If you can’t tell the difference between a venomous and a non-venomous snake, this is the time to learn. Especially if you like camping or need to traverse areas where you’re likely to run across various snake species.
As you will see today, knowing how to differentiate between venomous and non-venomous reptiles can sometimes make the difference between life and death.
So today, we will discuss 2 very similar snake species: gopher snakes and rattlesnakes. Despite what may transpire at first glance, these 2 species actually showcase numerous differences, so let’s get to it.
Overview of Gopher Snakes
Gopher snakes populate North America and are often confused with bullsnakes. This is quite an understandable confusion because bullsnakes and gopher snakes are practically part of the same species.
The difference is that bullsnakes (Pituophis catenifer sayi) are actually a subspecies of the gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer.)
So, it’s understandable why they’re so similar in appearance and are often mistaken by people less versed in the various subspecies available.
Gopher snakes are good hunters, and they have flexible behavior. They can burrow to cool off and climb trees when looking for hunting opportunities or trying to evade predators.
This versatility allows them to adapt to a variety of ecosystems, but they prefer regions with soft soil and little vegetation.
Overview of Rattlesnakes
Rattlesnakes are widespread throughout the Americas, stretching from southern Canada to South America. So, you’re pretty much always likely to encounter one specimen during your wilderness strolls.
Rattlesnakes are fairly dangerous, which is why there are quite a few other snake species that mimic their appearance.
The gopher snake and the bullsnake are 2 such examples, and they’re not the only ones. The burrowing owl, which is a bird, also uses vocalizations that mimic the rattlesnake’s distinct rattling sound, combined with a serpentine hiss.
This behavior is likely meant to deter any potential predators nearby, including humans.
But back to our 2 reptiles.
Differences Between Gopher Snakes and Rattlesnakes
Despite sharing so many similarities, the 2 species are quite distinct and come with several notable differences.
There are a few physical characteristics to mention that may not be clear at first glance:
Body Size and Shape
Gopher snakes can reach a maximum of 7 feet, although most individuals are typically slightly smaller. Rattlesnakes can grow slightly longer, around 8 feet, but, again, the average is around 6-6.5 feet.
So, you can’t really differentiate between the 2 based on size alone. Nobody can tell a difference of 0.5-1 foot, and it wouldn’t matter even if you could. You may just be dealing with a smaller rattlesnake instead of a large gopher.
It’s the body shape that really separates one species from the other. Gopher snakes possess relatively slim and athletic bodies that display the same circumference everywhere, more or less.
The neck and tail are thinner, but not by much. Contrast this with the rattlesnake’s impressively thick mid-section, and you will notice the difference.
Rattlesnakes have thicker and more muscular bodies, especially towards the mid-section, with very thin necks. The tail tip is also a lot thicker than the gopher.
The Head Size and Shape
Gopher snakes have standard heads that are almost as thick as the neck. By contrast, rattlesnakes have triangle-shaped heads with excessively large jaw muscles.
The head should be considerably thicker at the base than the neck. This feature is present in almost all venomous species, so it’s a good one to remember.
Color and Markings
Gopher snakes bring colors like earthy brown, yellow, and even some black on occasion. Their pattern is typically regular, but it involves various shapes like squares, oval-shaped spots, and broken bands.
Rattlesnakes don’t really have yellow in their color palette, but they do have a lot of earthy brown, black, and some orange.
The body pattern is almost always the same: a bunch of rhomboid shapes covering the entire dorsal area. Other, smaller rhomboids are present on the sides as well.
Other Distinct Physical Features
Aside from the main differences that we’ve already mentioned, other species-specific characteristics may be noted as well.
- The pupils – Like most venomous snakes, rattlesnakes have elliptical pupils that appear as vertical slits. Gophers have round pupils that expand or contract depending on the light levels.
- The tail – Both rattlesnakes and gopher snakes shake their tails when threatened. The difference is that one produces a distinct sound thanks to the tail rings, while another does not because it lacks the said rings. I’ll let you decide who’s who. You should also be able to observe the tail rings pretty clearly in rattlesnakes because they are rather thick and prominent, especially in adults.
- The scales – Rattlesnakes have rough and elevated scales, imbuing the snake’s body with a spiky appearance. Gopher snakes have a smoother and shinier appearance.
- The face – Rattlesnakes often possess elevated eyebrow scales, providing the reptile with a mean demeanor. Gopher snakes don’t have that.
These physical differences alone should allow you to differentiate between the 2 with reasonable accuracy. If these don’t cut it, we have several other areas to examine.
Gopher snakes and rattlesnakes also differ from one another in terms of distribution and preferred habitats. Gopher snakes are primarily found in North America, especially in the western US.
Since they are both great climbers and burrowers, gopher snakes inhabit several types of habitats, including deserts, grasslands, and agricultural regions. You can also find them in local forests, hanging on branches in wait for an oblivious meal walking by.
