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How Many Venomous Snakes are Found in North Carolina?

28 January 1998


Of the 37 known species of snakes in North Carolina, six are poisonous -- the copperhead, cottonmouth (or water moccasin), eastern diamondback rattlesnake, timber (or canebrake) rattlesnake, pigmy rattlesnake, and eastern coral snake.


Five of the venomous snakes are known as pit vipers. "Pit" describes the heat-sensitive organ, located between the eyes and nostrils, that enables the snake to locate, aim, and strike at warm-blooded prey. The five North Carolina vipers include the two moccasins (the copperhead and cottonmouth) and the three rattlesnakes. The pit vipers are recognizable by their large, triangular or diamond shaped head and vertically elliptical pupils.


North Carolina's other venomous snake, the eastern coral snake, is a member of the Elapidae family, which includes the deadly cobras. These beautiful snakes, distinguished by bright red, yellow and black rings around the body, are the most toxic of North Carolina's poisonous snakes. Coral snakes occur in the southeastern region of the state, but are rare.


The copperhead, a moderately large, stout-bodied snake with a pattern of hourglass-shaped crossbars on its body, is responsible for the majority of snake bites in North Carolina. It is, however, not an aggressive snake and does not bite unless disturbed or provoked. Copperheads can be found in a variety of habitats across the state including coastal flatwoods, pocosins (densely vegetated areas), and wooded slopes up to 3,000 feet elevation.


The cottonmouth, so named because of the white lining on the inside of their mouth, lives in and near water bodies in North Carolina. This highly poisonous snake is the only poisonous water snake in the United States. They are among the most abundant snakes in the coastal plain.


North Carolina's three rattlesnakes can be easily recognized by the distinctive rattle at the end of their tail. When threatened, rattlers shake their tail at about 100 times per second, resulting in a buzzing noise. Surprisingly, the snakes do not hear their own warning signal because they are unable to detect airborne sounds. When disturbed, the snake will rattle but they have been known to bite first.


The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest snake in the United States; adults average five feet in length. Found in the southeastern corner of the state, the diamondback prefers brushy fields bordered by forests, pine flatwoods, and drier pocosins. Because of its aggressive nature, it is considered the most dangerous snake in the Southeast; it is, however, rare in North Carolina.


The large, heavy-bodied timber (or canebrake) rattlesnake can be found throughout most of the state in habitats ranging from rocky hillsides to river valleys. The timber rattlers of the piedmont and coastal plain are usually larger and lighter in color than those inhabiting mountain areas.


The pigmy rattlesnake is the smallest and least dangerous of North Carolina's poisonous snakes. Rarely exceeding two feet in length, this small, slender snake occurs in the southern and eastern regions of the state. They can frequently be found around cypress ponds or other bodies of water.


North Carolina holds the unfortunate title of the state with the highest incidence of poisonous snake bites. Fatal snake bites in North Carolina, however, are rare (with proper medical treatment). In fact, there is a greater chance of death from lightning strike or an allergic reaction to a bee sting than from a snake bite.