Copperhead vs Black Rat Snake: What are the Differences?

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Updated: October 23, 2023
Share on:


Listen to Article

The copperhead and black rat snake are two unique North American snake species known for their unique characteristics as well as the different relationships they have with humans. Black rat snakes are known as rat-lovers that help humans keep those pesky rodents in check. Copperheads, however, are known to bite more people than any other snake in the U.S.

These are just some of the many differences between these snakes. Here you’ll be able to read about the distinguishing features between copperhead vs black rat snake.

Comparing the Copperhead and Black Rat Snake

Black rat snakes are carnivores, while copperheads are cannibals.
Black Rat SnakeCopperhead
Size1.7 -2.2 pounds
3.5– 6.0 feet, may obtain 8 ft 5 in
0.2 – 0.7 pounds
1.7 -3.1 feet, may obtain 3 ft 3 in
DescriptionGlossy black scales
White lips, chin, and throat
Juveniles have brown blotches on a gray background
Copper or orange-red triangular heads
Pale brown to pinkish-brown background skin
Hourglass-shaped markings that are colored copper to reddish-brown
Dorsal and ventral scales 
Juveniles have bright-colored tail tips
Mode of defense/ attackBites
Venomous bites
DietCarnivores – mice, juvenile rabbits, small vertebrates, lizards, and snakes of other species.  Cannibals – toads, small mammals, frogs, lizards, rats, small snakes, and even other copperheads
TemperamentThey may freeze and curl themselves up when threatened
They rattle their tails to mimic rattlesnakes
When cornered, they stand their grounds aggressively
They freeze when humans come near, this causes people to unknowingly step on/near them and get bitten.

Key Differences Between a Copperhead and Black Rat Snake

The major differences between copperheads and black rat snakes are in their looks and their modes of attack and defense. Black rat snakes are bigger and heavier than copperheads. 

101,166 People Couldn't Ace This Quiz

Think You Can?

Copperheads defend themselves with their venomous bites and musk, while black rat snakes are constrictors with musk, and are even known to bite on occasions. Below, we’ll look at five of the major differences between copperheads and black rat snakes in detail. 

Copperhead vs. Black Rat Snake: Snake Family

The Copperhead’s scales are keeled, and their eyes have vertical pupils that make them resemble cat’s eyes.
Copperheads are pit vipers while black rat snakes are colubrids.

©Creeping Things/

Black rat snakes, also called western rat snakes or pilot black snakes, are nonvenomous colubrid snakes known for their love of rats, which inspired their names. Copperheads, on the other hand, are pit vipers named for their copper (or orange-red) heads.

Copperhead vs. Black Rat Snake: Description

Copperheads and black rat snakes can easily be distinguished by their looks. As we mentioned previously, copperheads have copper or orange-red heads. They also grow to an average of 20-37 inches (1.7 -3.1 feet) which is very medium-sized, especially if you consider that black rat snakes grow to an average of 42 – 72 inches (3.5– 6.0 feet).

Black rat snakes are also heavier than copperheads, weighing an average of 1.7 -2.2 pounds (27.2 – 35.2 ounces) compared to copperheads’ average of 0.2 – 0.7 pounds (3.2 – 11.2 ounces).

Another major difference between the two species is their scales’ color. If it has light brown scales patterned with copper to reddish-brown hourglass-shaped markings, (bright-colored tail tips to lure prey indicate it’s a juvenile), it’s a copperhead. Black rat snakes are black and glossy with white lips, chins, and throats, but as juveniles, they are gray with brown blotches.

Copperhead vs. Black Rat Snake: Mode of Attack/ Defense

Southern Copperhead on the North Carolina Coast
Copperheads have venom and musk, while black rat snakes are constrictors with musk.

©Dennis W Donohue/

Another difference between black rat snakes and copperheads is their modes of attack and defense. Copperheads are venomous snakes that spray musk, while black rat snakes are constrictors that also spray musk and bite with their small sharp teeth. The lack of venom doesn’t stop rat snakes from biting, and their bites can be agonizing too.

If a black rat snake has bitten you, treat it as an emergency as their bites contain bacteria that can affect wound. In addition, their sharp teeth could puncture a vein or artery. Unlike copperheads with venomous solenoglyphous fangs, black rat snakes have small and sharp rows of teeth.

Black rat snakes are known constrictors, and due to their large and long build, they aren’t afraid to hunt and battle large prey. Lastly, these snakes also spray musk, especially if picked up.

Copperheads primarily attack prey using venomous bites. Luckily, their hemotoxic venom is rarely fatal as they have a maximum yield of 85 mg and need 80-100mg to kill a person, but inject 26mg on average. These snakes also spray musk in addition to their painful bites.

Copperhead vs. Black Rat Snake: Hunting

A black rat snake on stepping stones
Black rat snakes may continue to hunt after successfully killing an animal.


One unique difference between these two snakes is in how they hunt. Lying in wait for prey to approach, before subduing it with its venomous fangs is the preferred method of the copperhead. Black rat snakes, on the other hand, are ambush hunters that sometimes bite their prey before constricting them. They wrap themselves around their prey, tightly suffocating them, and since blood cannot get to the brains, they die in seconds due to ischemia. After one kill, black rat snakes might not eat their prey immediately. Instead, they continue to hunt while cloaked in the dead animal’s scent, making it easier for them to hunt undetected. When they are done hunting, they make a meal from the various animals killed.

Copperhead vs. Black Rat Snake: Relationship With Humans 

Black rat snakes and copperheads have one major trait in common – like all snakes, they avoid humans. A true and unique piece of information is that snakes are just as wary of you as you are of them and do their best to avoid us. When black rat snakes feel or hear humans, they do their best to escape. However, if they are cornered, they are known to pull a nifty little trick; pretending to be venomous.

They do this by frantically vibrating or shaking their tails, just like rattlesnakes. When humans or other animals see this, they easily assume that these snakes are rattlesnakes. Black rat snakes also freeze and curl up their tails if threatened. However, they do not back down when cornered and aggressively bite or spray musk if they feel the need to.

Copperheads, however, are known to freeze when humans approach. They do this in an attempt to blend with the help of their scale color. They are often successful in blending in, causing people to step on or near them accidentally. Copperheads react violently to this by biting, but luckily for humans, their bites usually only cause repairable damage to tissue.

The photo featured at the top of this post is ©

Discover the "Monster" Snake 5X Bigger than an Anaconda

Every day A-Z Animals sends out some of the most incredible facts in the world from our free newsletter. Want to discover the 10 most beautiful snakes in the world, a "snake island" where you're never more than 3 feet from danger, or a "monster" snake 5X larger than an anaconda? Then sign up right now and you'll start receiving our daily newsletter absolutely free.

Share on:

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.