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Gopher Snakes Vs Rattlesnakes (Behavior, Diet, Habitat, Pet Care)

It is easy to mistake a gopher snake with a rattlesnake because they have many similar features. One would need an exceptionally keen eye to tell each one of them apart easily. Not only do they have similar physical appearances, but they also have identical behavioral characteristics.

gopher snake vs rattlesnake

One of the characteristics that make it difficult to tell them apart is rattling. While rattlesnakes are the real rattlers between the two serpents, gopher snakes tend to make the same rattling sound by moving their tails so fast, making it impossible to decipher that they actually don’t have rattles.

Interestingly, with all the similarities, these two snakes are not closely related. The gopher snake belongs to the genus Pituophis, and its scientific name is Pituophis catenifer. On the other hand, the rattlesnake is a member of the genus Crotalus which is primarily made up of vipers, and its scientific name is Crotalus cerastes.

Disclaimer: This is information for entertainment and educational purposes only. Do not approach a wild animal and keep your distance. Only professionals should handle wild animals. Seek professional help immediately if you have been bitten or otherwise harmedConsult your local wildlife authority for the right advice for your situation and locality.

Gopher Snakes Overview

Gopher snakes are mostly found in the Southwest of the United States. They are slender, muscular serpents with round heads. They have relatively big eyes and round pupils, like the other members of the genus Pituophis.

These snakes are nonvenomous, so they pose no danger to humans. They mostly feed on rodents, more so gophers, which they are named after. Gopher snakes trap their prey by constricting them to a point of suffocation before swallowing the prey whole.

Rattlesnakes Overview

Rattlesnakes are among the most venomous snakes and their bites can be fatal if not treated immediately. As they are vipers, they have a distinctively triangular head. Their most distinguishing feature is their rattled tail which they use to make rattle sounds as a warning to a potential predator.

Just like gopher snakes, rattlesnakes are mostly found in Southwest America and they also feed on rodents. One way of telling a rattlesnake from a gopher snake is that rattlesnakes have cat-like pupils where gopher snakes have round ones.

Comparison Between Gopher Snakes and Rattlesnakes

1. Physical Differences

Gopher snakes are, on average, longer than rattlesnakes. They can grow up to 6 and 9 feet long. On the other hand, Rattlesnakes will reach a body length of 3 and 6 feet on average. However, while the gopher snake is longer, it has a slender, muscular body that is in perfect proportion to its head.

A gopher snake’s head is narrow and round-shaped with two large eyes that have round pupils, just like other members of the Pituophis genus. Often, gopher snakes have two dark lines on their faces that run from the top of their head on either side of their eyes.

As for rattlesnakes, they are stocky with a thick body which is disproportionate to their small head and body length. A rattlesnake’s head is broad, flat, and triangular. Although it has round eyes like the gopher snake, a rattlesnake’s pupils are vertical and cat-like, which is synonymous with vipers.

Instead of facial lines like the gopher snakes, rattlesnakes have facial pits, which are openings between their nostrils and eyes. These pits are known as heat-sensing pits and allow rattlesnakes to detect temperature changes in the environment and effectively hunt prey in the dark.

Most importantly, rattlesnakes have rattles on their tails, whereas gopher snakes pretend to have rattles.

Fun Fact: Young rattlesnakes do not have rattles, and you may easily mistake them for gopher snakes.

Image: A rattlesnake showing off his rattle for the camera. Source credits listed at end of article.

2. Color And Patterns

The body color of gopher snakes depends on their location and subspecies. It is almost as if they can camouflage, as their colors blend with local vegetation and surrounding. Thus, their colors range from cream to light brown, with dark blotches on their backs and smaller spots on each side. In most gophers, the bellies are a plain light brown without spots.

Most rattlesnakes are the same color as gopher snakes with light brown and grey skins. However, rattlesnakes have a wider color variety as there are those that are red, pink, green, and various shades of orange. Still, rattlesnakes have unique patterns on their bodies with which one can differentiate them from gopher snakes: dark diamonds, rhombuses, and hexagons.

3. Venom Differences

Gopher snakes are non-venomous and pose no danger to human beings. However, they pretend to be venomous when threatened as a defense mechanism, where they hiss and flatten their heads like vipers.

On the other hand, rattlesnakes are extremely venomous as they have venom glands on both sides of the head, which would explain the flat, triangular shape of their head. Their venom mainly contains hemotoxins, which may cause tissue damage and internal bleeding if a person is bitten. Their bites are also very painful. Fortunately, with proper and timely treatment, these effects can be avoided.

