There’s good news and there’s bad news when it comes to venomous snakes in Ohio. The bad news is that they do exist. The good news is that there’s only three of them…
Yep, this great cut-out of the Midwest hosts a few of America’s most potent sliders. You’ll probably know of the Ohio copperhead – it’s among the most prolific biters in the country. On top of that, you’ve got a duo of rattlesnakes that are actually endangered, but still come armed with a particularly formidable hit of venom.
The presence of three quite different venomous snakes in Ohio is probably down to the state’s unique geography. It’s a tale of transition, between the high Allegheny Plateau in the south-east to the lowland plains around Lake Erie in the north-west. The result is a land that has wiggling riverways and forest-clad mountains alike, so there’s plenty of habitat types to support all manner of wildlife.
Thankfully, the last known fatality from a wild snake bite in the state of Ohio was recorded way back in 1947. That’s when Bing Crosby was still hitting it large in the Billboard charts. AKA: A very long time ago. These days, advances in anti-venom and healthcare, combined with pretty devastating habitat destruction all over North America, mean that snake bite incidents are way down in the Buckeye State.
This guide takes a look at the three species of venomous snake in Ohio. We’ll pick apart each of the fascinating creatures, look at which ones are the most feared, what their adaptations are, and where you can expect to find them…
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The northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen)
The northern copperhead is the bane of the eastern United States. Inhabiting areas solely on the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide, they are responsible for a higher proportion of the 8,000 annual bites in the country than any other species.
One reason for that is just how prevalent they are in very populous parts of North America. Just check the range of these slinky forest dwellers – it starts in Georgia, extends all the way up the Eastern Seaboard into New York and New England, and crosses over to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a territory that includes big cities and small towns alike, and hosts an ever-expanding human population.
In Ohio, you’re more likely to encounter the northern copperhead in the south and eastern portions of the state. That’s where the Allegheny Plateau rises to meet the hazy hills of West Virginia and northern Kentucky. That means lots of valleys and cooler highland areas covered in old-growth forest – the perfect place to find this type of snake.
Habitat wise, the northern copperhead enjoys shaded, dark and moist undergrowth. They often reside in cracks between rocks and under piles of leaves, and love good tree coverage. On top of that, they’re known to be good swimmers and regularly seek out piles of chopped wood and sawdust for resting.
They can be tricky to spot. A pattern of dark, coffee brown and mahogany alternates with a dusky beige across the back. When the Ohio copperhead is curled up, it can look just like a pile of decaying leaves. That’s especially worth knowing considering these guys tend to be far more active in the spring and autumn months – also the peak hiking season!
A bite from a copperhead is rarely deadly to humans. They typically cause pain and swelling at the point of contact but can have severe complications in younger people and those with compromised immune systems. Victims should always seek medical attention after a bite.
Eastern timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
Enter the eastern timber rattlesnake. One of the more formidable biters in the country, it’s considered to be among the most venomous snakes in North America. However, populations of these wild reptiles have been decreasing in recent decades, so incidents are now few and far between.
With the Latin name crotalus horridus, timber rattlesnakes cover much of the land south and east of Ohio. From the Buckeye State, they spread out all the way out to the swamps and salt-washed coast forests of the Carolinas, and can be found way up in Vermont and Maine. Scientists also believe there were significant numbers of eastern timber rattlesnakes as far afield as Quebec in centuries gone by.
They live largely in deciduous forests in the higher, less-built-up quarters of the state. That means you’ll need to keep a lookout for them as you move to the Bluegrass region and the rising peaks of Appalachia in the south and east parts of Buckeye.
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If left alone, the species prefers to avoid confrontation. Unfortunately, the eastern timber rattlesnake is considered quick to attack when it feels threatened. What’s more, like all rattlesnakes, they can strike from a distance – some estimations put it that these guys can pounce a whopping 50% of the total length of their body at unsuspecting victims!
A bite from an eastern timber won’t be a pleasant experience. They have a significantly higher venom yield than many other snakes in the country. Combine that with extra long fangs and a powerful strike and you’re looking at one formidable attack mode.
