How to Identify the Snakes of New Jersey

By Joe McElroy
New Jersey is home to 23 types of snakes, only two of which are venomous.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife lists 23 types of snakes that are common to the state. Only two, the northern copperhead and the timber rattlesnake, are venomous. The Division of Fish and Wildlife offers resources online and in printed brochures to help you identify snakes you can see in the state, with descriptions of where you are likely to find them and when they are active. The division also provides descriptions and pictures of each type of snake.

Venomous Snakes

Northern copperhead

Identify the northern copperhead by its shovel-shaped head that is coppery red. Its body is a red-brown color with dark hourglass bands that are wider on its sides than at the top of its body. It has dark, round spots on the sides of its belly. The adult is 2 to 3 feet long. It is usually found near rotted woodpiles in mountainous areas. The northern copperhead is active from May through October and is found in the rocky slopes and forests in the northern region of New Jersey.

Timber rattlesnake

Look for the distinctive rattle on the tail to identify the timber rattlesnake. It is the only rattlesnake native to New Jersey. Identifying it by color can prove difficult, as the rattlesnake goes through three color phases: a light phase in which it is yellow with dark brown or black crossbands; the intermediate phase in which black blotches and crossbands appear on a gray-and-white background; and the black phase, in which both the crossbands and background are black, making it difficult to see a pattern. The adult timber rattlesnake is 3 to 5 feet long. Active from May through October, it is found in the rocky, wooded ledges of northern New Jersey and has scattered populations in the swamps and forests of southern New Jersey.

Check a snake's head and eyes to help identify venomous from nonvenomous varieties

Check a snake's head and eyes to help identify venomous from nonvenomous varieties. Venomous snakes have a much more triangular head than nonvenomous varieties, and all North American venomous snakes have the rounded eyes of cats. Do not assume a snake is nonvenomous if you do not recognize these features, but if you do recognize them, keep your distance.

Nonnenomous Snakes

Northern water snake

Identify the northern water snake by its brown or gray color with deep red, brown or black stripes around the neck that dissolve into blotches and spots farther back on the body. It is most often found in lakes and ponds but can be discovered in any of the streams and rivers of the state. Often mistaken for a cottonmouth, the adult northern water snake is from 2 to 4 1/2 feet long. They are active May through October throughout the entire state. The snake can give a very painful but nonvenomous bite if handled.

Garter snake

Watch for the eastern garter snake from April through September. It can grow to 26 inches long. It varies in coloration as well as pattern. Usually lateral stripes in rows of two or three run the length of its body, but this can sometimes present as a checkered pattern. Its belly is green or yellow and often has one or two rows of black spots between its stripes. It ranges throughout the state and can be found in almost all habitats, including public parks. Many other small snakes are common to New Jersey and are often mistaken for garter snakes. These include the northern brown snake, the northern redbelly, the eastern ribbon snake and the northern ringneck snake.

Hognose snake

Look for the distinctive, upturned snout of the eastern hognose snake. The hognose, which can grow to nearly 4 feet, has a wide variation of color and pattern. When threatened it plays dead or hisses and spreads its neck like a dime-store cobra. Several other very distinctive snakes are found throughout the state. The eastern worm snake never gets more than 14 inches long and looks like a very large earthworm, except for the scales. The northern black racer's slim, round body can reach 6 1/2 feet long. Its chin and throat have small white markings and the irises of its eyes are brown. It is very fast and uses its tail to rattle leaves in imitation of a rattlesnake if cornered.

Tip

Contact the Division of Fish and Wildlife at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. It offers a "Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of New Jersey." The division offers pictures and descriptions of each of the snakes native to the state. Officials will send you a companion CD to help identify the calls of different frogs and toads in the state. The state also offers an online field guide.

Warning

Never attempt to handle a snake unless you are absolutely sure it is nonvenomous.

About the Author

Joe McElroy has been writing on politics and culture since 1983. His articles have appeared in a diverse array of publications, including the "Chicago Daily Observer" and "Immaculata" magazine. McElroy works occasionally as a strategic consultant to federal candidates. He majored in American history at Northwestern University.