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Rat Snakes Vs. Copperhead Snakes

Adult rat snakes are longer than adult copperhead snakes. The dorsal of a copperhead is reddish-tan, with hourglass-shaped dark brown crossbanded dorsal, whereas that of rat snake would have irregular blotches or stripes on black, gray, yellow, red, brown, black-and-white, or orange.

Rat Snakes Vs. Copperhead Snakes
Rat Snakes Vs. Copperhead Snakes

The head of a rat snake is small and wedge-shaped with a large cluster of scales above the eyes and has round pupils. Conversely, the copperhead snake has a large, triangular-shaped head with a small cluster of shiny scales above the eyes and elliptical pupils.

Despite the differences, they possess some similarities. Both attain sexual maturity around the same age, up to 4 years. They are also carnivorous and feed primarily on rodents and mice. They also exist within woodlands and near water-bodies biomes.

Rat Snake vs Copperhead Snake

FeatureRat SnakeCopperhead Snake
1. Scientific NameVaried. Commonly of the Pantherophis genus.Agkistrodon contortrix
2. Size4-7 feet2-4 feet
3. ColorsVaried. Black, white, orange, yellow, grey.Yellow, white, black, brown, tan. Hourglass shaped pattern on body.
4. RangeEastern United States, South-Eastern Canada Eastern United States, South-Eastern Canada
5. HabitatWoodland, Streams and RocksWoodland, Vines, Foliage, Trash
5. Lays EggsOviparous. (Mother lays eggs).Ovoviviparous. (Mother carries the eggs in her body).
6. Pet Behavior Can be Kept as Pets. Good for Beginners.Can be Kept as Pets.
7. VenomNonvenomousVenomous
8. Lifespan in Captivity12-25 years12-20 years

Rat Snake Overview

Rat snakes are non-venomous medium to large snakes that kill by constriction. They have various subspecies with many colors, based on geographic range, spanning from gray, black, orange, yellow, red, brown, or black-and-white having irregular blotches or stripes. They range from Northern, Eastern, and Western America like wooded sites, swamp edges, marshes, and rock outcrops.

Rat snakes hunt small rodents, amphibians, birds, and bird eggs. They can continue hunting after killing their victim because they are covered in the scent of the meal. They may kill other prey before returning to the first kill. As a result, rat snakes may consume a large number of creatures in a single meal.

Fun fact: Rat snakes are also known as pilot snakes as it is believed they guide other snakes to denning during the winter season. 

Copperhead Snake Overview

The copperhead derives its name from the coppery-tan hue found on its head and other areas of its body, including the tail. With wide and vertical pupil-like cat eyes, their eyes are one of the most distinguishing traits that tell them apart from rat snakes. Their irises might be orange, reddish-brown, or tan.

The copperhead has a design with parts resembling an hourglass, one of the most distinguishing characteristics. The hourglass form is laid slightly sideways on the back of the copperhead; the broader section of the design begins on one part of the body, thins towards the middle-top edge of the back (closest to the spine), and then spreads back out to the other side of the snake.

They are sociable and often hibernate with other snakes like rat snakes and rattlesnakes in shared dens and frequently go back to the same den year after year. They can also be spotted close to each other while sunbathing, mating, drinking, eating, and courting.

Copperheads are venomous pit vipers primarily found in the United States, south and southwest. However, they are also known to live in the Midwest and along the Atlantic coast. Copperheads are generally active during the day in the fall and spring, but they become nocturnal in the summer and are busy looking for prey during the cooler evening hours.

Go Deeper: What do Copperhead Snakes Eat?

Comparison between Rat Snake and Copperhead

1. Look and Color Variations

Rat Snake

A rat snakes’ coloration varies with the physical geography in which it is found. Most rat snakes are black and have a white or pale-yellow underside. However, some species have brown-to-black, orange, yellow, brown, gray, or red with longitudinal stripes or irregularly shaped blotches.

Their tiny caped, scaled skulls have a glossy look over the eyes on top of the head. They also have circular pupils comparable to that of a turtle’s head and lack pits.

The copperhead has a reddish-tan-colored body with hourglass-shaped darker markings on its back and a wide, unmarked copper-colored head. It has yellowish, whitish, or a light brownish underside, stippled or mottled, with grey, brown or blackish, sometimes big, dark patches or spots along the sides.

