Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes are both native to America. They are very common across most of the United States and are often confused for one another. While gopher snakes are harmless to humans, rattlesnakes are venomous and aggressive snakes.
We’re going to look at the differences between rattlesnakes and gopher snakes. We’ll focus on the prairie rattlesnake, as these are most commonly confused with gopher snakes. We’ll let you know what they each look like, where they live, and how they behave in the wild.
Gopher Snake vs. Rattlesnake
Gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer), also called bullsnakes, are large colubrid snakes found across most of the central and eastern United States.
They are not harmful to humans, as they possess no venom, and do not usually bite. They feast upon rodents and mostly keep to their own devices.
However, they are often killed unnecessarily by people who have mistaken them for the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis).
This is because their geographical range overlaps substantially, and they have similar markings on their scales. Gopher snakes imitate rattlesnakes by flattening out their heads, hissing loudly, and vibrating their tails.
Rattlesnakes are not very big. Typically, they grow between 2 feet and 5 feet long and stay within this limit well into adulthood. Most specimens average between 3 and 4 feet in length.
Gopher snakes, on the other hand, can grow much longer. They typically grow to 5 or 6 feet as adults, with some specimens reaching 7 or 8 feet.
Both snakes are heavy-bodied, though gopher snakes tend to be more slender than rattlesnakes.
Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes have very different head shapes. Because rattlesnakes have large venom glands at the back of their head, their heads are broad, triangular and spade-shaped. Their necks are very thin in comparison to their heads.
By contrast, gopher snakes have no venom glands, and so their heads are much narrower and oval-shaped. There is little difference in width between their heads and necks.
However, when they feel threatened, they can flatten out their heads, to mimic a rattlesnake.
Gopher snakes have large, round eyes with round pupils. Rattlesnakes, on the other hand, have slit-like, elliptical pupils. If you’ve ever seen a cat’s eyes, imagine those.
This allows them to regulate the amount of light reaching their eyes. However, be warned that in low light levels, rattlesnake pupils can sometimes appear round.
Rattlesnakes also have large “pits” or holes underneath their eyes, which gopher snakes do not have. These special infrared-sensing organs almost look like a second pair of larger nostrils and help rattlesnakes to detect prey.
Rattlesnakes have two large fangs on their upper jaw, for injecting venom. Gopher snakes, being constrictors, do not have fangs. They have several small, hooked teeth. These are designed for holding their prey still while they squeeze it.
Coloration and Markings
Gopher snakes and prairie rattlesnakes both have keeled scales, with a ridge down the middle. However, rattlesnakes have a much more pronounced keel than gopher snakes. Their bodies appear dull, whereas gopher snakes are glossy.
Both gopher snakes and rattlesnakes can both be tan, light brown or grey in color, with large brown blotches along their backs.
The best way to tell them apart is to look at the tail. Gopher snakes have thin, pointed tails with black bands running across them. Rattlesnakes have clear beige or grey rattles on the ends of their tails. These are segmented and are made from old dead skin.
Feeding and Hunting
Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes tend to feed on the same types of prey. Both snakes have a preference for mammals, including mice, rats, gophers, and prairie dogs.
They will also occasionally feed upon lizards and birds, particularly ground-nesting ones. Gopher snakes also commonly eat bird eggs, whereas rattlesnakes cannot digest them.
Rattlesnakes are ambush predators. This means that they find a suitable hiding place, and lie in wait. When a potential prey animal comes wandering along, they strike and bite it, injecting it with deadly venom. They will then swallow the prey whole when it has died.
Gopher snakes, on the other hand, actively hunt their prey using their keen sense of smell. They will strike at the animal and hold it still while they constrict it with their powerful coils. Once the animal has died, they will ingest it whole.
Gopher snakes, like the vast majority of snakes, are oviparous (egg-laying). After coming out of brumation (the reptilian equivalent of hibernation) in the spring, they mate.
The female is gravid (pregnant) for about six to eight weeks, before laying a clutch of up to 24 eggs in the summer. Gopher snake eggs are large and white, feel “leathery” to the touch, and are typically stuck together in clumps. They hatch after about two months.
Rattlesnakes, on the other hand, are ovoviviparous. This means that while they do produce eggs, they don’t lay them. Female rattlesnakes keep her eggs incubated inside her body until they hatch.
Then, she gives birth to live babies. Rattlesnakes also typically mate in the spring and give birth to about 4 to 12 young in the summer and early fall.
Gopher snakes and prairie rattlesnakes are both common in the central and western United States, though gopher snakes inhabit a wider geographic range. They can be found from the west coast to as far east as Illinois.
Prairie rattlesnakes, on the other hand, are found from Idaho to Nebraska. They can both be found as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico. Though prairie rattlesnakes do not inhabit the west coast, a similar species (the Western or Northern Pacific rattlesnake) does.
Both snakes tend to inhabit areas where there is an abundance of prey. They tend to prefer dry areas with some vegetation, such as grasslands and woods, but can also be found in rocky and sandy areas. You will usually not find them near marshes or wetlands, or in desert areas.
Gopher snakes and rattlesnakes are not aggressive toward humans unless provoked. Neither species sees us as viable prey, as we are far too large for them to eat. If they detect a human approaching, they will either try to escape or remain still and hope that we don’t see them.
If you get too close, however, you will undoubtedly see some defensive behaviors. Rattlesnakes are not afraid to hold their ground.
They will typically coil defensively, hiss, and rattle their tail, creating the characteristic buzzing noise. Further provoking a rattlesnake will usually result in a bite. Rattlesnakes produce venom; a bite from one can be dangerous.
Gopher snakes are not venomous, and they are typically not as afraid of humans. However, if they feel threatened, they will put on a very convincing display, impersonating a rattlesnake. They will coil up, flatten out their neck to make their head appear wider, and hiss.
They will also vibrate their tail in the grass, which can produce a similar sound to a rattle. They may feign-strike (attack with their mouths closed), and will only bite as a last resort. A bite from a gopher snake may hurt and bleed, but it will not require medical attention.
Other Snakes Mistaken for Rattlesnakes
You should be well aware of the numerous differences between rattlesnakes and gopher snakes. Though they may appear similar at first glance, they are easy to tell apart. To recap:
- Gopher snakes are longer, slimmer and glossier than rattlesnakes.
- Rattlesnakes have large, wide, triangular heads. Gopher snakes’ heads are narrower and more oval-shaped.
- Rattlesnakes have slit-shaped pupils, whereas gopher snakes’ are round.
- Rattlesnakes have rattles on their tails and heat-sensing pits under their eyes, whereas gopher snakes do not.
- Gopher snakes lay eggs, whereas rattlesnakes have live babies.
- Gopher snakes tend to be more docile than rattlesnakes, but both snakes can become defensive if threatened. Gopher snakes can mimic rattlesnakes when agitated.
- Rattlesnakes are venomous, and their bites require medical attention. Gopher snakes rarely bite, and when they do, their bites are entirely harmless.
Out of all non-venomous species native to North America, gopher snakes are the ones that most people confuse for rattlesnakes.
However, some people also mistake juvenile black racers, rat snakes, and hognose snakes for rattlesnakes. These snakes can all have similar colors and patterns to rattlesnakes. But like the gopher snake, they also all have narrower heads and round pupils.
If you are ever in doubt, never approach a wild snake. It’s not worth the risk, even if you think it’s non-venomous. Instead, admire the snake from a safe distance.