Strangely, the type of venom inflicted by timber rattlesnakes varies depending on where you are. Specimens closer to the southern end of the snake’s range are thought to have a potent neurotoxin venom that mimics the deadly venoms of snakes in Southeast Asia. Those further north have less potent venom that’s primarily hemorrhagic (it causes bleeding).
Most adults will grow to around 130cm in length, though you can find some that hit more than 1.5 metres from tip to tail. Look for the black bands across a faded beige-yellow back on the coloured side. There’s also that trademark rattle at the back of the snake.
Sometimes called the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, these broad-bodied serpents are unique in that they’re more commonly found in the northern portion of the Buckeye State. That’s because they tend to prefer lowland regions with lots of riparian habitats, riverways, swamps and ponds.
Their range isn’t as vast as the other venomous snakes in Ohio listed here. In fact, the massasauga is a Midwesterner through and through. Its territory goes north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and west to the fringes of Upstate New York. They aren’t found so far south in the US as, say, the timber rattler, but do cross into Ontario and the banks of the Great Lakes on the Canada side of the border.
The peak season for massasauga rattlesnakes is during the spring. That’s their mating time. Summer is often too hot in the day, so they become semi-nocturnal between June and August. These snakes spend the whole winter and then some (around seven months of the year in some instances) hibernating in pre-made underground tunnels which help them avoid the frost and snow.
To identify a massasauga rattlesnake, you should first look to the colouring and pattern. There’s a distinctive army camo-style look about them. It’s generally a muted grey with blotches of darker, chestnut brown on the top and down the sides. They can grow to 75cm in length but will usually be found basking in a coiled position. Their rattle caps off the tail with clear segments that comes to a non-tapered point.
And now the bad news: The bite. We won’t mince our words, because these guys can give one nasty nibble. They’re armed with a strong cocktail of cytotoxic substance that prevents blood from clotting and actively works to breakdown living tissue. As you can imagine, that’s pretty painful stuff, and the only sure way to prevent significant damage or death is to seek medical attention ASAP.
On the flip side, massasaugas are considered extremely shy snakes. They often steer clear of human contact and won’t go looking for fights. Most of the major bite incidents have been down to chance attacks in overgrown areas, often with hikers straying off marked paths and without the correct footwear.
These snakes much prefer to stick to their usual diet of small mammals – voles, field mice, rats – than go for something bigger. On top of that, humans are actually proving the biggest threat to the massasauga, not the other way around. They’re now listed as one of the endangered snake species in North America, and are listed as a species of concern in Ohio.
So, there we have it: The three venomous snakes in Ohio.
We’re not sure we’d like to cross paths with any of these guys. However, it’s worth remembering that snakes are, on the whole, timid and wary of human contact. That’s true of all of the species listed here, which will typically only attack when they feel threatened and have no other means of escape.
With the rattlesnakes, it’s often possible to hear that an attack is imminent because the trademark shake of the tail is specifically designed to warn victims that something’s about to happen. That might be a little harder with the copperhead viper. They’re tricky to spot and can strike totally unexpectedly.
There are lots of things you can do to mitigate your chances of falling foul of one of Ohio’s venomous sliders. First off, always stick to the marked hiking paths when you’re out and about in the rising foothills and plains of the Buckeye State. That’s especially important in peak snake-breeding times like spring, or if you’re out at dusk in the summer.
It’s also wise to read up about where the nearest health facility is located. Bites from any of the venomous snakes in Ohio require medical attention straight away. What’s more, the faster you get it the better. No one wants to be Googling the location for the local hospital after coming face-to-face with an Ohio copperhead – catch our drift?
Overall, there are over 30 species of snake in the Buckeye State. They range from long, green gartersnakes with chequered back patterns to purple-tinged water snakes. Thankfully, the vast majority are totally harmless, but there are a select few you’ll need to keep watch for when you adventure out and about in this colossal portion of the American Midwest.