4. Habitat

Interestingly, both gopher snakes and rattlesnakes exist in similar habitats, and it’s very likely to find them in the same location. Both thrive in various types of habitats: rocks, grasslands, desert areas, and coastal dunes. Gopher snakes specifically thrive in areas with dense vegetation and trees.

You can find both gopher snakes and rattlesnakes in both Americas but are mostly found in the Southwestern part of the United States. You will find gopher snakes in parts of Canada and down in Mexico. Moreover, there are more rattlesnakes in Argentina than gopher snakes, though.

Gopher snakes spend a lot of their time in dens and underground burrows. They are loners who like to stay put and only move to find food, bask in the sun or copulate. At times, you may find gopher snakes in urban areas and suburban neighborhoods, and this is because of the presence of their prey.

Additionally, rattlesnakes can handle an altitude between sea level and 11 000 above sea level. During winter, some rattlesnake species go into hibernation. It is very likely to find gopher snakes and rattlesnakes hibernating in the same location.

5. Diet

Gopher snakes and rattlesnakes are both carnivorous and feed on small animals such as rodents and birds. Even so, gopher snakes love to feed on gophers, which are squirrel-type rodents that are mostly found in North America.  

Fun Fact: Gopher snakes got their name from having gophers as their primary sources of food.

Gopher snakes are nonvenomous constrictors. This means that they squeeze their prey to death before swallowing them whole. On the other hand, rattlesnakes use venom to paralyze prey before swallowing the animal whole. They are stealthy hunters in that they lie in wait until prey comes, after which they strike at a super speed.

Farmers appreciate gopher snakes because they keep the rodent population in check. Rodents cause harm to plants. Moreover, farmers would prefer gopher snakes to rattlesnakes because the former are non-venomous and harmless.

6. Defense Mechanisms

In the face of danger, rattlesnakes hiss and rattle their tails as warning signals. If approached, the rattlesnake will coil up, raise its head in a defensive posture, rattle, flick its tongue and hiss as a dare for the predator to come any closer. If the predator does not back off, the snake will pounce with an open mouth and bite. As its bite is venomous, it can be fatal if not treated medically in good time.

When threatened, gopher snakes mimic the dangerous rattlesnake to scare away its predator. As such, it will rattle its tail to produce the rattling sounds produced by rattlesnakes. Moreover, it will raise its head and flatten it into a triangular shape like a viper while hissing loudly.

It is said that gophers have the loudest hisses- they use a small filament in their mouth to do it. This tactic of imitating a dangerous animal to scare away predators is referred to as Batesian mimicry. Unfortunately, pretending to be a dangerous rattlesnake leads to gopher snakes being killed by humans.

When a threat encroaches their territory, a gopher snake will attack with a closed mouth to scare away the predator. Gopher snakes can also inflict very painful bites when threatened enough.

7. Which One Would Make a Better Pet?

Snakes have a reputation for being dangerous. However, they are fascinating creatures, and many species can be tamed as pets. Between rattlesnakes and gopher snakes, the latter is more likely to make a good pet.

For one, rattlesnakes are venomous and will pose a constant danger to humans around them as their bites can be fatal. As we have already established, a gopher snake is non-venomous and, therefore, non-harmful to humans.

Furthermore, a gopher snake is low maintenance as it is a hardy reptile with minimal requirements. All you would need to do is make sure it is well-fed, the temperature is favorable, and it has enough space to maneuver around.

As gopher snakes feed on rodents, you would have to find a pet store where you will be purchasing frozen rodents for them. Also, you should find a way to regulate the temperature and humidity of its environment based on the advice of a breeder or veterinarian.

Because of their length, you would need to find a spacious place in which to keep them. A large tank that can fit a human is a good choice. Also, ensure that the enclosure seals shut completely, as gopher snakes are experts at escaping.

8. Reproduction

Gopher snakes are oviparous, meaning that they lay eggs. The eggs are incubated in communal nests for two to three months. The eggs hatch to produce 2 to 24 younglings who become independent immediately. Female gopher snakes are sexually mature at 3 to 5 years old, while the males mature earlier at 1 to 2 years.

On the other hand, rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous, meaning their eggs incubate inside the mother’s body. When they are mature enough, the mother gives birth to live young rattlesnakes who slither off immediately.

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Conclusion

Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes have very similar characteristics, and it can be challenging for an untrained eye to tell the difference between the two. However, despite the apparent similarities, the two types of snakes are very different.

Furthermore, the gopher snake is harmless and a perfect pet for snake hobbyists. Rattlesnakes are venomous and, thus, dangerous to keep.

Rattlesnake Image by Ana Meister from Pixabay