Discover Virginia’s 3 Largest and Most Dangerous Snakes This Summer

Key Points

  • The subtropical climate of Virginia makes a great home for a number of snake species.
  • Out of 32 snake species in the state, three are venomous.
  • Copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlesnakes roam the various habitats of Virginia.

Presidential homes, great foods, mountain views, beautiful beaches, rivers, waterways, and the famous Appalachian Trail – there’s so much more to see in Virginia and more to love. But like every other state in the United States, Virginia is home to a diverse species of snakes. The hot summers and humid, subtropical climate makes the state an ideal place for these creatures to thrive. You don’t need to be scared though, because most of these snakes are generally harmless. However, out of the 32 species of snakes in Virginia, three species are notably dangerous and venomous. They are the Eastern Copperheads, Timber Rattlesnakes, and Northern Cottonmouths. Not only are these snakes dangerous, but they are also remarkable in size —large enough to send shivers down the spine of anyone who encounters them. Their bites are potentially fatal to humans and require urgent medical treatment. 

Contrary to what most people believe, these venomous snakes are not out looking for the next human to bite. In fact, they generally avoid human contact and like to go their own way. They only attack when threatened or provoked. So, whether you’re a resident of Virginia or you’re merely visiting for a summer vacation, one thing is for sure– if you find any of these snakes, you need to stay out of their way as quickly as possible.

Therefore, in this article, we’ll be discussing Virginia’s three largest and most dangerous snakes during summer. How can you identify them? Where are you likely to encounter them? How dangerous are they? What do they even eat? Let’s go!

Virginia’s 3 Largest and Most Dangerous in the Summer

Eastern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)

Eastern Copperhead
The eastern copperhead’s venom is less potent than other venomous species in Virginia.

©Jeff W. Jarrett/Shutterstock.com

How to identify eastern copperheads

You can identify an eastern copperhead with its light reddish-brown (copper-colored) or brown/gray body with dark brown hourglass-shaped markings across its back and sides like saddles. They have a stout body and broad head with elliptical pupils. Adults can reach a length of approximately 3 feet long, making them one of the largest snakes in Virginia.

Eastern copperhead habitat

In most of Virginia, eastern copperheads are usually found in deciduous forests and woodlands, especially in rock outcroppings. They may also be seen in low-lying swampy regions and near river habitats in the state’s southeastern region. In reality, copperheads inhabit virtually all parts of Virginia. They’re the most frequently encountered snakes in the region.

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In late summer, eastern copperheads breed. So you’re likely to find an increase in their population during this period. They’ve also been found to be nocturnal during the hot summer months of Virginia. They have a habit of “freezing” as camouflage, and as a result, many people get bitten when they unknowingly step on or near them. When closely approached, they may vibrate their tails more than 40 times per second – faster than any other non-rattlesnake species!

How dangerous are eastern copperheads?

The eastern copperhead is a venomous pit viper snake species in Virginia. Though its venom is less potent than other venomous species in this area, it is nonetheless a dangerous snake. A bite from this snake can cause symptoms such as extreme pain, tingling, swelling, severe cause, and damage to muscle and bone tissue. If you or anyone around you gets bitten by a copperhead, it is important to seek immediate medical attention. However, copperheads are typically non-aggressive and bites are rarely fatal in Virginia. They often employ a “warning bite” (injecting a relatively small amount of venom) or a “dry bite” ( injecting no venom at all).

Eastern copperhead diet

Copperheads eat a wide variety of prey including small rodents, lizards, frogs, and insects such as cicadas. Like most pit vipers, they assume an ambush position and wait for suitable prey to arrive, while juvenile copperheads use their brightly colored yellowish-green tail to lure lizards and frogs.

Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

Timber rattlesnaake coiled in a loop
Timber rattlesnakes measure up to 60 inches long.

©Frode Jacobsen/Shutterstock.com

How to identify timber rattlesnakes

Also called canebrake rattlesnake in most of North America, the timber rattlesnake is the only rattlesnake species in Virginia. Heavy-bodied and large, adults range from 36 to 60 inches in length and weigh between 1.1 and 3.3 lb. Timber rattlesnakes have various color patterns, generally appearing yellowish-brown to gray to almost black with distinctive dark brown or black crossbands on their back and a rattle on the tail. The crossbands have a zig-zag or M-shaped pattern.

