If you’re ready to go camping anywhere in North America, you have a variety of concerns to get over. The most obvious one is differentiating between the different snake species available in the wild.
That’s because snakes are far more dangerous than other animals due to 3 major abilities: camouflage, the ability to sneak silently, and, in some, the venomous bite.
So, today we will discuss 2 different snake species that you’re like to come across in the wild, namely: the bullsnake and the rattlesnake. How different are these 2, and what are their core characteristics? Let’s have a look!
Overview of Bullsnakes
These are quite prevalent in a variety of habitats throughout North America and can make quite the impression at first sight. The snakes possess a medium-sized body capable of reaching 5-6 feet in length.
Most individuals will stay smaller than that, around 3.5-4 feet. The snake appears muscular and sometimes comes with a triangle-shaped head, causing people to mistake it for a venomous reptile.
Fortunately, bullsnakes are typically harmless, as they don’t possess any venom. They are, however, easy to rattle and won’t back down from a good biting if cornered or scared.
Overview of Rattlesnakes
Rattlesnakes hardly need any presentation. These venomous reptiles can be found throughout the American continent, from southern Canada to South America, covering a variety of habitats.
These reptiles are renowned for their tail rings and the distinct warning sounds that they produce when in a defensive stance.
Rattlesnakes grow significantly larger than bullsnakes, which makes them easier to spot, but more dangerous as well. But let’s assess the 2 species in more detail, shall we?
Differences Between Bullsnakes and Rattlesnakes
There are virtually no differences between the 2 to an untrained eye. This is the primary reason for so many unfortunate rattlesnake encounters, with many people not giving the reptile the respect it deserves.
Other people avoid all snakes altogether, so they don’t even bother learning the differences between the different species. The latter approach may sound the best, but it does have its downsides.
One of them is that the more uneducated you are, the more likely it is that you will use violence in situations of uncertainty.
This is 10 times truer when discussing snakes. Ignorance is the primary reason why bullsnakes and other relatively harmless snakes are killed; many people mistake them for venomous species.
Fortunately, I’m here to dispel the confusion and compare the 2 species objectively. Here are the main markers that will help you differentiate between these snakes:
|Up to 5ft
|Up to 8ft
|Solid and muscular body, consistent from head to tail
|Thick mid-section, visibly thinner neck
|Oval-shaped, minimal jaw width
|Triangle-shaped head, protruding jaw muscles
|Normal tail with no visible rings
|Trademark tail rings
|Lack of elevated eyebrows, round pupils
|Elevated eyebrow scales, vertical slit pupils
|Color and markings
|Irregular shapes, spots, or broken bands
|Great Plains and western parts of North America with little vegetation
|Southwestern US and Central America in rocky and desertic regions
|Active hunter, feeds on rodents, birds, and small reptiles, constricts prey
|Sits and waits for larger prey, such as squirrels, rabbits, and birds, strikes and falls back, pursuing fleeing prey
|Postures up and hisses, attempts to intimidate intruder, may bite without severe skin damage
|Curled up defensive ball, sounds alarm with rattling tail, may strike multiple times with potent venom
|Importance of identification
|Prevents snake bites, assesses local population and conservation status for conservation efforts
|Prevents snake bites, assesses local population and conservation status for conservation efforts
The 2 species are similar overall, but the differences pop out clearly, once you know what to look for.
Consider the following:
- Overall size – Bullsnakes are significantly smaller, capping at 5 feet as adults. Most specimens won’t even get to that size, to begin with. Rattlesnakes can easily reach 6-7 and even 8 feet or slightly more, depending on the individual.
- Body shape – This metric may be more difficult to appreciate for an untrained eye, but you’ll no longer be untrained after reading this article. Bullsnakes have solid and muscular bodies, but their body composition stays the same, almost from head to tail. The neck is slightly thinner, but not by much. Rattlesnakes have the typical body composition of a venomous snake, with a very thick mid-section and a visibly thinner neck.
- Head shape – The head shape is probably the most distinct characteristic. Bullsnakes have standard, oval-shaped heads with minimal jaw width. Rattlesnakes have very thin necks with triangle-shaped heads and protruding jaw muscles. There’s almost no way you can confuse the 2 if you assess the difference in head shape.
- Distinct body features – Rattlesnakes have trademark tail rings, which are easily visible because the snake will keep them up and ringing the moment it hears your presence. The body is covered with elevated scales, providing the snake with a rugged appearance. By comparison, bullsnakes have smooth scales and normal tails with no visible rings.
- Facial features – Rattlesnakes often have elevated eyebrow scales, imbuing the reptile with a menacing look. The eyes also have vertical slits, which is a trademark feature in most venomous snakes (very few exceptions exist, none in the US.) Bullsnakes lack the elevated eyebrows and have round pupils, indicating their non-venomous nature.
