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There are 20 species of snakes in West Virginia. All are cold-blooded, and their temperature approximates that of their surroundings. Ringneck snakes and black rat snakes are the most common in and around houses. The ringneck is easily identified by the yellow ring around its neck and its small size, usually less than 12 inches. They often are found on basement floors. The black rat snake is our largest. These snakes are good climbers, and adults often are found in upper rooms or rafters. They might strike when cornered but usually tame readily and make good pets. Their bite is inconsequential and painless.

The northern water snake is common around lakes and streams. It is not poisonous and will not bite unless threatened. The hognose, often called the blowing viper or puff adder, flattens its neck like a cobra and hisses loudly when threatened. It strikes with a closed mouth. If still threatened, the hognose rolls over, hangs its tongue out and plays dead. It is one of the few animals that eat toads, having an enlarged adrenal gland that allows the poisonous toad secretions to be neutralized.

Our fastest snake is the black racer, which may move four to five miles per hour, slower than a person can run.

The only two poisonous snakes in West Virginia are the copperhead and timber rattlesnake, which are pit vipers. A copperhead has a copper color with darker bands shaped like hourglasses across the back. The narrow parts of the bands are on top of the back. The bands on the back of all our other snakes are oval or rectangular-shaped, and widest on top of the back. The pupil of the eye of a copperhead is black and vertical like a cat’s eye with an orange background, safely seen from a few feet away. Harmless snakes have a round pupil and often a dark background. The nonpoisonous snakes most often confused with copperheads are milk, water, and young black snakes. No snake is easily confused with a rattlesnake.

Snakes do not have eyelids and can see for only short distances, perhaps 10 to 15 feet. Lacking external ear openings, snakes pick up earthborne and airborne vibrations through their skin that are then transmitted via their spinal cord and lung to their inner ear.

Smell is the most important sense for all snakes. Molecules of odor are picked up on the constantly flicking tongue. Our poisonous snakes, the pit vipers, have heat-sensing pits located on the side of each upper jaw between the eye and nostril. These enable the pit vipers to locate warm-blooded prey, such as mice, in the dark. These heat sensors also work in daylight, but sight and smell are probably as important then. The sense of smell is also important for rattlesnakes to find their den areas in the fall. If they fail to find their dens, they will likely not survive.

The bite of a copperhead or timber rattlesnake is a serious medical emergency, but deaths are rare. An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of bites by poisonous snakes result in no venom being injected. There is no record of a death in West Virginia from a copperhead bite during the past 40 years, but there have been 13 deaths from rattlesnakes. Nine of these deaths occurred while the snakes were being handled during religious services. In 2008, the timber rattlesnake was designated the state reptile.

This Article was written by Frank Jernejcic

Last Revised on May 18, 2016

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Sources

Green, N. B. & T. K. Pauley. Amphibians & Reptiles in West Virginia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987.

"Snakes of West Virginia," Pamphlet. West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

Cite This Article

Jernejcic, Frank "Snakes." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 18 May 2016. Web. 21 July 2018.

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