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Something slithering got you scared? You’re probably safe
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Something slithering got you scared? You’re probably safe

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Copperhead

The Northern Copperhead is the most widespread and common of Virginia’s three venomous snakes. Copperheads are found in wooded habitats throughout the state, including rural, suburban, and even some urban areas. They are generally calm-natured animals that lie quietly, depending on their excellent camouflage to escape detection. However they will strike if accidently stepped on or otherwise threatened. Bites can be serious if venom is actually injected, causing much pain and swelling. However, human fatalities are extremely rare. If you find a copperhead, leave it alone. Some bites occur when people try to kill or move the snake.

As summer approaches and backyard BBQ season officially kicks off, it doesn’t take much to get most of us out of the house and into the great outdoors.

Unfortunately, there is at least one thing that will send some of us running right back inside again: a snake sighting.

Maybe we’re just uncomfortable sharing our outdoor living spaces with members of suborder Serpentes, or maybe we have an actual psychological condition (ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes), but one thing is for certain: Plenty of people are less than thrilled to see any snake anywhere near their homes.

The topic has come up with renewed urgency on social media in recent weeks, as panicked Goochland residents seek reassurance that the unwelcome visitor sunning on their porch steps or slipping out from under their deck is harmless.

Fortunately, according to Mike Clifford, Chairman of the Virginia Herpetological Society’s Education Committee, only one of the 16 species of snakes found in the Goochland area is venomous. That snake, the Eastern Copperhead, can be identified by its two-tone brown color with wide darker markings on the sides and narrower markings on the back.

So that very long, shiny black snake with white flecks (Eastern Ratsnake) you saw making its way across your lawn is nothing to worry about, nor is the reddish brown one you glimpsed in your pond (Northern Watersnake). But if you still need additional reassurance, according to Clifford, consider this: In Virginia, all harmless snakes have round pupils--the three venomous ones have elliptical pupils.

Don’t feel like getting close enough to see a snake’s pupils? Read on for more help identifying a few of the snakes you might see around here:

The Eastern Ratsnake (aka. Black Ratsnake) is Virginia’s largest snake and one of the most common. Adults are shiny black, usually with some white flecks on the back. They are calm-natured snakes commonly found near barns, sheds, and other human structures where they prey on rodents. Ratsnakes are excellent climbers of tall trees, feeding on birds and their eggs.

The Northern Black Racer is often confused with the Eastern Ratsnake, but is a duller black and very fast moving when frightened. They generally inhabit brushy areas, field edges, and open woodlands. Racers feed on a wide variety of animal prey including rodents, frogs, lizards, and even other snakes.

The Northern Watersnake is mistakenly called a “water moccasin” but it is actually a harmless, non-venomous species. These semi-aquatic snakes can be found in a variety of wetland habitats including swamps, ponds, creeks, and the James River. Northern Watersnakes come in a variety of colors and patterns but typically are two-tone brown with some reddish markings. They feed mostly on frogs, fish, and crayfish.

The Eastern Gartersnake is the “Official State Snake of Virginia.” The species is common in Goochland County and throughout the Commonwealth. Along with its close relative the Common Ribbonsnake, the Eastern Gartersnake is easily recognized by the light colored stripe down the middle of its back. The gartersnake is highly adaptable and can be found in suburban backyards as well as wildlands. They feed on a variety of animal life including earthworms, frogs and toads, salamanders, insects, and spiders.

A few more facts

About half of Virginia’s snakes lay eggs; the others are live-bearing. All three venomous species are live-bearing, so any snake eggs you find are from harmless species.

No snakes are vegetarians; they only feed on other animals.

Snakes shed their outer skins several times per year; the sheds are inside-out replicas of the snake’s scales, including the eye covering.

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