With warm temperatures and sunshine, it means the kids are outside playing. It also means the snakes are out of hibernation as well. Pennsylvania is home to around 22 different species of snake. Of those 22 only three are venomous. Of those three, only two live in Central Pennsylvania. If you or your children run into a snake, would you be able to identify if the snake is harmless or not?
The first rule in snake identification for Pennsylvania residents is to understand that a snake in or near the water is not a “Cottonmouth”. The venomous species commonly called Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin has a range that covers the Southeast United States only and its range is only as far north as North Carolina. It does not live in Pennsylvania.
The only three species of venomous snake which do have an established range in Pennsylvania are the Copperhead, the Timber Rattlesnake and the Massasauga Rattlesnake. Of the two rattlesnakes, only one can be found east of Pittsburgh and it’s the Timber Rattlesnake. The Massasauga Rattlesnake has a range found only in the counties which border Ohio. This range limitation narrows the concern quite a bit for residents of Central Pennsylvania since we now only have two snakes to be really concerned about.
The Copperhead can easily be identified by its copper coloration and its markings. They have a darker coloration in diamond patterns on their backs but they do get confused quite often with the Northern Water Snake and the Eastern Milk Snake. Both of the non venomous species have round pupils. The Copperhead has a slanted pupil. Paherp.Org offers an excellent identification guide to help identify the specific differences between the Copperhead and its non venomous cousins. A bite by this snake while extremely painful is rarely deadly.
The second commonly found species of venomous snake in Pennsylvania, the Timber Rattlesnake, has a range that does cover most of Central Pennsylvania. It can be found at the edge of wooded areas and on rock out-croppings. Give this snake a wide berth, it can strike 2/3 of its body length and can cause severe tissue damage. Easily identified by its rattle, it’s hard to confuse this snake with any other snake. They don’t always rattle before striking so if you are in rattlesnake country, just remain aware where you are stepping before you step.
Killing an animal without cause or permit is illegal in Pennsylvania. Just being a snake which you happened to discover does not make it a reason to kill them. Snakes have many uses including rodent control and if discovered on a nature walk or along the foundation of your home, please relocate them carefully or leave them alone.
While there are numerous snake identification guides online, very few of them apply specifically to Pennsylvania snakes. But there are resources available to assist you in identifying them.