Rat Snake vs Copperhead: 7 Key Differences Explained

Rat Snake vs Copperhead 1200x627

Written by Hannah Ward

Updated: October 12, 2023

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Rat snakes and copperhead snakes are both fairly similar and it’s an easy mistake to make considering that they are quite often found in the same habitat and eat much of the same prey.  So, is it possible to tell them apart?  The answer is yes, and it’s actually pretty easy once you know what you’re looking for as there are quite a few key differences between them.

So, just what do we need to look for?  Well, one is bigger than the other and they have different shaped heads and eyes.  One has fangs and is venomous, while the other isn’t.  Not only that, but they even have completely different methods of killing their prey.  Join us as we discover all of their differences and learn all about these unique and fascinating snakes.

Comparing Copperhead vs Rat Snake

Copperheads and rat snakes are sometimes confused for one another, but there’s actually quite a lot of differences between them.  Copperheads are native to North America and there are five subspecies.  It’s important to note that although there is an Australian snake that also goes by the common name “copperhead” (lowland copperhead), it is a completely different species to the copperheads that live in the US.

Rat snakes – along with many other non-venomous snakes – belong to the subfamily Colubrinae.  They are divided into New World and Old World rat snakes and there any many species which exist today.  Although there are some variations between the different species, they still have many distinguishable traits which we can use to determine the differences between them and copperheads.

Check out the chart below to learn a few of the main differences.

CopperheadRat Snake
Size2 to 3 feet long3 to 7 feet long
LocationNorth AmericaMuch of the Northern Hemisphere
HabitatWoodland and wetland, sometimes rocky hillsides – prefer areas with plenty of vegetationMarshes, rocky areas, woodland
ShapeLarge triangular head, stocky body, tapers to a thin tail. Have pits on eat side below eyes and nostrilsSmall turtle-shaped head
ColorBlack, brown, tan, or grey, but have hourglass shaped patternsBlack with white chin is common, but color varies and can be white, orange, red, yellow, or gray
FangsLong fangsNo fangs, but has many small teeth
EyesVertical pupilsRound pupils
DietLizards, frogs, mice, small birds, reptiles, and other small rodentsMainly small rodents, but also small birds, eggs, and fish
Kill MethodKill or subdue with their venom and then swallow their prey wholeConstriction – coil their body around their prey and suffocate them
Lifespan18 yearsEstimated 10 to 15 years in the wild

The 7 Key Differences Between Rat Snakes and Copperheads

Weakest animals copperhead snake

Copperheads are often a distinctive copper color and have hourglass shaped patterns

©iStock.com/David Kenny

Rat Snake vs Copperhead: Size

One of the main differences between rat snakes and copperheads is the difference in their sizes.  Rat snakes are much longer than copperheads and range between 3 and 7 feet long.  On the other hand, copperheads are usually only between 2 and 3 feet long.

Rat Snake vs Copperhead: Location

Copperhead snakes are found across most of North America, but more often throughout the eastern and central United States.  However, rat snakes are widespread across much of the Northern Hemisphere.

Rat Snake vs Copperhead: Color

Although both rat copperhead gray and rat snake vary in their colors, there are some differences.  Black with white chins is quite common in rat snakes, but other colors are often red, yellow, white, orange, red, and gray.  

Copperheads are usually black, brown, tan, or grey, but their distinguishing feature is their hourglass shaped markings.  The hourglass markings are often dark brown and are generally fairly uniform throughout the life of the snake.

Rat Snake vs Copperhead: Shape & Eyes

Copperheads are pit vipers so they have pits underneath each eye.  These pits act as heat sensors to help them find prey.  Copperheads have large, triangular shaped heads and stocky bodies with thin tails.  Their eyes also have vertical pupils which are like thin slits.

Rat snakes are not pit vipers so don’t have pits.  Instead, they have small turtle-shaped heads and round pupils.  However, it’s probably not a good idea to get close enough to a snake to look at the shape of their eyes!

Rat Snake vs Copperhead: Fangs

One of the major differences between these two snakes is the presence of fangs.  Copperhead snakes are venomous and have long, hollow fangs.  However, despite being venomous, their venom is relatively weak and is generally only fatal to the very young, elderly, or ill.  In contrast, rat snakes are not venomous and do not have fangs.  Instead, they have lots of very small teeth, so any bite from a rat snake looks more like small scratches.

