American Oceans

The Difference Between a Corn Snake and a Copperhead Snake

a closeup of a corn snake

Corn snakes and copperheads are two distinct snake species commonly found in North America. While both belong to the reptile family, they exhibit different characteristics, behaviors, and habitats that set them apart from each other. In this article, we will explore the similarities and differences between these two species and discover what makes each unique.

Corn snakes, known for their striking appearance that resembles corn kernels, are non-venomous and generally harmless to humans. They are considered beneficial to the ecosystem as they help control the population of rodents, which could otherwise harm agricultural crops. On the other hand, copperheads are venomous pit vipers with a coppery-brown head and bands that resemble an hourglass pattern. While their venom is typically not life-threatening to humans, a bite can still cause considerable pain and discomfort.

Understanding the differences and similarities between these two snake species can help individuals identify and properly handle the reptiles in a safe and responsible manner. As we further examine the distinct features, habitats, and behaviors of corn snakes and copperheads, a clear comparison between the two species will emerge, allowing for a better understanding and appreciation of these fascinating reptiles.

Physical Characteristics and Appearance

a copperhead snake in a coil

Corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) are medium-sized, non-venomous snakes that typically grow to be 2-5 feet in length and weigh around 500-750 grams. They have a slender body shape and their scales are smooth with varied patterns. The markings on a corn snake can include bands, blotches, or stripes, which aid in camouflage within their natural habitat.

On the other hand, copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) are venomous snakes that are more robust, with an average length of 2-3 feet and a weight of approximately 300-500 grams. Copperheads have a distinctive pattern that consists of broad, hourglass-shaped bands that are lighter in the center and darker on the edges.

Color and Pattern

Corn snakes exhibit a wide range of colors, including shades of red, orange, brown, and sometimes black, often with a white or yellowish belly. The predominant color, however, is orange, with black-bordered red blotches that run down the back of their bodies. Corn snakes have a checkerboard-like pattern on their underbelly. Their vibrant colors and patterns help them to blend into their environment and evade predators.

Copperheads, as their name suggests, have a copper-colored head and a more muted coloration than corn snakes. Their bodies are usually light brown or tan with the characteristic hourglass markings in darker shades of brown. This coloration and pattern blend in well with their natural surroundings, such as leaf litter on the forest floor.

Head Features

A key difference in the physical appearance of these two species lies in their head features. Corn snakes have round pupils and a more oval-shaped head, which is not very distinct from their neck. This contrasts the copperhead, which has vertical, cat-like pupils, and a triangular-shaped head that is wider than its neck. The triangular shape of the copperhead’s head is an adaptation for their venom glands, which are located in the sides of their head.

Habitat and Behavior

a beautiful corn snake

Corn snakes and copperheads can be found in the southeastern United States, with corn snakes also being common in Florida. Corn snakes prefer living in a variety of environments, such as forests, fields, rocky hillsides, and even human-made structures. They can often be seen hiding in tree branches, leaf litter, and under logs. Copperheads, on the other hand, are predominantly found in wooded areas, riverbeds, and swamps. They are known to inhabit areas near water sources, such as streams, making them occasional swimmers1.

Daily and Seasonal Activities

Corn snakes are considered docile creatures, making them a favorite pet for beginners. These non-venomous constrictors are primarily nocturnal with the majority of their hunting and feeding happening at night2. Although they do become more active during the day in cooler seasons.

Copperheads, which belong to the pit viper family, have a more aggressive demeanor compared to corn snakes. Unlike corn snakes, copperheads are venomous and are known to strike when threatened, but their venom is generally not life-threatening to humans. Their behavior shifts between nocturnal and diurnal based on the season. They are more active during the day in spring and fall while preferring nighttime activities during the hot summer months3. Copperheads possess heat-sensing pits and elliptical pupils, which allows them to detect the presence of warm-blooded animals even in complete darkness.

Feeding Habits

Both corn snakes and copperheads are carnivorous, but they have different feeding preferences. Corn snakes primarily feed on rats and other small mammals. They employ a hunting technique of constriction, where they squeeze their prey to death before consuming them. In captivity, their diet mainly consists of mice and rats, which can be fed live or frozen4.

Copperheads, in contrast, have a more varied diet. They hunt and feed on small mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects by striking their prey and injecting venom to immobilize them. Then, they swallow their prey whole3. It’s essential to understand their natural feeding habits when caring for these snakes in captivity, ensuring they receive appropriate nutrition and live in a suitable environment. Providing proper hideouts, such as hiding spots in the enclosure, can help mimic their wild habitat and satisfy their natural instincts.

Footnotes

  1. https://search.proquest.com/openview/4ac9e542137bbee4cf8d0aea59d8e152/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750

  2. https://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/integrbiol_etd/48/

  3. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=rIMNRRzXA8MC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=Habitat+and+Behavior+corn+snake+vs+copperhead+&ots=sHXSwinfle&sig=XjmQPlgryJjtBniodewu6-SwkYc 2

  4. https://waltonoutdoors.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/Guide_to_nonveneomous_snakes.pdf

Venom and Threat

a copperhead snake striking with its fangs out

Corn snakes and copperhead snakes are often mistaken for each other due to their similar appearance. However, when it comes to the potential threat they pose to humans, these two snakes differ greatly.

Copperheads are venomous snakes, possessing venomous fangs that can deliver a painful and potentially harmful bite. These snakes use their venom to immobilize and pre-digest their prey, which mostly consists of small rodents and insects. Copperheads have a hemotoxic venom, which affects the blood and tissue of the bitten organism. Although their venom is considered less toxic than that of many other venomous snake species, a copperhead bite can still cause a variety of symptoms including severe pain, swelling, and tissue damage. In some cases, a bite may require medical treatment, but it is extremely rare for copperhead bites to be fatal.

On the other hand, corn snakes are non-venomous and pose very little threat to humans. In fact, they are often kept as pets due to their docile nature and low risk to their handlers. Corn snakes may bite if they feel threatened, but their bites are not venomous and typically result in only minor scratches or punctures. When these snakes capture prey, they rely on constriction rather than venom to kill their meal.

In terms of behavior, copperheads tend to be more aggressive and are more likely to strike when they feel threatened. However, it is important to note that copperheads, like most snakes, would prefer to avoid confrontation with humans whenever possible. If encountered in the wild, it is best to give both types of snakes plenty of space and avoid any sudden or threatening movements.

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