The corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) is a harmless snake found over much of the Eastern half of the United States.
Due to their color and an overlapping range, they are frequently mistaken for the venomous copperhead (Agkistrodon contortix).
However, there are a number of differences between the two species. This list will help teach you how to tell them apart.
1. Head and Eyes Shapes
The first big set of differences come from the head. First, the relaxed head shape is entirely different. Copperheads have a thick and blocky head like other pit vipers, with a heat sensing pit.
Their head is very distinct from the neck as well. Corn snakes have a head that blends into the neck.
Corn snakes can spread out their head to try to resemble a copperhead. However, their head will look much thinner from the side.
The eyes are another clue. Copperheads have elliptical pupils. Their eyes cannot be seen from directly above.
Corn snakes have large eyes that can be visible from above the animal. Their pupils are also round no matter the lighting.
As pit vipers, copperheads have a head sensing pit on the face located above the mouth. Corn snakes lack this pit. Copperheads also have a coppery-brown for their head color. Corn snakes typically have a head that is a similar color to the rest of the animal.
2. Body Shape and Scales
Corn snakes are slender animals that typically max out at around 6 feet. Their girth is very similar for the entire length of the animal.
Copperheads average about 2.5 feet, but they can reach 4 feet in large animals. They are very thick animals.
Copperheads have keeled scales that give them a rough appearance. Corn snakes have smoother scales that tend to be shiny.
3. Color and Pattern
Adult copperheads come in a few colors depending on the area and subspecies. Most will be reddish-brown in background color with large hourglass markings on the side that reach the belly. Some patterns ressemble eastern hognose snakes and some types of corn snakes.
Be warned that these snakes do have multiple known colors and patterns so you need to check the other characteristics for a positive identification.
Corn snakes come in many colors depending on the location.
Common colors are orange or brownish-yellow with black-bordered saddle markings along the back of the animal.
Corn snakes have a checkerboard pattern on the belly that consists of black and white squares that alternate.
Young corn snakes are typically less vibrant than adults. Young copperheads are grater in color but still have the crossband pattern found in adults.
The tip of the tail is a bright yellow. The yellow tail tip is useful to draw in prey items.
Copperhead snakes have a wide range. If all subspecies and related species are counted, they can be found in 28 states in the central and eastern United States.
The copperhead snake species also extends into northern Coahuila and Chihuahua in Mexico. Their preferred habitat depends on the region.
Snakes from the Northeast and the Appalachias prefer open woodland, rocky hillsides, and deciduous forests.
Snakes near the coast prefer the edges of swamps and wet woodlands. In the western portion of their range, they like woodlands with streams and similar habitat.
They are also known to stay near areas with humans such as construction sites.
Corn snakes are mainly found in Florida and the southeastern states. They can also be found as far north as New Jersey with Louisiana and Kentucky making up the western border.
They can be found in a wide range of drier habitats including meadows, woodlands, and rocky hillsides.
They are also seen near human presence in areas such as barns, abandoned lots, woodlots, and anywhere else with high rodent populations.
Corn snakes are docile snakes that pose no threat to humans. They are the second most common pet snake in the United States.
Even wild snakes are not a danger to humans. They prefer to use their speed to escape encounters. If they feel trapped, corn snakes exhibit defensive behaviors.
These include flattening the head, hissing, shaking the tip of the tail, puffing up, and coiling up to strike.
Copperhead snakes are venomous. Since they are ambush hunters and avoid predators with their cryptic coloring, they tend to stay put if they detect a threat nearby.
They will bite in self-defense and the copperhead’s bite are the most common bites by a venomous snake in the United States, and thankfully it is rarely fatal.
However, their venom is not very serious so long as a victim seeks medical care immediately.
Copperheads are rarely kept in captivity due to their venom. It is not legal un many places to keep these snakes without a special license.
6. Diet and Hunting Behavior
Juvenile copperheads are active hunters compared to adults. They tend to use their keen sense of smell to track down insects, lizards, and salamanders for their meals.
Young copperhead snakes will also use the tip of their tail to lure in prey like the timber rattlesnake.
Adult copperheads are ambush predators and rely on a good sense of smell and their coloration to help them find a good place to wait.
These venomous snakes prefer to eat rodents. The pit viper uses its heat sense to help locate and strike at targets. Their exact diet depends on the time of year and what prey is available.
They use their venom to kill prey. Smaller prey is held until the venom takes effect. Larger prey items are bitten and tracked down once the venom has taken effect.
The venom causes cell damage and bleeding in prey. Small prey can be paralyzed by the venom for up to an hour.
Corn snakes are active hunters throughout their lives. Young snakes typically hunt for lizards and small frogs the snakes swallow.
Adults eat rodents, birds, bats, and other prey in the same size range. Corn snakes are constrictors. The bite and then coil around the prey item.
They then squeeze to cut off blood flow. This can render prey unconscious within a minute and dead not long after. Corn snakes may eat multiple prey items in a single feeding if they can find them.
7. Life Cycle
Copperheads are born live and are capable of hunting for prey from birth.
They take three to four years to reach sexual maturity. They are typically active from March to November depending on the climate of the area.
Snakes in the northern part of their range tend to brumate during the winter. This can be alone or with other snakes of the same or different species.
They may occasionally be seen basking on warm days in December and January. Once they reach maturity, there is a breeding season in August to October.
Snakes in the southern parts of their range may have a second breeding season in February to May. Females store sperm from fall markings to use in spring.
They are live bearers and produce an average of 6 offspring after a gestation of 110 days on average. The fetuses are typically fed off a yolk, but the mother may provide some additional nutrients. There is no parental care after birth.
Copperheads live for 15-18 years in the wild. They can live for up to 29 years in captivity. They are considered to be of Least Concern over most of their range.
These venomous snakes are considered endangered in Massachusetts and Iowa due to factors such as habitat loss, insecticides, and road kill. Copperheads are slow so they are frequently killed by cars.
Corn snakes have no parental care. Young snakes are on their own from hatching. They take around 600 days to reach sexual maturity.
They take 18 months to 36 months to reach full maturity. Corn snakes grow most rapidly in their first year of life and slow down by three years of age.
Corn snakes spend most of their time in rodent burrows or under leaf litter or other ground cover. They may climb trees or enter buildings looking for prey.
Females lay a clutch of 10-30 eggs in late May to July. They pick an area with rotting vegetation to incubate the eggs.
The female then departs. Corn snakes live around 23 to 29 years in captivity. Their wild lifespan is unknown but likely less.
They are not considered threatened over most of their range and commonly found in the pet trade. They are threatened by habit loss in the Florida Keys.
Corn snakes are very common in captivity, and a popular beginner pet snake thanks to their vibrant colors, docile temperament and relatively easy care requirements.
I published a complete enclosure setup and care guide for corn snakes here if you are interested in keeping one as a pet.
I hope this has taught you about the differences between corn snakes and copperheads. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.