It has elliptical pupils. A copperhead’s eyes are one of the most distinguishing traits that tell them apart from rat snakes. They have wide and vertical pupil-like cat eyes. Their irises might be orange, reddish-brown, or tan.

2. Length And Size Differences

Most rat snakes grow to an average length of four to seven feet. However, some can grow to be 9 feet. Females are shorter than males due to the energy necessary for egg production. They are average in size and have slim bodies, and mature at weights ranging from 0.5 to 2.2kg. Rat snake hatchlings range in size from 0.83 to 1.08 feet at birth.

Copperheads are medium-sized snakes with a length of about two to three feet. Male copperheads are somewhat shorter than females, although males have proportionately larger tails. They are moderately sized with thick, heavy bodies weighing around ½ to ¾ of a pound. Copperheads are generally 7 to 10 inches long when they are young.

3. Hunting and Feeding Differences


Copperhead snakes kill their prey by injecting venom in them, whereas rat snakes squeeze their prey by coiling until the prey suffocates to death. Both snakes are carnivorous and primarily feed on mice and rodents, though they can also eat frogs, voles, lizards, birds, cicadas, and other insects.

However, certain species have been known to consume considerable amounts of invertebrates and amphibians. When the cicadas are incomplete in form, copperhead snakes will climb trees to consume the giant insects.

Rat snakes are fearsome constrictors who eat rats, of course! They suffocate their prey by coiling their bodies around it and hanging on until the victim suffocates, at which point they swallow it and slowly digest the meal over many days.

Some rat snake species are great climbers and swimmers. They’ll utilize these abilities to collect everything from bird eggs to frogs. They are the most likely species to be spotted in and near buildings, searching for rodents, amphibians, and young birds, whereas juvenile rat snakes eat primarily small rodents.

Copperhead snakes are well-known mobile ambush predators. After biting their prey, they release it and wait for the venom to take effect and swallow the target.

Copperhead species have pits between the eyes and nostrils on either side of the head, which allows the snake to sense minute temperature changes and attack the heat source, which is frequently prospective prey.

Fun fact: Juvenile copperheads have brilliant yellow tails to attract food, such as frogs and tiny lizards.

4. Geographic Location

In the United States, both snakes are common and are both found in Eastern America. Copperhead snakes are found throughout the eastern and central United while rat snakes range from Northern, Eastern, and Western America.

Copperheads are found throughout the eastern and central United. Their geographic coverage extends from the eastern parts of Nebraska and Kansas and then from eastern Texas to the south Florida panhandle to southern New England.

According to the geographic coverage, there are five breeds of copperhead: the northwestern, northern, two southwestern subspecies, and southern. The northern copperhead covers the vast range, from Illinois and Massachusetts to Alabama.

The geographic location of the rat snakes varies by their species. The Black rat snakes live in Georgia, New England, northern and southern Wisconsin, and North and West Louisiana. The yellow rat snake is prevalent along South and North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia, while Texas rat snakes are common in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. 

Red rat snakes are found in the southeastern part of the United States, particularly in Florida. The Gray rat snakes can be located in Indiana to Florida and west to the Mississippi. They can also be tracked down in southern Ontario.

5. Habitat Variations

A rattlesnake in a desert

Copperhead snakes and rat snakes can be found in various environments, although they like woodland areas near streams, round rocks, or other water bodies. Copperhead and rat snakes also like environments that are densely covered with vines, foliage, and trash.

6. Reproduction Differences

Copperhead snakes’ eggs are incubated in the womb, giving birth to living young while rat snakes lay eggs, which later on hatch, and infants emerge.

Rat snakes become sexually mature at the age of 3 to 4 years. Males mature earlier than females, which is affected by the length of the active feeding season and temperature. After emerging from hibernation, they mate from April through June. Around mating time, both males and females emit a distinct odor preparing both parties for the procedure. Males will frequently mate with numerous females.

Rat snakes are oviparous. Females lay between 4-44 eggs in a moist and secluded area five weeks after mating. The eggs then incubate for 60-80 days. In August and September, the eggs hatch, and the infants emerge.

