This post is meant as an aid to snake identification. In addition to posting photos of all the snakes, I try to point out color variations within a species, where the species is found in Ohio, and what the typical length of an adult is. I have tried to group snakes to make it easier to distinguish between similar-looking species.
I focus on the visual characteristics of the snakes; for a more detailed description of the snake (its habitats, behavior, etc.), I have provided links to three sources for each species:
- ODNR: Ohio Department of Natural Resources
- OPLIN: Ohio Public Library Information Network (includes a map for each species showing its range within Ohio)
- Wikipedia (sometimes there is not specific information on the subspecies identified here, and instead there’s a link to the more general species).
The above rattlesnake species above are the only ones with a true rattle. However many species of snake will vibrate their tail when they feel threatened. If they are amongst dry leaf litter, this may sound like a rattle.
Pictured below is the Northern Copperhead. Sometimes the Eastern Foxsnake is mistakenly believed to be a copperhead because some individuals have a copper-colored head.
The venomous water moccasin or cottonmouth does not occur in Ohio.
Pretends to be Venomous, but it’s not
I am singling out the Eastern Hog-nosed snake here because it does such a convincing job of behaving like a venomous snake. When alarmed it flattens its neck, puffs out its body, coils and strikes aggressively at the perceived threat. Some people who feel threatened by this play-acting end up killing the snake, so in those case the strategy sadly backfires.
As a second line of defense, the Eastern Hog-nosed snake will play dead by flipping over on its back with its tongue hanging limply from its open mouth. To make its act as convincing as possible, it even tries to smell like a corpse. It releases a foul-smelling musk and may have a bowel movement. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has a nice photo of the snake playing dead here.
The upturned nose that gives the snake its name is used to dig up its prey, usually toads.
Another aquatic watersnake that I’ve grouped with Snakes having Red Bellies is the Copper-bellied Watersnake seen below.
The Northern Red-bellied snake (pictured immediately below) has three, light-colored scales at the base of the head, while Kirkland’s snake (its picture follows the Northern Red-bellied snake) does not have this light-colored blob to the rear of its head. Another difference is that the Kirkland’s snake has black spots running down each side of its belly, but the belly of the Northern Red-bellied snake is a uniform red.
Both of the wormsnakes below have pink bellies; the color may vary from light pink to coral pink. The belly scales tend to be somewhat translucent so it may be possible to make out some of the snake’s internal organs while looking at its belly. The top is brown or pinkish-brown, with younger snakes being a darker brown than older snakes.
The head is very small and pointed with tiny eyes. The tail of both species tapers to a sharp point. Some people think this is a stinger, but it is not. It is believed that the pointed tail may be used in digging into the earth.
The only real difference between the Eastern and Midwestern wormsnakes has to do with the scales on the top of the head from the eyes to the snout. These scales are fused for the Midwestern wormsnake, while they remain separate for the Eastern wormsnake.
Both the Northern and Midland Brownsnakes have two dark lines running down their backs. However the Midland Brownsnake also has some dark lines crossing over its back creating a ladder-like look. The two species do interbreed producing what are called intergrade offspring with characteristics of both parents.
The distribution of the population in Ohio has something of a “T” shape; it is found in most of northern Ohio, and in a band that runs from north to south through the center of Ohio.
Unlike the brownsnakes above, the Eastern Smooth earthsnake below does not have any distinct markings on its back and it has a stouter body.
The following are a few differences between individual species that have helped me to make an identification.
- Unlike the Eastern Garter snake, the Plains garter snake has two, light-colored spots on the top, rear part of its head; they’re called parietal spots.
- Unlike Garter snakes, the Eastern ribbonsnake has a thin, white vertical mark in front of each eye. If interested you can check out this close-up photo of an Eastern ribbonsnake’s head where the white mark is plainly visible.
- To distinguish between an Eastern Garter snake and a Butler’s Garter snake, note where the lateral (side) stripe is relative to the snake’s ventral (belly) scales. The lateral stripe is found on the second and third scales of the Eastern Garter snake. However this stripe is centered on the third scale of the Butler’s Garter snake, with the coloration extending up halfway on the fourth scale and down halfway on the second scale. The photo below shows how to count scales on a snake.
The Rough Greensnake has keeled scales, while the Smooth Greensnake does not. I don’t have a close up photo of the scales of the Rough Greensnake, but I can give you an idea of what I mean by keeled scales. There is a close up view of the keeled scales of the Eastern Gartersnake earlier in this post (it’s the same photo that labeled some of the snake’s scales as ventral scale, 1, 2, 3). If you look at the scales above the garter snake’s head, you’ll see little ridges going down the middle of each scale. These ridges are said to be the scale’s keel.
Melanistic snakes: These are black variants of snakes that normally are not black. Species that have melanistic individuals include the Northern red-bellied snake, the Eastern Hog-nosed snake, the Queensnake, and the Timber Rattlesnake.
The milksnake (below) is sometimes confused with the copperhead. The copperhead has bands of color, whereas the milksnake has big, irregularly shaped spots.
The Eastern milksnake is also distinguished by markings on its head and belly. When viewed from the top, the milksnake has a dark band between its two eyes. When the head is viewed from the side, there is a dark band starting at the eye and slanting down and back toward the belly.
The milksnake also has distinctive markings on its belly. It has nearly rectangular blotches distributed irregularly on its ventral plates. The belly rectangles kind of look like the drawing below:
Bob and I photographed just nine of the photos appearing here. The rest were published by other individuals under a Creative Commons license. Above each photo I credit the specific photographer; his or her name links to the site where I found the photo. I also include information about the photo’s license which links to the particulars of that license. I am grateful to these individuals for sharing their photos.
- ODNR: Reptiles of Ohio Field Guide (PDF)
- ODNR: Licensing and Regulations for Reptiles – what you should know if you are interested in capturing a wild animal for your terrarium.
- Buckeye Herps Blog: Ohio Snake Identification – Venomous or Not? – How to identify Ohio’s venomous snakes.
- OPLIN (Ohio Public Library Information Network): What’s That Snake?
- Center for North American Herpetology: A Pocket Guide to Ohio Snakes (PDF)
- Distinguishing between similar-looking species:
- GarterSnake.info: Telling Garter Snakes and Ribbon Snakes Apart – For me one of the easiest-to-note differences was that ribbon snakes have a white, vertical mark in front of their eyes, but garter snakes don’t.
- iNaturalist.org: Telling Garter Snakes and Ribbon Snakes Apart
- How to Identify a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) – how to distinguish among Midland brownsnakes, Northern brownsnakes and juvenile ratsnakes.
- Eastern Wormsnake – How to distinguish between Eastern and Midwestern wormsnakes, as well as how to distinguish wormsnakes from other small brown snakes.
- Virginia Herpetological Society: the Eastern Ratsnake – nice series of photos showing the change in coloration as the snake matures; compared and contrasted with the Northern black racer.
- Pawnation: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A ROUGH GREEN & SMOOTH GREEN SNAKE?
- ODNR: Nuisance Wildlife – dealing with human / wildlife conflicts (including snakes)
- A.L. Gibson: Copperhead vs Eastern Black Kingsnake! – blog post about an amazing life-and-death struggle between these two snakes. The whole struggle was documented photographically.