Alabama, like most other southern states, has its share of snakes. The climate is excellent for them, with relatively short winters and warm summers. Yet, snakes aren’t the main attraction in the state. Instead, it’s the peanut capital of the world, the home of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, and the Talladega National Forest. You’ll find over 40 in the Cotton State, so it’s better to know which garden snakes will send you to the hospital before you start your spring planting.
Identifying Venomous Snakes in Alabama
Sometimes, it’s more important to know what it isn’t than what it is. Sort of like foraging for wild plants — you need to be absolutely positive that it isn’t dangerous before even considering that you might be able to eat it. In doing so, you’ll gain a bit of confidence.
That said, most venomous snakes in the U.S. are easily differentiated from nonvenomous species.
Except for the coral snakes, all other venomous snakes in Alabama are pit vipers. These snakes have specific traits in common with one another that identify them as pit vipers — so even if you don’t know which pit viper is in your garden, you’ll know that touching it may earn you tripe to the hospital.
Remember: Don’t pick it up if you don’t know what it is. Correctly identifying snakes is sometimes challenging, given that they’re essentially noodles with heads.
Pit vipers are a particular class of snakes in the Viperidae family. As part of the Crotalinae subfamily, pit vipers have special heat-sensing loreal pits between their nostrils and eyes. In addition, they have vertical, cat-eye pupils that open wide for night-time hunting, their most active time of day.
Above each eye is an extra scale that makes it hard to see their eyes from the top; if you view the snake from the right angle, the eyes aren’t visible. These snakes have big, triangular heads that house the venom glands attached to their folding fangs. Pit vipers have small necks that make their heads seem that much larger. In general, they’re thick-bodied and relatively slow-moving until they strike.
Northern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
This species is semiaquatic, one of the few vipers like this. Cottonmouths are the biggest snake in the Agkistrodon genus and the largest ever found was 72 inches long – six feet! However, most are between three and five feet long. They have big, heavy bodies and don’t move fast unless they’re striking – which is one of the fastest strikes of all venomous snakes. A cottonmouth strikes at 9.67 feet per second (2.95 meters per second).
On land, cottonmouths are slow and cumbersome. However, get this semiaquatic snake in the water, and it’s as graceful as a water ballerina. They tend to swim with their heads raised above the water, but that’s not a definitive identifying factor.
Cottonmouths can be tan, brown, gray, yellowish-olive, or blackish, with dark brown crossbands that sometimes approach black. Their heads are brown and eastern populations have a dark strip bordered with a lighter color, while the western populations’ head stripes tend to be subtler. The crossbands are often broken and staggered along the spine. They sometimes appear as a chocolate kiss pattern from the side. Juveniles have brightly colored tails that can be yellow to green, and their overall markings are much brighter than adults. Young cottonmouths and copperheads have similar markings, so people often confuse the two species. However, these snakes have heavy bodies that taper sharply toward the tail, whereas copperheads are more gradually tapered.
Of Alabama’s venomous snakes, the northern cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) is seen the most often. This pit viper is highly venomous but, contrary to the stories, doesn’t want to bite. The problem with this species is that they’re not aggressive but are, instead, more likely to stand their ground and try to intimidate you. Primarily, they rely on their excellent camouflage to remain unseen. However, when a snake realizes that you see it, you see where it got the cottonmouth moniker. It gapes its mouth, showing the cotton-white interior, and may also display its fangs.
Cottonmouths are relatively shy and prefer living in areas with access to fresh water with lots of frogs, toads, and fish — their favorite foods. If you live in the cities, you’re not likely to see this or the next one on our list.
Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
The second most common venomous snake is the timber rattler, also known as the canebrake rattlesnake. It’s the snake on the Gadsden Flag, and was once common throughout the original 13 colonies. It’s also typically the only venomous snake in northeastern states. The timber rattlesnake is endangered in some areas and seems to be extirpated from others. However, its population seems stable in some regions.
Timber rattlesnakes don’t inhabit swampy wetland areas like cottonmouths. Instead, they prefer forests with lots of leaf litter on the ground – which is why reaching into a pile of leaves is a bad idea. As ambush predators, they lie still for days, waiting for prey to wander close enough to catch. These snakes range from three to five feet long with stout bodies, large triangular heads, and thin necks that most pit vipers have in common. Their rattle is a distinctive sound that can be heard from quite far away.
Like many other rattlesnakes, timber rattlesnakes sometimes have a stripe extending from their eye toward their jaw, but it’s not always present. This species usually has a yellowish-brown or gray base color and brown or black crossbands. Their markings are often irregular and can be V- or M-shaped and split by a brown or orange-brown dorsal line. In addition, these snakes have yellowish bellies, sometimes marked with black. Melanism is common in timber rattlesnakes; some snakes are so dark that their pattern isn’t visible.
When predators and people come close, they rely first on their camouflage, hoping you don’t see them. Some will rattle a little as an early warning, but most don’t rattle until you move toward them. Most sightings are either in the spring or the fall when traveling to and from hibernacula, some of which have been used for several generations of snakes. While timber rattlesnakes aren’t common in cities and suburbs, they are much more common in rural areas and the woods. So if your home is near forested areas, away from busier areas of the city, you may run across a timber rattlesnake.
Other Venomous Snakes in Alabama
Of course, there are a few other venomous snakes in Alabama, but they’re not as common.
- Eastern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix): Did you notice that the genus name for copperheads and cottonmouths is the same? They’re close cousins and have similar markings — leading to many misidentifications in younger snakes.