Copperhead snakes attain sexual maturity when they are four years old and around two feet long. The breeding season is around April and May, with a fall breeding phase observed during September. During the mating season, males use tongues to spot pheromones in the air to locate sexually active females.

Their mating ritual is a fascinating one. The males battle for the females. The female occasionally fights a potential male suitor to see how strong he is and rejects incompetent males who won’t fight her.

Copperheads are ovoviviparous (egg-bearing). This demonstrates that the eggs are incubated in the womb. In late summer or fall, after mating during the spring, the females will bring forth two to eighteen live younglings who are generally 8-10 inches long and already have fangs and venom.

7. Lifespan Differences

Rat snakes have a longer lifespan than copperheads, both in the wild and captive. They typically live for about ten to fifteen years in the wild, while they live for 12 to 25 years in captivity.

Copperhead snakes have a reduced life expectancy in the wild, owing to predation and habitat degradation. When reared in captivity, Copperheads can live for twelve to up to twenty years. These snakes’ lives in the wild may be cut short owing to predation and habitat degradation.

8. Venom Differences

Rat snakes are nonvenomous snakes with long, sharp teeth that mimic fangs but are not fangs and are difficult to notice. Therefore, do not pose a threat to people. As a protection strategy, they bite their predators with their small fangs. These bites are minor and seem like scratches, but they can be unpleasant. They leave contaminated saliva and thus should be treated to avoid infection.

Copperhead snakes have a highly effective venom mechanism, with extended fangs placed at the forefront of the jaw that pivots back to enable the snake to seal the mouth. The primary function of the venom and fangs is to kill its prey rapidly, and they rarely bite unless provoked. The quantity of venom delivered by one Copperhead snake is inadequate to kill an adult human.

Fun Fact: Copperheads frequently use a warning bite or dry bite when stomped on or disturbed, injecting only a small quantity of venom. 

Dry bites contain little or no venom. It has been calculated that the Copperhead venom released in each bite has a lethal dose of approximately a hundred milligram, which is insufficient to cause death but enough to make you sick. 

9. Defense Mechanisms

Rat snakes protect themselves by coiling their bodies and vibrating their tails on substrates, resulting in a loud buzz, and they puff out their necks as well. To mislead predators into thinking they are dangerous, they produce a foul-smelling musk from their anal gland. The fragrance of musk is similar to that of poison.

This, however, is dangerous since humans commonly mistake them for deadly rattlers and kill them. Foxes, snakes, raccoons, eagles, hawks, and other predators feed on these non-aggressive, innocuous snakes. 

Copperheads, like other snakes, utilize several tactics and adaptations to defend themselves. They have an amazing sense of smell and can detect threats and humans from a distance. Moreover, the pits assist in detecting the position and direction of the heat source and remain immobile until the threat passes.

However, when copperheads are small, Cottonmouths, king snakes, hawks, owls, opossums, coyotes, and other predators will consume them. 

As the snakes increase in size, the likelihood of such predators bothering them decreases.

10.  Which One Can Be Petted?

Rat and copperhead snakes can both be petted, for they are easy to care for in captivity. But rat snakes are best for beginners, while copperhead pets are best for experienced pet owners. They thrive in a range of environments, have no extreme humidity and temperature requirements.

Copperhead snakes are venomous; thus, they are not suitable for keeping as a pet. The bite of this snake is rarely lethal but extremely painful and can cause nausea, swelling, and can be damaging to the bone tissue.  Although they can be wonderful pets if kept with people who have prior expertise, they are pretty simple to care for in captivity

On the other hand, rat snakes are among the easiest snakes to maintain as pets owing to their docile nature and low maintenance requirements. Before taking your new rat snake home, you’ll need to set up its vivarium; although you can use a wooden vivarium with glass panes, plastic or glass vivarium is more popular. Furthermore, these snakes have been proven to be helpful to the ecosystem, as they eat the rats and pests that destroy paddy.

Related: Do Snakes Like Being Petted?

More Snake Comparisons:


Rat snakes are non-venomous, unlike venomous copperhead snakes. Both snakes share specific geographic ranges and are harmless, especially to humans. They usually freeze when they feel threatened and may bite when provoked. 

Thus, despite their various similarities, the above clear distinctions between the two will help people living in areas where they are both prevalent to determine each snake, as encountering a copperhead could be deadly.

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