Snakes That Look Like Copperheads-Corn Snake

Rat snakes have round pupils rather than the slits that copperheads have

©Enrique Ramos/Shutterstock.com

Rat Snake vs Copperhead: Kill Method

As we’ve already mentioned, copperheads are pit vipers and are venomous.  They use their venom to kill or subdue their prey before swallowing it whole.  Copperheads eat a range of lizards, frogs, mice, small birds, and other rodents.  However, rat snakes are constrictors and kill by coiling their bodies tightly around their prey until they suffocate.  Rat snakes eat mostly small rodents, eggs, small birds, and fish.

Rat Snake vs Copperhead: Reproduction

Copperheads are ovoviviparous which means that they carry their eggs and the eggs hatch within their bodies.  Rat snakes oviparous and lay eggs which hatch outside of their bodies.

FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are rat snakes and copperhead snakes from the the same family group?

No, rat snakes and copperhead snakes are from different families.  Rat snakes are from the family group Colubridae which is the largest snake family.  Copperheads are from the family group Viperidae which is a family of venomous snakes that have long fangs that  are able to fold back in the mouth when they’re not being used.

Do copperhead gray and rat snakes live in the same habitat?

Yes, copperheads and rat snakes are capable of living in a wide range of habitats, but they do prefer a similar environment.  Both like to live in woodland areas, wet marshlands, and rocky hillsides.

How big are copperheads when they are born?

Copperheads are only between 7 and 9 inches long when they are born.  They have a yellow tip on their tail when they are are born which fades as they get older.  It is  thought that they use their unique tail tip as bait to lure prey to them.

How long do rat snake eggs take to hatch and how big are they when they are born?

Most rat snakes take between 6 and 8 weeks to hatch and they are usually between 10 and 16 inches when they are born.

Do rat snakes and copperheads have any predators?

Yes, copperheads are mainly preyed on by large birds such as owls and hawks, but sometimes raccoons and other snakes also prey on them.  Foxes, owls, hawks, bobcats, weasels, and raccoons prey on rat snakes.

What is the difference between Old World and New World rat snakes?

The main difference between New and Old World rat snakes is location.  Old World rat snakes are found in the Eastern Hemisphere and New World rat snakes are found in the Western Hemisphere.  However, they are also different genetically.

What Kinds of Venomous Snakes Live in the United States?

The cottonmouth is a viper species found throughout the southeastern United States.

©iStock.com/Chase D’animulls

Copperhead snakes are just one species of venomous snakes that inhabit different parts of the U.S. Copperheads, along with cottonmouths and all species of rattlesnakes, are pit vipers and make up a large part of the total population of venous snakes in the U.S. The other type of venomous snake is the coral snake. Altogether, there are 22 recognized species of venomous snakes in the United States, with a total of 37 subspecies across the country.

Below is a list of 45 various species and subspecies of venomous snakes in the U.S.:

  • Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
  • Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
  • Timber Rattlesnake
  • Mojave Desert Sidewinder
  • Sonoran Desert Sidewinder
  • Colorado Desert Sidewinder
  • Mojave Rattlesnake
  • Santa Catalina Rattlesnake
  • Banded Rock Rattlesnake
  • Mottled Rock Rattlesnake
  • Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake
  • San Lucan Speckled Rattlesnake
  • Panamint Rattlesnake
  • Black-Tailed Rattlesnake
  • Grand Canyon Rattlesnake
  • Coronado Island Rattlesnake
  • Arizona Black Rattlesnake
  • Yellow Rattlesnake
  • Southern Pacific Rattlesnake
  • Great Basin Rattlesnake
  • Northern Pacific Rattlesnake
  • Twin-Spotted Rattlesnake
  • Red Diamond Rattlesnake
  • Tiger Rattlesnake
  • Hopi Rattlesnake
  • Prairie Rattlesnake
  • New Mexican Ridge-Nosed Rattlesnake
  • Arizona Ridge-Nosed Rattlesnake
  • Eastern Massasauga
  • Desert Massasauga
  • Western Massasauga
  • Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake
  • Carolina Pygmy Rattlesnake
  • Western Pygmy Rattlesnake
  • Florida Cottonmouth
  • Western Cottonmouth
  • Eastern Cottonmouth
  • Northern Copperhead
  • Southern Copperhead
  • Broad Banded Copperhead
  • Trans-Pecos Copperhead
  • Osage Copperhead
  • Arizona Coral Snake
  • Eastern Coral Snake
  • Texas Coral Snake

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About the Author

Hannah is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on reptiles, marine life, mammals, and geography. Hannah has been writing and researching animals for four years alongside running her family farm. A resident of the UK, Hannah loves riding horses and creating short stories.

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