Gopher Snake and Rattlesnake—What’s the Difference?

Countless harmless gopher snakes have been killed because they were mistaken for potentially deadly poisonous rattlesnakes.

Gopher Snake and Rattlesnake – The Differences

The two kinds of snakes look similar, but there are major differences that anyone can use to tell them apart.

  • Gopher snakes are only found in the United States and southern Canada. If you see a snake that looks like a rattlesnake in Argentina or Mexico, chances are that it really is a rattlesnake.
  • Gopher snakes have scales of brown with splashes of orange and yellow. Rattlesnakes have shades of brown with a diamond or ring pattern.
Gopher Snake and Rattlesnake—What’s the Difference
  • Gopher snakes can grow considerably longer than rattlesnakes, 4 to 8 feet (1.2 to 2.4 meters) long. Rattlesnakes are typically 3 to 5 feet (90 to 150 cm) long.
  • Rattlesnakes have rattles on their tails. Gopher snakes can make their tails vibrate to sound like they have rattles.
  • Rattlesnakes kill their prey with venom. Gopher snakes kill their prey constricting around it to stop its heart.
  • Rattlesnakes are venomous. Gopher snakes are not venomous.

Gopher snakes are extremely aggressive, but they are not venomous.

Rattlesnakes will try to avoid confrontation, but when they need to defend themselves, they strike to maim people or kill pets.

Let’s look at the differences between these two kinds of snakes in more detail.

Gopher Snakes vs Rattlesnakes: Bites

From the human point of view, the most important difference between gopher snakes and rattlesnakes is their venom.

A gopher snake that feels threatened is more likely to bite you than a rattlesnake that you accidentally step on, but rattlesnake bites can inject venom.

Gopher Snake Bites

Gopher snakes usually don’t bite as soon as they feel threatened. It can just seem that way if you have not been paying attention to them.

Your gopher snake is more likely to strike at you with its mouth closed at first, trying to send you a message of “Now is not a good time” or “I want to be left alone.”

Some gopher snake owners even enjoy aggravating their pets just enough to get these “love bites.”

Young gopher snakes have barb-like teeth that may not even break your skin.

They use their teeth just to make sure their prey animals do not slip out of their throats (they are already dead) while they are swallowing them.

Adult gopher snakes have teeth that are more like backward-facing fish hooks.

If the gopher snake is just giving you a quick warning bite, one of these hook-like teeth may break off and stick to your skin, causing a minor cut.

If the gopher snake mistakes your hand for food (which is unlikely, because it will try to strangle its food before it tries to swallow it), or it is extremely alarmed, it may bite down hard.

The gopher snake will not necessarily be able to release its teeth from your skin because they curve backward.

You may have to peel your gopher snake off your hand. This can be quite painful.

Rattlesnake bites

Never play with a rattlesnake. When it bites, it means business, and it can do you considerable harm

Most species of rattlesnakes use their venom to kill the mice, rats, small birds, and squirrels on which they feed.

Unlike gopher snakes, which squeeze their prey to death, rattlesnakes poison the animals they intend to eat. Their venom also begins the process of digestion.

Rattlesnakes do not have enough venom to kill larger animals, although the Mohave rattlesnakes of California and Arizona are an exception to this rule. They have enough venom to kill people.

Rattlesnakes of all sizes, however, can inject enough venom to cause serious and permanent damage to skin, muscles, and ligaments.

Rattlesnakes inject venom through the syringe-like openings of their fangs.

A rattlesnake’s fangs are connected to its venom glands near the back of its head, pumped by the outer edges of its jaws.

When a rattlesnake lunges forward to bite its victim, the muscles along the side of the venom glands pump out the venom.

The fangs fold up against the roof of the rattlesnake’s mouth when they are not being used, so the snake does not bite itself.

Even baby rattlesnakes still inside their eggs have fangs and venom. Baby rattlesnakes can kill the same minute they emerge from their egg.

Even just-hatched rattlesnakes produce enough venom to kill a puppy or a kitten.

There are more than 20 toxic compounds in rattlesnake venom.

They include neurotoxins that paralyze prey, and compounds that neutralize blood clotting factors, so the venom is quickly transported throughout the victim’s body by its bloodstream.

Although the rattlesnakes of California and Arizona are the most deadly in the United States, there are species with venom that is not as toxic that can cause blindness by spitting their venom into your eyes.

Rattlesnake bites and rattlesnake venom attacks always require treatment.

Gopher Snakes vs Rattlesnakes: Behavioral Differences

Gopher snakes prefer dry habitats. In nature, you will encounter them in grasslands, dry woodlands, meadows, and farmland. You won’t find Gopher snakes in dense forests.

Rattlesnakes look for rocky cover near grasslands, where they can find mice and rats to eat.

They especially like to live in rocks, where they can lie in wait for small rodents and rock squirrels.

However, there are rattlesnakes in almost every kind of habitat in North and South America except rain forests.

Defensive Behavior In Gopher Snakes

Gopher snakes are masters of mimicry, taking advantage of the fear that their own predators have for rattlesnakes.

Gopher snakes will form a coil like a rattlesnake when they are scared or agitated. Unlike a rattlesnake, they will begin their response to danger by hissing loudly.

Then gopher snakes will inflate their bodies, flatten their heads, and beat their tails against nearby vegetation to make a rattling sound (even though they do not have any rattles).

But because gopher snakes are relatively good-natured, they seldom follow up by biting, unless they fear for their lives.

Defensive Behavior In Rattlesnakes

In contrast to gopher snakes, rattlesnakes are not especially aggressive.

Given an escape route, they will usually back off from confronting any large animal, including humans.

However, when a rattlesnake is stepped on or is cornered, it may rattle its tail as a warning sign or simply strike out to eliminate a threat.

About 50 percent of rattlesnake bites don’t release any venom, but it is impossible to predict which bites will be “dry” and which will release poison.

Gopher Snakes vs Rattlesnakes: Head Shape and Body Coloring

It can be difficult to tell the difference between gopher snakes and rattlesnakes at first glance, and there often isn’t a lot of time to confirm what kind of snake looks as if it is about to bite you before you must take decisive action.

However, when you have time to look closely, there are ways you can tell the difference between the two kinds of snakes:

  • Rattlesnake skins usually have clear, detailed patterns. Gopher snake skins have muddled patterns.
  • Rattlesnakes come in a variety of shades of brown. Gopher snakes are more colorful, with orange and yellow scales, but they tend to look a lot alike.
  • Rattlesnakes tend to have triangular heads. Gopher snakes have flatter heads.
  • Rattlesnakes make a rattling sound, while gopher snakes make a rustling sound. However, you may not want to wait long enough to listen for the difference!

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