Venomous Snakes

Natural History

Venomous snakes are species of the suborder Serpentes that produce venom. This venom, a highly modified saliva, is injected through highly specialized teeth for prey  immobilization and self-defense. Only 20% of all snakes in the world are venomous and about 20% of all the snakes in the United States are venomous. That means 80% of snakes are mostly harmless to people. All venomous snakes in Virginia have large triangular or diamond shaped heads, elliptical pupils and heat sensing pits. Most snakes will only bite when startled or harassed, and all are important in the population control of rodents. In Virginia, there are timber rattlesnakes, northern copperheads, and eastern cottonmouths.

The timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is found in the mountainous regions of Virginia as well as the Dismal Swamp. Adults range from 30 to 60 inches in length and come in a variety of color patterns. They can have a base color of yellow, brown, or tan but all will have a dark colored zigzag pattern. The rattle that distinguishes this snake is added at the end of each shed and can easily be broken. Some people believed that counting the rattles indicates age but it does not. Like many snakes, the timber rattlesnake eats small mammals, such as rodents, and the occasional bird or frog. Coastal populations of the timber rattlesnake are state endangered but mountainous population are not.

Northern copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) are found throughout Virginia and are often found in wood and rock piles. They are the least venomous snake in Virginia and there are no records in Virginia history of anyone dying from their bite. Adults can grow to 24 to 36 inches and can easily be recognized by the hourglass pattern on their bodies. Juvenile copperheads have a bright yellow tipped tail, which will fade and disappear by the age of  three or four. Generally non-aggressive, copperheads are sluggish snakes that rely on camouflage to avoid predators. Most bites to humans occur when the snake is startled or accidentally stepped on. The copperhead at Maymont was rescued by Wildlife Response, Inc. in Powhatan County, just west of Richmond. It is believed the copperhead was born in 2011 or 2012. It is unsafe to have copperheads around people, especially children. Often companies will attempt to release the animals away from humans, but in this case it was not possible.

The eastern cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus), also known as the water moccasin, is only found in southeastern parts of Virginia. They are typically found near water sources and are semi-aquatic, which allows them to strike underwater. Like the northern copperhead, this is not an aggressive snake and no deaths from their bites have been reported in Virginia. Adults can reach between 24 to 48 inches in length and have thick bodies. The cottonmouth at Maymont came from a rescue organization, Wildlife Response Inc. based in Hampton Roads. The animal was living in an area in Virginia Beach inhabited by people and was rescued rather than be killed. The cottonmouth at Maymont is thought to have hatched in 2010.

Fun Facts

  • All of the venomous snakes in Virginia have hemotoxic venom, which acts on the heart and cardiovascular system.
  • The copperhead is the only venomous snake found within the Richmond city limits.
  • In the Dismal Swamp timber rattlesnakes are known as canebrake rattlesnakes.
  • Juvenile cottonmouths will  flick their bright yellow tail tip, which is meant to look like a worm, to lure in small frogs or minnows for the snake to eat.
  • Poison and venom are not the same thing. Poison is absorbed or ingested and only works if the animal secreting it is touched or eaten. Venom is always injected into the skin and can be injected through fangs, stabbing with tails, or slashing with spikes.

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