- Color and markings – I’ll grant this: the 2 species are very difficult to differentiate based on coloring alone because they are so similar. However, the situation is slightly different when discussing the markings. Rattlesnakes are usually covered with rhomboid patterns, which are usually clearly defined. Bullsnakes don’t have those; instead, they have irregular shapes, spots, or even broken bands that could look like rhomboids but only to an untrained eye.
As you can see, there are quite a few things to write down.
Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes are usually found in different habitats on the American continent, but they do experience some overlap in distribution.
You are far more likely to encounter bullsnakes in the Great Plains and western parts of North America than anywhere else. Their preferred ecosystem is one with little vegetation in arid regions where the snake can find rodents and other small mammals.
They are also often seen near agricultural sites due to these locations attracting more rodents than anything else.
Rattlesnakes are more common in Southwestern US and Central America, preferably in rocky and desertic regions where reptiles use their coloring to blend in the surrounding layout. These are general areas, but don’t take them at their face value.
The 2 species don’t have clear territorial demarcations. So, you’re likely to meet rattlesnakes in areas you wouldn’t typically expect them to be.
More importantly, rattlesnakes and bullsnakes share many living environments; it’s not unusual to find both species in the same region, adding to the overall confusion and danger.
Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes have slightly different diets and even more different hunting tactics. This is due to them living in relatively different habitats with different available prey.
Bullsnakes prefer to feed on rodents like mice and rats but won’t refuse birds and small reptiles if nothing else is available. They can also find and consume bird and reptile eggs, as these are good sources of protein and fat.
These snakes qualify as active hunters, using their camouflage and agility to close the distance to the prey unseen, strike, and kill fast.
Because they are constrictors, bullsnakes rely on their bite and coiling ability to suffocate the prey before eating it.
They can be seen stalking the prey silently over respectable distances instead of waiting for it to come to them.
Rattlesnakes are slightly different in dietary preferences and hunting tactics especially. These reptiles can consume larger prey due to their increased size and need for a higher dose of protein.
Squirrels, rabbits, larger lizards, large rats, birds – all of these can make for delicious meals.
Rattlesnakes have a very different hunting tactic known as the sit-and-wait strategy. The rattlesnake likes to conserve energy, so it prefers to find a vantage point where it can set the trap.
The snake will rely on its coloring and ability to remain completely still to blend in the environment while it waits for its meal to wander by. When the prey is close enough, the rattlesnake will strike and fall back a bit, waiting for the venom to take effect.
Depending on the quantity of venom injected, the location of the bite, and the prey’s size, the victim may be disabled instantly.
If not, the snake will pursue the fleeing animal using its keen sense of smell and devour it several feet from the murder scene when it finally collapses.
The 2 species are also wildly different in terms of behavior and human interactions. Both species are shy and prefer to flee when confronted, so there isn’t much difference in this sense.
But there are some critical differences once we eliminate the possibility of leaving the scene.
In such a situation, the bullsnake will posture up and hiss, attempting to intimidate the intruder. If that fails, the reptile may bite, but you shouldn’t expect any meaningful damage.
The snake is strong, but it is not venomous, and its teeth cannot inflict severe skin damage. Even so, you should clean the wound to prevent any subsequent infection.
Rattlesnakes also pose when threatened, as they will curl up in a defensive ball and use their tail to sound the alarm. The rattling sound is very audible and should inform you of the snake’s presence from a respectable distance.
If you ignore the sign, the snake will strike, and it can strike multiple times. The venom is quite potent, so complications may occur.
Fortunately, rattlesnake-related deaths are low for several reasons. These include humans and rattlesnakes avoiding one another, the rattlesnake sometimes inflicting dry bites, and the venom itself being less-than-lethal in many cases.
The snake can also control the amount of venom injected because it prefers to use it on its prey rather than on some ignorant Homo Sapiens.
The rattlesnake’s bite is more likely to become deadly against the elderly, children, and people with weak immune systems. Even so, seek medical attention in case you’ve been bitten and wait for help to arrive.
Importance of Correctly Identifying Bullsnakes and Rattlesnakes
You should learn to differentiate between the 2 species for at least 2 reasons:
- Safety concerns – You want to prevent the snake’s bite, to begin with, especially if we’re talking about a rattlesnake. Learning how to differentiate between the 2 species allows you to approach each snake differently, as you’re now fully aware of what they can do.
- Conservation efforts – Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes don’t rank as endangered as species, but they can struggle to survive and thrive in some areas, depending on the state. Learning the differences between the 2 species and assessing their local population and conservation status is key to protecting the animals’ ecosystem and way of life.
Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes may appear similar at first, but there are quite a few differences between them.
Despite their different attributes and behaviors, both species deserve respect and protection because they each play critical roles in their respective ecosystems.