snake bite.

Bites from nonvenomous snakes are rarely life-threatening but can be serious if not treated properly.

There are a few precautions you can take to avoid accidental snake bites in the wilderness and around your home.

Continue reading for snake safety tips.

Coexisting With North Carolina Snakes

You may have heard someone say, “the only good snake is a dead one,” but this couldn’t be further from the truth!

Snakes are essential for our ecosystems.

Not only are they nature’s pest control, but they’re also a food source for many different animals.

Flying Red Tailed Hawk in a clear blue sky
Birds of prey, like this red-tailed hawk, other snakes, foxes, and coyotes all consume snakes.

Snakes eat mice, rats, slugs, and insects that most people don’t want in or around their homes.

Humans have devastating impacts on snake populations.

As we continue to develop land, we’re destroying their natural habitats.

People frequently kill snakes because of their bad reputation. Venomous snakes are the biggest target, but many harmless species die because they’re misidentified.

We’ve also introduced many invasive species that negatively impact snake numbers.

Many populations are in decline and require our assistance.

All three rattlesnakes and the eastern coral snake are protected by the North Carolina Endangered Species Act.

It’s illegal to collect or handle protected species without a permit. You can only kill one if they present an unavoidable threat to your safety.

Snake Safety

Venomous Snakes

Venomous snakes bite around 7-8,000 people a year in the US. Only five or six of these incidents are fatal.

Out of the six venomous snakes native to North Carolina, the copperhead is responsible for most snake bites in the state. Although painful, it’s rarely fatal.

Snakes typically use their venom as a last resort when threatened. Most of them give warning signals or use other defensive mechanisms before biting.

The best thing to do is avoid contact with wild snakes, especially if you aren’t completely certain of their identity.

Snake Territory

In North Carolina, most snakes live in the coastal plains, piedmont region, and the mountains.

Whether you’re there for professional or recreational reasons, you should take extra precautions if you’re in snake territory.

Wear durable boots and long pants, especially in dense areas with tall grass.

Be cautious when lifting sticks, logs, or rocks. Try not to put your hands in or under anything where you can’t see them.

Watch your step! Some snakes attempt to camouflage with their surroundings instead of running away.

Keep pets on a leash and take well-worn or paved paths when out for a walk.

If You Encounter North Carolina Snakes

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

Chances are, your presence is just as startling to the snake.

Snakes bite out of self-defense. Most snakes won’t bite you if you don’t give them a reason.

They may demonstrate several defensive behaviors like:

  • hissing
  • rattling their tails
  • flattening themselves to look bigger.

Step back and allow them the chance to leave.

When to Call for Help

If you find a snake in your home, there are services that will remove it for you. It’s best to leave snake handling to the professionals.

There are several ways to decrease the presence of snakes on your property:

  • Keep grass short and tree limbs trimmed.
  • Remove any potential food sources for rodents.
  • Seal small openings around your home that snakes could fit through.
  • Remove piles of scrap wood, metal, and debris that snakes and their prey could live under.

Keep in mind that even with these measures, you may not be able to keep snakes away from your home.

If a snake bites you, remain calm.

Call 911 or have someone drive you to the nearest emergency room.

Attempt to get a picture of the snake so professionals can identify it.

Wash the bite wound with warm, soapy water and keep it above heart level.

There are several misconceptions concerning venomous snake bites.

You should never:

  • Apply ice to the bite.
  • Cut or open the wound.
  • Try sucking out the venom.
  • Wrap the bite in a tourniquet.
  • Catch or kill the snake for identification (this could lead to more injuries).

If a snake bites your pet, take it to the veterinarian immediately. Most bites aren’t fatal if treated right away.

Useful Resources

For more information on which medical centers treat snake bites near you, call the Carolinas Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 for advice on animal snake bites.

You can email a picture to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission at wrccomments@ncwildlife.org if you need help identifying a North Carolina snake.

When you see a snake, consider recording it in the Carolina Herp Atlas. Scientists use this project to understand how we can conserve wildlife populations.

You can use this website to locate a North Carolina animal control agent in your area to assist with snake removal.

We hope you feel confident in identifying North Carolina snakes after reading this guide!

Have you seen these snakes in your part of the country? Let us know in the comments!

Headed out west? Take a look at our guide to identifying California lizards.

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