On a hot lazy day by the river you may find folks sunning themselves on the granite lounge of the Fall Line. Warm blooded bathers have the ability to thermoregulate without the aid of the sun. They are simply there to enjoy the day. Often though, they might share the rocks with organisms that do not have the internal faculty to keep their bodies at a constant temperature.
Cold blooded reptiles, such as snakes, are “thermoconforming” animals. They adopt the temperature of the surrounding environment. Because they don’t have a biological furnace to fuel, they generally require less food and are happy to lay about a good portion of the day. However, when they feel the need to adjust their body temperature, they will bask in the sun to get warm or find shade or water to get cool.
What is the point? When you see a snake somewhere, that usually means it needs to be there.
Way too often people feel the need to chase away or even worse, kill snakes when their presence threatens to temporarily spoil a picnic in the park or day in the backyard. Most snakes are harmless and are often mistaken for their venomous, look-alike cousins. Most of the time, snakes will flee when a huge, clumsy and too-big-for-a-meal human comes bounding through its territory. They only strike when they are trying to eat or when they feel threatened. So don’t threaten them!
In an effort to advocate for the misunderstood animals and to aid in the identification of some common species, I have included photos and descriptions of certain snakes. Almost all the snakes in the Richmond area are harmless. There is only one venomous snake common in the river city – and it is not in the river!
Northern water snake – Non-venomous
The Northern water snake is non-venomous. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This is not a Cottonmouth! This is not a Copperhead! This is the common and non-venomous Northern Water Snake. They are a regular sight in places like Belle Isle and Pony Pasture. These are the ones you are likely to see basking on rocks. They eat small fish, frogs, crayfish, birds and small mammals. They can grow up to 4.5 feet. They can be brown, gray and be marked by darker stripes or blotches down their entire length. The Northern water snake is a beneficial species that controls the population of pests and invasive species. It will usually flee when it sees a larger animal (like a person) or feels its vibrations. When threatened however, large specimens can produce a strong bite.
Corn snake (red rat snake) – Non-venomous
The corn snake is non-venomous. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Corn snakes are common in the southeast. They are among the most docile snakes in our area. They will be found in meadows and other grassy areas where their favorite snacks, rodents, are plentiful. They are a welcome sight to farmers because they control pests like mice that are attracted to corn stored in sheds and cribs – hence the name “corn snake.” They are often mistaken for copperheads because of their reddish color and orange markings. Corn snakes are constrictors. They kill their prey by wrapping around and squeezing it.
Eastern hognose snake – Non-venomous
The Eastern hognose snake is non-venomous. Credit: FCPS.edu
Unfortunately this harmless fellow is often mistaken for a copperhead, not only for its similar markings but also for the shape of its snout. The upturned proboscis, with pig-like flares around the nostrils, has small cavities that look like the heat-sensing pits of the venomous copperhead. Hognose snakes can make quite a scene when threatened. They will flatten their bodies, raise their heads and make repeated fake strikes to scare away predators. They will rarely bite when making this display. Instead they will bop would-be predators with their snouts! If that doesn’t work they might play dead, emit a foul odor and secret blood from their mouths until the predator loses its appetite. They are non-venomous but their saliva is toxic to their prey — mostly rodents. However, they are harmless to humans because they are rear fanged. This prevents their prey from wiggling loose but makes it difficult for them to inflict a defensive bite.
Copperhead – venomous
Note the copperhead’s triangular head, heat-sensing pits and vertical pupils. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This is the only venomous snake common in Richmond. They are distinguished by their copper color and hour-glass shaped bands along the entire length of their bodies. Their most obvious identifying characteristic is the triangular shape of their heads. They are commonly found in dry grass areas, deciduous forests and rock outcroppings. They are pit vipers. Heat sensing pits between their nostrils and eyes help them find prey. Unlike all the previous snakes listed, the eyes of the copperhead have vertical or cat-like pupils. They usually will flee from any animal that is too big to eat. If they feel threatened however, they will strike. The bite may or may not contain venom – it’s the snake’s choice. Although their bites are rarely fatal, they can be very painful and cause severe nausea and tissue damage. If bitten by a copperhead, one must seek medical attention.
Cottonmouth – venomous
The venomous cottonmouth is extremely rare in Central Virginia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
I included the Cottonmouth (a.k.a “water moccasin”) only for completeness. They are very rare in our area. The only confirmed sightings are of an isolated population in southern Chesterfield County – where Swift Creek meets the Appomattox River. In fact, that is the extreme northern reach of their range. They are far more common in southeastern Virginia, and they are a regular sight in the Great Dismal Swamp. Many specimens are almost totally black but some will have a tan or yellow pattern similar to copperheads. They are distinguished by the white interiors of their mouths – hence their name. They also have vertical pupils. They are also pit vipers. They will eat most any animal they can get their mouths around, including small alligators! Their venom is more powerful than the Copperhead’s and is potentially, but rarely, fatal. Medical attention is necessary if bitten.
The next time you head outside keep this in mind. You might bookmark this page and keep your smartphone handy if you want to identify snakes in the field. Be respectful and leave them alone!