Welcome to our 101 on the non-venomous and venomous snakes in Ohio. This guide will run through a quintet of the most amazing serpents to be found in the Buckeye State. It’s got critters that can kill in a couple of hours, and others that are unique and endangered and sure to catch the eye of any amateur herpetologists out there.
Ohio actually occupies a pretty hefty cut-out of the contiguous United States. That means there’s a pretty hefty bunch of snakes to talk about – 33 to be precise. Of those, only three are considered dangerous to humans and bites that kill are now rarer than ever thanks to the availability of proper antivenin and treatment.
That is great news if you’re not so keen on these legless reptiles but still want to check off the shimmering lakeside beaches of Erie, the karsts and rivers and creeks of the Wayne National Forest, and the meanders of the Ohio River as they bend through Cincinnati. Anyway, here’s our guide to the non-venomous and venomous snakes in Ohio…
Northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen)
A snake that really mirrors its name, the northern copperhead comes colored in a rusty shade of reddish brown. The hue is even ruddier on the head area, which appears more orange than the rest of the body. The tail, meanwhile, is darker, with a trademark set of rattlers that can be used to warn off potential victims when things get heated.
The northern copperhead is actually a sub-species of the common copperhead snake, a very similar specimen that’s usually found further south and east in the USA. The northern version is common to the Midwest and certain parts of the high Pennsylvania plateau, where it usually resides in mixed woodlands with rocky creeks, caves, and outcrops.
When feeling threatened, copperhead snakes tend to stand their ground and turn motionless. If pushed further, they won’t hesitate to launch an attack. A bite from one of these guys can be lethal but are actually one of the weakest of the whole rattlesnake clan. That’s down to a mixture of a diluted venom potency and low venom yield per bite. There are also highly effective antivenins available for use with a bite from a copperhead, so be sure to seek medical attention ASAP if you are unlucky enough to get caught out.
Eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus)
Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes hold court over a pretty huge swathe of the USA. From the borderlands of Canada in the north through New England and Appalachia, they have a territory that stretches all the way down into the balmy desert states of Mexico, covering tens of states as they go. Ohio is in the mix, too, where it’s even considered endangered and protected under state law.
A little smaller than other rattlers, these guys usually hit lengths of 70cm or so. They are colored to match their habitat, which means you’re on the lookout for a pattern of tan and brown shades, sometimes interspersed with a darker hourglass geometry. It’s the perfect camo for hiding between the swamps, marshes, wetlands, grass plains, and rocky outcrops that are so common in their main geographic range.
Although shy, the eastern massasauga isn’t a snake you want to mess with. They have a bite that’s capable of killing an adult human, though that only typically happens in the absence of proper medical treatment. Symptoms of envenomation include interruption of blood clotting and severe bleeding. One saving grace is that these snakes don’t often inject quite as much venom as their compadres in a single bite.
Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
With the Latin name Crotalus horridus, you wouldn’t exactly expect this to be a friendly snake, right? Right! In fact, it’s among the deadliest of all the venomous snakes in Ohio and the greater United States besides. Also known as the canebrake rattlesnake and the banded rattler, it’s a medium-sized member of the pit viper family that can grow to around 1.5 meters at their maximum. Younger specimens tend to be brighter and lighter, while older ones are darker and often have a fully black head.
The timber rattlesnake can be found all over the eastern USA. In fact, they’re present as far north as Quebec in Canada and as far south as the Panhandle of Florida. Ohio remains part of their territory, though numbers are reportedly on the decline. The most likely places to cross paths with one are the less-developed southern parts of the state, particularly in the protected Zaleski State Forest and the Tar Hollow State Forest. They mainly live in densely wooded areas and on rocky outcrops.
The venom of a timber rattler is pretty darn strong. Those who’ve been bitten have reported extreme pain at the site of contact, uncontrolled swelling, and necrosis of the flesh. Holistic symptoms include dropping blood pressure and uncontrollable bleeding. Thankfully, these guys aren’t very aggressive and often prefer to avoid fights. Deaths are also rare due to advances in bite treatments and the widespread availability of antivenin.
Smooth earth snake (Virginia valeriae)
The smooth earth snake is a relatively common snake throughout the eastern half of the United States. It’s found on the western fringes of the Midwest – Iowa, Minnesota – all the way down to the subtropical reaches of the Sunshine State. And then there’s Ohio, sitting smack dab in the middle of their range, offering perhaps the perfect mix of habitats for this non-venomous colubrid species to thrive.
This is a small snake; one of the smallest in the USA as a whole. Often growing to no more than 35cm in all, they are often mistaken for slow worms or earth worms. They have tightly packed rows of dorsal scales running the whole way down the body, which come colored with a single shade of mud brown. The head is a little narrower than the main torso and has a set of six larger scales behind the eyes. The tail narrows to a needle-like point.
Smooth earth snakes can’t harm humans. They aren’t at all confrontational given that they lack any strong physical defensive mechanisms and don’t have any venom. The worst they can do is secrete a foul-smelling musk, which we’d say you should be certain to avoid since it takes ages to scrub off! In the Buckeye State they are most commonly encountered in the south, around the Pike Lake State Park and similar reserves.
Gray rat snake (Pantherophis spiloides)
The gray rat snake might not have a venom a la the rattlers on this list, but it does have a trump card of its own: Size. Yep, these guys can grow to a whopping 2.5 meters in all – that’s over eight foot in length, a big chunk longer than your average human height! Apart from that, you can notice them for their alternating pale and dark body scales, which start off brightly colored in browns and tans at a young age but quickly change to something more subtle as the snake matures.
Gray rat snakes have a pretty good territorial coverage in North America. Apart from residing in certain parts of the Buckeye State, they also live along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, on the banks of the Great Lakes over on the Canadian side of the border, and all down the Eastern Seaboard even as far as the Mexican Gulf. Part of the reason for their proliferation is the fact that they’re actually beloved of farmers. Ask any Ohio corn cultivator and they’ll tell you that these serpents are great for fending off infestations of rodents.
Talking of rodents…those are the main diet here, which explains why the gray rat snake likes to live in farming areas like the Midwest. They’ll chase down mice and rats and use a powerful constriction technique to subdue prey before eating it whole. Totally non-venomous, the only danger these pose to humans is in direct bite damage, which can actually be quite considerable given their size.
The non-venomous and venomous snakes of Ohio – our conclusion
This guide to the non-venomous and venomous snakes of Ohio highlights just five species of serpent that make their home in the Buckeye State. There are actually 33 in total, so this is just a snapshot of the snakes that you might see during your travels. However, we have touched on the only three venomous snakes in Ohio – a trio of pretty scary rattlers – and showcased the largest of the lot – the big rat snake. In there, you also have arguably the most dangerous snake in the whole USA, which comes in the form of the timber rattler, a formidable forest dweller you’ll surely want to avoid.