Copperhead vs Kingsnake: How are they different?

Written by Gabrielle Monia
Published: March 25, 2022
© Wildvet/
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Copperheads and kingsnakes are very similar in their mode of feeding. They are carnivorous. Also, in terms of appearance, Mole kingsnakes and copperheads have reddish-brown scales. However, there are a lot of differences that make both snakes very distinct. As regards venom, one possesses venom and the other can be a pet. I bet you would want to know which snake you can carry around.

Let’s see below how these snakes are set apart and their interesting characteristics.

Key Differences between Copperheads and Kingsnakes

The main differences between copperhead and kingsnake are classification, size, diet, and threat level.

The main differences between copperheads and kingsnakes are that they belong to different families, inhabit slightly different ranges, and have unique physical characteristics. They differ in size, reproduce by different methods, kill unique prey by different means, and only one of them poses a threat to humans.

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Copperhead Vs Kingsnake: Comparison

Scientific ClassificationFamily: Viperidae; Species Name: Agkistrodon contortrixFamily: Colubridae; Species name: Lampropeltis getula (common kingsnake)
RangeCentral and eastern United StatesThroughout North America, depending on species
AppearanceCopper and brown hues, hourglass, dumbbell or saddlebag markings, keeled scalesTricolor or solid, Striped, banded, or saddled markings, smooth scales
Size2.5-foot length, on average4.3-foot length, on average
ReproductionOvoviviparous, birth to live youngOviparous, lay eggs
DietCarnivorousCarnivorous, Ohiophagous
Threat to humansMost common venomous snake, mild venomNonvenomous, common as pets

Copperhead Vs Kingsnake: Scientific Classification

green and brown california king snake
Kingsnakes vary widely in color and markings depending on subspecies.

©Murilo Mazzo/

The copperhead snake, also known as the eastern copperhead, is a pit viper of the family Viperidae. Its species name is Agkistrodon contortrix. The genus Agkistrodon is shared with cottonmouths and American moccasins. The word comes from the Greek ancistro, which means “hooked,” and odon, meaning “tooth.” Contortrix comes from the Latin contortus, meaning “twisted, complex or intricate,” in reference to the hourglass patches on these snake’s backs. So, the species name can be interpreted as a “hooked-tooth snake with twisted bands down its back.” The subspecies include the Southern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix), Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen), Osage Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster), and the Trans-pecos Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix pictigaster).

The kingsnake has nine recognized subspecies and is part of the largest snake family, Colubridae. The “king” part of their name refers to their tendency to eat other snakes, similar to the king cobra. Lampropeltis getula is the species name for the common kingsnake, also known as the eastern kingsnake or chain kingsnake. The genus name Lampropeltis is shared with milk snakes. It is derived from the Greek lampros, meaning “bright, brilliant, radiant,” and pelta, meaning “small shield.” This is in reference to their smooth scales. Some of the subspecies include the Gray-banded Kingsnake (Lampropeltis alterna), Prairie Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster), and the Black Kingsnake (Lampropeltis nigra).

Copperhead Vs King Snake: Habitat & Range

Copperhead snakes and Kingsnakes are native to North America and inhabit different ranges depending on the subspecies. You can find copperheads throughout the central and eastern United States. They range from southern New England to eastern Kansas and Nebraska, then south to Texas and Florida. They also live in localized areas of Mexico. The kingsnakes occupy diverse areas throughout North America, depending on the subspecies. Copperheads and Kingsnakes live in forests and woodlands with rocky outcrops and hilly terrain. They live in areas with downed woody vegetation and low, wet woodlands, the edges of swamps, and riparian zones. Both snakes are sometimes associated with man-made areas: construction sites, sawdust piles, and suburban areas. They overwinter in crevices, abandoned burrows, caves, hollow logs, and building foundations.

Copperhead Vs Kingsnake: Appearance

Copperheads are known for their reddish-brown bodies with cross-band patterns of tan, copper, and rich brown. They’re the only type of snakes that can display hourglass-shaped markings. Alternatively, these can look like a dumbbell or a saddle-bag. Their heads are distinctive rich copper-brown, giving them their common name. Copperheads are heavy-bodied snakes that average 2.5 ft in body length. Copperheads have keeled scales, meaning they’re rough in texture with a ridge down the center.

Kingsnakes vary greatly in appearance depending on subspecies. They grow to be 2 to 5 feet, on average. Overall, kingsnakes have an average of 4.3-foot body length. Eastern kingsnakes are large and glossy black snakes with yellow or sometimes white crossbars that extend the size of their bodies. Their heads are solid black with yellow or white spots. Some kingsnakes are tri-colors; others are one solid color. Some are banded while others are striped or saddled where the bands don’t fully encircle the body, making a blotchy saddle shape.

Copperhead Vs Kingsnake: Reproduction

Female Osage Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster, and neonate baby copperheads shortly after live birth.
Copperheads give birth to live young.

©Matt Jeppson/

Copperhead snakes are ovoviviparous. This means that they give birth to live young that have developed in the body of the mother snake. Upon delivery, baby snakes may stay with their mother for several days or until their first skin shedding. Male copperheads do not show any parental involvement. In contrast, kingsnakes are oviparous and lay eggs that hatch outside the body. After copulation, the male leaves and does not return. The female kingsnake lays her eggs and leaves the nest with no parental involvement.

Copperhead Vs Kingsnake: Diet

Although both copperheads and kingsnakes are carnivorous, they rely on different types of prey to meet their dietary needs. As pit vipers, copperheads have pit organs between their eye and nostril on either side that act like infrared cameras to detect the heat of warm-bodied prey nearby. They also use vision and chemoreceptors on their tongues to find food. Their diet consists mainly of small mammals like rodents, but they also eat other small reptiles, birds, insects, and carrion.

Kingsnakes are nonvenomous snakes that kill their prey by constriction. Their diet varies significantly across subspecies and includes mammals, amphibians, birds, other reptiles, eggs, and insects. Many are ophiophagous, meaning that they eat other snakes. Eastern and Florida kingsnakes consume primarily other snakes, including venomous ones like copperheads, coral snakes, and rattlesnakes. Kingsnakes may actually be immune to the venom of copperheads.

Copperhead Vs Kingsnake: Danger to Humans?

What Do Kingsnakes Eat - Pet Kingsnake
Kingsnakes are nonvenomous and common as pets.


Copperhead snakes are responsible for the largest number of venomous snake bites per year in the United States. This is due to their ability to evade detection through cryptic coloration, remain motionless, and their association with human-occupied habitats. However, their venom is one of the least toxic North American snake species. Copperhead bites cause pain, edema, hemorrhage, fever, and lethargy but very rarely lead to death in humans. An article in JAMA estimates that there are 2,920 people bitten by copperheads every year in the U.S., but the fatality rate is only 0.01%.

Kingsnakes will give an occasional defensive bite, but they are not venomous snakes. Along with boa constrictors, they’re one of the most common snakes to keep as pets. These snakes play an essential role in regulating the populations of venomous snakes, which can pose a threat to humans.

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About the Author

Gabrielle is a freelance writer with a focus on animals, nature and travel. A Pacific Northwest native, she now resides in the high desert beneath towering ponderosa pines with her beloved dog by her side. She often writes with a coyote call or owl hoot backdrop and is visited by the local deer, squirrels, robins and crows. A committee of turkey vultures convenes nightly in the trees where she resides. Here, the flock and their ancestors have roosted for over 100 years. Her devotion to the natural world has led her to the lifelong study of plants, fungi, wildlife and the interactions between them all.

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