This guide to the most dangerous snakes in Tennessee runs through a handful of the serpents that we think would-be travelers to the Volunteer State should be wary of when they come to taste the southern BBQ, glug the strong whiskeys, and walk the ridges of Appalachia.
It focuses in on the four known venomous snakes in the territory, which include the feared timber rattler, but also smaller species like the pygmy rattlesnake. It’s also got info on swimming snakes that could pose a potential threat, plus non-venomous snakes that can inflict seriously painful bites nonetheless.
The good news is that snakebite deaths in the Volunteer State remain relatively low, just as they do across the USA. Yep, it’s estimated that over 7,000 people fall victim to snakebites in the country each year, with less than five dying as a result.
Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
Beware the Crotalus horridus. Even the Latin name hits the spot, because this critter is by far the biggest and deadliest of all the dangerous snakes in Tennessee. They’re known to inject a whole load of venom at every single bite incident, and that venom is pretty potent stuff, too. It consists of canebrake toxin that breaks down both skeletal and muscle tissue and has all sorts of full-body implications, one most notable of all: Death.
Thankfully, experts have noted the infrequency of bite incidents attributed to the timber rattlesnake. That’s largely been put down to the fact that they perform considerably long warning routines to would-be victims, including loud rattling of the tail and even attack dances. On top of that, timber rattlers are easier to spot than other types of North American pit vipers, largely on account of their size and coloring…
Expect these guys to reach something in the region of 1-1.5 meters at full adulthood, though there have been some that have been measured closer to the two-meter mark. That translates to a total weight of between 4.5-6 kilos. Usually, the tint is dark brown over the whole body, with a touch of orangey or lighter brown crossbands and geometric patterns forming chevron murals down the back.
You’re most likely to encounter a timber rattlesnake during their active season, which runs from the middle of May to the end of October. After that, the snakes will usually retreat to a rocky outcrop or den for hibernation until the start of spring the following year. They like to live in highly forested areas and higher terrain that’s got both exposed ridge and tussock grass meadows. The upshot? Watch out for them if you’re heading to the Appalachian peaks of eastern Tennessee in particular, though they do live all over the state.
Pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius)
Next up, the Pygmy rattlesnake. Just as the name implies, these are one of the smaller types of pit vipers found across North America. They usually don’t grow to any more than 60cm in length – the biggest ever recorded was only 68cm. Today, they are known to have a geographic range that begins at the very tip of the Sunshine State and reaches deep into the central US. It also touches certain parts of western Tennessee, mainly around the banks of the winding, wiggling Tennessee River.
We’ve already mentioned how these guys are smaller than other snakes. But that’s not the only identifying feature. They also sport a unique color scheme that should make them easy to pick out from other rattlers. You’re looking for a vivid color pattern that consists of a series of stark black markings that dot the whole body along the back, interspersed with clear blotches of something brighter – either orange, white, or tan brown.
The small nature of the pygmy brings both good and bad news. The bad: These guys can be hard to spot in the wild and they have a very quiet rattle that means attacks often go totally unnoticed. The good: The venom they produce is among the weakest of all the rattlers in the USA. It’s not thought to be powerful enough to kill an adult human and usually only leads to painful local symptoms around the site of the bite itself.
Eastern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)
Most people call the eastern copperhead, simply, the copperhead. It’s named for the distinct bronze color that tops the head, which kick-starts a color pattern that runs the whole length of the body. Yep, these guys are invariably totally tan brown or auburn, usually with a camo pattern formed by circles and squiggles of dark coffee brown or even black. They are able to grow to up to around a meter in length, making them a medium-sized member of the most dangerous snakes in Tennessee.
Talking of Tennessee, the copperhead is thought to be present in all four corners of the Volunteer State. It can live from the low hills of Appalachia in the east to the rolling gallery woods and riparian lands of the Tennessee River in the west. Beyond that, it’s one of the most geographically successful snakes in America – you’ll find it as far north as New England and as far south as the Mexican border in Texas.
Cottonmouths are venomous and are deadly, however fatal attacks are very rare in the USA today. There are a few reasons for that. First, these guys aren’t seen as overly aggressive snakes. They usually freeze in the face of danger, aiming to rely on their exceptional camouflage over bites. Second, they regularly aim to fend off foes by making use of so-called “dry bites,” which don’t involve the injection of any venom at all. Third, they have a relatively weak venom anyhow, coming in at just a touch stronger than the aforementioned pygmy rattler.
Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
The cottonmouth’s current geographical range sees it spread north from its main area of habitation in the Sunshine State along the Eastern Seaboard and into Appalachia. It’s present in only the most extreme western part of the Volunteer State, however, where it tends to live near open bodies of water, running streams, and creeks – this type of viper is the most water-loving of all the most dangerous snakes in Tennessee.
The name should offer a clue as to how you can tell a cottonmouth apart from the crowd. If you could get close enough to peer inside the mouth (and we really don’t think that’s a good idea!), you’d see a extremely pale interior coloring that stands in stark contrast to the dusky blacks and tan browns that run the whole length of the outside of the body. You’re also looking for a snake that’s usually around 80cm in length, coming to a point at the tail, which is usually brighter, often colored yellow or mustard.
Cottonmouths are moderately aggressive snakes. Around three quarters are thought to resort to attacks when feeling threatened. However, bites usually only ensue after all the usual pre-attack and warning rituals, which involve tail shakes and a famous opening of the jaws to reveal the pale inside of the mouth.
When it comes to venom, you’re looking at a mix of toxins that produce a response that’s just a touch less deadly than the worse rattlesnakes in the USA. It’s known to be a cytotoxic venom, which has the power to destroy and rot living flesh. Deaths are relatively rare but aren’t unheard of. Severe local implications are more likely – the cottonmouth causes more amputations of limbs and whatnot than most American snakes.
Gray ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides)
Last on our list of the most dangerous snakes in Tennessee is the gray ratsnake. This one marks a welcome shift from venomous serpents to non-venomous serpents, though we’d still urge caution in their presence. The reason? They are large and will bite if provoked. Combine a swift biting motion with big, spiked fangs and you begin to see why you really don’t want to fall foul of them on your vacation!
Known invariably as chicken ratsnakes, midland ratsnakes, or pilot black snakes, the Pantherophis spiloides is a colubrid snake that’s very widespread throughout the eastern portion of the United States. You’ll find it in New England territories like Maine and New Hampshire all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, with the Volunteer State smack dab in the middle there.
One of the longest snake types in the country, ratsnakes are able to clock up a whopping 183cm in body length at full adulthood, although some record specimens have exceeded a mega 2.5 meters in total! They are marked out by brown and whitish colors that help it mingle and hide very well in its favored habitat of woodlands and riverbanks.
The most dangerous snakes in Tennessee – our conclusion
The above list reveals five of the most dangerous snakes in Tennessee. Naturally, the four known venomous serpents in the area figure pretty close to the top – especially the uber-formidable timber rattler, which has one of the deadliest bites in the whole USA. We’ve also featured smaller snake species that have venomous bites – the pygmy rattler, for example – along with non-venomous snakes that can cause bodily harm.