How to Identify Snakes in Pennsylvania

By John Lindell; Updated April 24, 2017
The rat snake is one of the largest species of snake found in Pennsylvania.

There are 18 species of non-venomous snakes and three types of venomous snakes that are native to the state of Pennsylvania. The timber rattlesnake, the northern copperhead and the eastern Massasuaga rattlesnake are the poisonous species, and it is prudent for those that enjoy the outdoors in Pennsylvania to be able to identify them. Other common snakes that can be encountered in the state include the black racer, the hog-nosed snake, the milk snake, the northern water snake and the Eastern garter snake.

Learn to tell a northern water snake from a northern racer. The water snake has some black bands on its body but also has brown and gray mixed in. The northern racer will be black on the top as well as the bottom and is very sleek. Thinner than the northern water snake, the black racer will be as long as five feet while the water snake rarely exceeds four. Racers frequent open meadows and fields while the water snake will be found near ponds, lakes and rivers.

Identify the Eastern hog-nosed snake by its behavior. The hog-nosed snake will play dead when approached or it will flatten out its head, almost like a smaller version of a cobra. It is completely harmless, however. Hog-nosed snakes are various shades of gray, brown and black with a thick body that can reach three feet in length.

Recognize the smooth green snake by its vibrant color. These slender snakes are normally 10 to 20 inches long and a bright green color with a white or yellowish underside. Look for this Pennsylvania species in grassy meadows and around blueberry bushes.

Look for the stripes on Eastern garter snakes. The body of this snake can be grayish-brown but there will be two and sometimes three stripes running along its length that can be yellowish or greenish in hue. Black spots of different sizes will be mixed in with the stripes of this harmless snake, which can be as long as two feet. Don’t confuse the garter snake with another Pennsylvania snake, the ribbon snake. Although both have stripes a ribbon snake is thinner, has a much longer tail and can be as long as three feet.

Be familiar with the smaller species. The northern brown snake is about a foot long and is varying shades of brown with rows of spots on top. The ring-necked snake is a foot long as well but black or grey with a yellowish ring around its neck. The northern red bellied snake is the same size as these other short species but has a reddish belly with a brown body.

A timber rattler has a stocky heavy body and a broad head. As long as 50 inches, this venomous snake has yellow, orange, brown and black bands along its body with a short tail that has a tan rattle on the end. The Massasuaga rattler has a similar shaped body but has dark blotches on its back instead of bands. The copperhead is also stocky but rarely gets longer than three feet and is copper colored with dark bands of brown that alternate with lighter bands. The copperhead is often confused with the much slimmer and non-venomous milk snake. The bite of these three snakes is not fatal to humans but can make them seriously ill in some instances.

About the Author

John Lindell has written articles for "The Greyhound Review" and various other online publications. A Connecticut native, his work specializes in sports, fishing and nature. Lindell worked in greyhound racing for 25 years.