They are frequently seen near human settlements in rural areas, as well as agricultural sites, due to the convergence of rodents in these regions.
Rattlesnakes are widespread throughout the American continent and inhabit even more habitats. These include forests, scrublands, deserts, and grasslands, to name a few variations.
However, rattlesnakes are primarily desert reptiles that prefer sandy regions with a variety of rocks, crevices, and caves for them to explore and chill in.
Gopher snakes are qualified rodent killers for the most part, just like bullsnakes. However, they don’t eat rodents exclusively but rather prefer them if they can choose.
If not, they will settle for whatever else they can find, including birds, reptiles, other mammals, and even eggs.
Since gopher snakes are agile constrictors, the preferred method of hunting speaks for itself. Gophers rely on ambush to secure their meals, but not always.
These powerful constrictors don’t mind giving chase at times, biting and coiling their victims aggressively to deliver a swift death. Relatively.
Rattlesnakes operate a bit differently. These reptiles have a varied diet and aren’t pretentious about their meals; they will eat whatever they can hunt. The preferred hunting method is the ambush.
Rattlesnakes will occupy their preferred vantage point, wait for the prey to come nearby, and strike when the animal is in biting range. The venom will get to work immediately, often disabling the prey on site.
The venom’s efficacy depends on the animal’s size, the quantity of venom injected, and the location of the bite.
If the snake’s prey doesn’t die on the spot, the reptile will give chase at a steady pace, keeping its distance in case the animal gets desperate and violent. Once it’s dead, the snake will find the corpse and eat it whole.
In terms of behavior, gopher snakes copy a lot of details from rattlesnakes, often with impressive results. Both species prefer to avoid predators, including humans, and keep their distance if possible.
They will always prefer fleeing than fighting because they don’t want to risk injuries in the process.
However, if their attacker is too close and fleeing the scene safely isn’t an option, the snakes will react similarly. The only thing that differs is the outcome. Both the gopher snake and the rattlesnake will coil up, posture, hiss, and shake their tails.
The latter does nothing for the gopher snake, but it does a lot for the rattlesnake since the rattling sound can be deafening in the snake’s immediate proximity.
If the warning signs fail, both snakes will bite. Rattlesnakes are generally more aggressive and can bite multiple times. The outcome makes the difference between the 2 species, given that rattlesnakes are venomous, while gopher snakes are not.
While the gopher snake’s bite can only cause local pain, mild swelling, and maybe some skin damage, the situation is entirely different with rattlesnakes. These reptiles possess a neurotoxic venom, so their bite can trigger a variety of symptoms.
These include immediate localized swelling, pain at the bite site, vomiting, nausea, and difficulty breathing.
If left untreated, the snake’s bite can lead to paralysis and death due to respiratory failure. Fortunately, not all rattlesnake bites are deadly. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the bites are not fatal.
According to studies, only 1 in 600 people bitten by a rattlesnake dies as a result.
There are several reasons for that, including the venom’s reduced toxicity and the fact that around 33% of rattlesnake bites are dry (no venom is injected.) However, don’t rely on statistics to determine your chances of survival.
Take the necessary precautions if you plan to venture into the snake’s natural habitat, and make sure medical assistance is always close-by.
Importance of Correctly Identifying Gopher Snakes and Rattlesnakes
There are 2 points I’d like to make here:
- The importance of identifying gopher snakes correctly – Many people mistake this harmless reptile for a rattlesnake, which can lead to murder more often than not. And the snake is always on the receiving end. This isn’t exactly ideal, given that gopher snakes are actually important assets in their ecosystems, especially thanks to their predilection for rodent snacks. Keeping the snake alive is the same as controlling the surrounding rodent population. This means that rodents are far more damaging than gopher snakes, especially since these reptiles pose no real threat to humans.
- The importance of identifying rattlesnakes correctly – The most important reason is: so that you can survive the encounter. I don’t need to explain why it’s unfortunate to take a rattlesnake for a gopher snake. The former’s envenomed cocktail speaks for itself. But there’s another reason why you should learn how to recognize rattlesnakes. These snakes also play important roles in their ecosystems, as they, too, aid in controlling the rodent population.
The goal is to preserve the ecological balance and impact the natural course of nature as little as possible. Each snake has its role in the ecosystem; otherwise, it wouldn’t exist, to begin with.
It’s important to note that neither gopher snakes nor rattlesnakes are evenly distributed in the US.
Their populations are dwindling in some areas, so conservation efforts are necessary to preserve the species.
Gopher snakes and rattlesnakes are both critical players in their respective ecosystems. They are also different in terms of the threat level in relation to humans.
These 2 simple facts make learning the differences between the species vital, both for you and the snakes themselves.