- Florida cottonmouth (Agkistrodon conanti): Florida cottonmouths sometimes crossbreed with northern cottonmouths, forming a natural hybrid. Fortunately, these intergrades still look like cottonmouths, so you don’t have to learn a new snake ID to know it’s venomous.
- Eastern Coral snake (Micrurus fulvius)
- Eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)
- Pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius)
Gray Ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides)
If you know anything about rat snakes, you know that they find themselves in all sorts of trouble. There are Facebook groups dedicated to displaying their embarrassing lack of discretion in photos and videos of wild rat snakes in odd predicaments. Given their tendency toward making themselves at home wherever they smell food, we’re not surprised that a rat snake species made it to the top. In Alabama, you’re more likely to see a gray rat snake somewhere in your garden (garage, shed, or tree) than any other snake species.
Gray rat snakes look like most rat snakes and have long, relatively thin bodies and average between three and six feet long. Their heads are slightly triangular, but, like many species, rat snakes can flatten their head to appear bigger. These snakes aren’t as fast as racers, but they’re quick – and they can climb. They usually have a gray background with darker blotches along their back. Unlike other rat snakes, gray rat snakes don’t lose their juvenile markings as they age. These snakes have a dark line across the top of their snout that connects the eyes, traveling towards the back edge of their upper lip scales. To make identifying which rat snake is which even more complicated, gray rat snakes in the northern portions of their range are black, like the eastern ratsnake (P. alleghaniensis) and the western rat snake (P. obsoletus).
Rat snakes live pretty happily alongside people, and they sometimes surprise humans by poking their heads out of the bushes while they’re raking. However, you’ve nothing to fear from these crazy snakes. They’re not venomous and can’t hurt you. In fact, if you watch rat snakes for a while, their shenanigans are pretty funny. These snakes are only after rodents and the occasional bird or bird egg. One peculiarity with their behavior is that they often kink their entire body up when surprised. So, while it’s not an absolute identifier, it helps rule out racers and king snakes.
Common Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)
Water snakes are more common in the northern half of Alabama. However, they’re still the second-most common snake sighted in the state. Common water snakes are also called the banded water snake, and black water adder, among others. Adding to the name confusion, another species, Nerodia fasciata, goes by the name of the broad-banded water snake. The confusion that common names cause is why herpetologists prefer scientific names.
At any rate, this species comes in several colors and might be brown, gray, reddish brown, or black. On its neck, darker bands become blotches down the length of its back. Juveniles have brighter colors than adults, and the adults can sometimes become so dark that their pattern isn’t visible anymore. They also have keeled scales that make them look rougher than a rat snake’s mostly smooth scales.
Superficially, they resemble cottonmouths and perhaps even a copperhead. However, common water snakes are generally longer and thinner, and their heads are flatter. When threatened, they spread their head out to make it look bigger, but the only thing it accomplishes is that they look a little more cartoonish. Their heads are marginally bigger than their necks, which aren’t thin. A water snake also has round pupils and vertical labial bars.
You’re not likely to see this snake in the cities, but if there’s a pond with fish, frogs, and toads, there’s a chance. They are shyer than rat snakes and tend to keep away from people. One thing to note, however, is that some water snakes defend themselves violently. They have very sharp teeth that they use to catch and hold slimy fish and amphibians, so when these snakes bite, they’ll tear up your skin.
North American Racer (Coluber constrictor)
These fast-moving snakes are well-named. Racers are usually gone before you see them, so the fact that they’re the third most common snake in Alabama says something. However, they’re not as fast as you think – they only move about four miles per hour. It’s enough for them only to show you their tails as they make their escape.
North American racers are long and thin, typically between two and five feet long. Their dorsal color ranges from olive green to black, with a yellowish belly. As juveniles, their base color is lighter with dark blotches; as they mature, they darken to a primarily solid color. Racers have round pupils in smallish heads that are barely distinct from their necks.
Racers eat small animals like rodents, frogs, toads, lizards, birds, and bird eggs. Young individuals often eat arthropods until they’re big enough to graduate to bigger prey. When you corner a North American racer, it thrashes about like mad, often musking, biting hard, and biting repeatedly. However, like the rat snakes, they’re nonvenomous and can’t hurt you.
Dekay’s Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi)
North America is home to several brown snakes. They’re all shy, small, and fossorial, but people see them frequently. They’re so common because they hide in all the areas we try to clear out as we’re gardening. So you’re likely to find a Dekay’s brown snake in your garden in Alabama.
This small snake gives birth to live babies in late summer after mating in March or April. Dekay’s brown snake usually measures less than 12 inches; the record was 19 1/2 inches. Their dorsal pattern is brown with black speckles and a lighter brown stripe; the snake’s head is also brown with a darker blotch on the back area of its head leading into the neck. Their scales are slightly keeled, unlike the garter snakes that can live in similar areas.
Dekay’s brown snakes inhabit debris piles under rocks, woodpiles, leaves, etc. So essentially, if there are earthworms and slugs, there may be a Dekay’s brown snake or three hunting and hiding. In the spring, these snakes feature heavily in snake identification groups, and once you’ve seen one, they are very easily identified.
Other Nonvenomous Snakes in Alabama
Here are a few more nonvenomous snakes you may encounter in Alabama.
- Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
- Ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus)
- Black king snake (Lampropeltis nigra)
- Rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus)
- Plain-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster)
- Diamondback water snake (Nerodia rhombifer)
- Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos)
Plus, various water snakes, rat snakes, corn snakes, and more. Although snakes are a bit weird, and the fact that they move without legs is creepy, they’re a vital part of the ecology. These slithering noodles with heads keep all the rodents and vermin from covering the Earth.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Matthew L Niemiller/Shutterstock.com
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