Timber rattlesnake habitat

Timber rattlesnakes are found in the Appalachian Mountains and southeast Virginia, as well as the Dismal Swamp. This species lives in a wide variety of habitats, with a preference for deciduous and coniferous forests, high areas around flood plains and rivers, and lowland thickets. During the summer months, female timber rattlesnakes often bask in the sun before giving birth, on open rocky ledges. While nongravid females and males tend to spend more time in denser, cooler woodlands. In 2008, it was designated as the state reptile of the state of West Virginia. 

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How dangerous are timber rattlesnakes?

Timber rattlesnakes are potentially one of Virginia’s most dangerous snakes owing to their large size, long fangs, and high venom production. But they’re of mild disposition, so they rarely cause any fatalities. They don’t often bite, preferring to warn by feinting and rattling, before attacking. But like most rattlesnakes, they are highly venomous and can cause serious life-threatening symptoms for anyone bitten. You need to stay away from them 

Timber rattlesnake diet

Timber rattlesnakes prey on small mammals, birds, and frogs. Timber rattlesnakes also eat other snakes, especially garter snakes. They are ambush predators known to wait on fallen logs for prey to pass by, giving them an elevated position from which they effectively strike prey. 

The timber rattlesnake has made major appearances in American history. The Gadsden flag of the U.S was designed with a coiled timber rattlesnake, and the words “Don’t tread on me” inscribed on it. This snake is also famous for appearing on the First Navy Jack, a red and white striped flag.

Northern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

A northern cottonmouth is well-adapted to less moist areas.

©Linda Burek/Shutterstock.com

How to identify northern cottonmouth

Northern cottonmouth, also known as water moccasin snake or simply cottonmouth, is the only aquatic venomous snake species in Virginia. Heavy-bodied with a pair of hollow fangs, adult species in Virginia measure around 60.5 inches. A cottonmouth snake has a dark gray to black heavy muscular body with a broad head and blunt snout. When threatened, it performs a characteristic defense display that includes vibrating its tail, throwing its head back with its mouth open often making a loud hiss, and displaying a stunning cotton-white interior (hence its name) This display distinguishes it from the harmless common watersnake, which people often mistake for it.

Northern cottonmouth habitat

Look out for cottonmouths near bodies of water and water sources like flooded fields. You’ll most likely see this species hanging out in the swamps and streams of southeastern and southern Virginia. An isolated population of cottonmouths has also been found in the Hopewell area of Virginia, near the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers. But this snake is not limited to aquatic habitats, they’re also well-adapted to less moist areas like palmetto thickets and pine woods. 

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How dangerous are northern cottonmouths?

A cottonmouth’s bite is dangerous and can be fatal if medical attention is not sought immediately. The venom of the northern cottonmouth is considered to be more toxic than a copperhead’s venom. It contains a powerful cytotoxin that causes tissue destruction so severe sometimes that amputation may be required. Other common symptoms associated with cottonmouth bites are severe pain, ecchymosis, swelling, and necrosis. However, deaths are rare. They are not aggressive, but will not hesitate to bite if threatened, whether or not they are underwater. 

Northern cottonmouth diet

The northern cottonmouth’s diet includes fish, frogs, carrion, mammals, birds, amphibians, small alligators, turtles, and other snakes. Because of their proximity to water bodies, they primarily consume fishes and tadpoles (baby frogs), especially during summer or early fall when the water begins to dry up.

Snake Bites in Virginia

Luckily, all of the snake species in Virginia are shy and non-aggressive, biting only when provoked or threatened. This goes for venomous species, as well, who will also “dry bite” half of the time to deter predation. However, is does happen that a snake bites and envenomates the victim. Bites like this are rare and reportedly are most often by copperheads, a common venomous snake found in yards, woods, and lowlands.

Summary: Venomous Snakes in Virginia

Copperhead Cottonmouth Rattlesnake
Eastern Northern Timber

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