While Kentucky is known for its bluegrass, thoroughbred horses, and country music stars, it is also home to dozens of snake species. Among the 32 snake species found in “The Bluegrass State,” four are venomous.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) compiled a report of all 32 venomous and non-venomous snakes found in Kentucky. Based on information gathered from the KDFWR’s Kentucky Snakes booklet, here methods of identifying Kentucky’s venomous snakes, as well as profiles of the 4 venomous snakes found in Kentucky.
How to Identify Kentucky’s Venomous Snakes
All of Kentucky’s venomous snakes belong in a group known as “pit vipers.” In the Kentucky Snakes booklet, the KDFWR provided a couple of tips for distinguishing between Kentucky’s venomous and non-venomous snakes.
- Kentucky’s pit vipers have a sensory “pit” found on the side of the head in between the nostril and eye.
- Venomous snakes have vertically shaped pupils.
In addition, Kentucky’s four venomous snakes all have heads shaped like spades, in which the neck of the snake is not as wide as the back of the head. However, this is not a definite source of venomous snake identification, in that several species of non-venomous snakes can defensively flatten their heads into a similar triangular shape.
Kentucky’s 4 Venomous Snakes
1. Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)
This snake can be found in every corner of Kentucky. It is also one of the most commonly misidentified snakes, because of its various shades of coloring that are similar to many of Kentucky’s non-venomous snakes. The copperhead can be found in lengths ranging from a few inches, to over 3 feet. They usually feed on small mammals like mice, but have been known to eat lizards, frogs, etc.
While the coloring of a copperhead can vary from a quite literal reddish-copper color, to shades of brown, this snake species is most clearly identified by the distinctly shaped pattern on its body. The pattern is most commonly described as “hourglass,” in that the bands are wider at the sides and narrower in the middle.
2. Western Cottonmouth (Akistrodon piscivorus leucostoma)
This snake – found in the Western part of the state – is similar in length to the copperhead, although the longest Western cottonmouths can reach nearly 4 feet in length. It is a nondescript, dark-colored snake which can be difficult to identify on appearance alone. Young cottonmouths have a body pattern similar to that of a copperhead, but much of this pattern fades with age.
You can typically find these snakes near water. Western cottonmouths feed on a wide variety of prey including various rodents and even other snakes. If cottonmouths feel threatened they will bare the inside of their white-colored mouths. Cottonmouths will also vibrate their tails as a defense mechanism.
3. Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
The timber rattlesnake is the king of the state’s venomous snakes as far as size is concerned. These monsters can grow up to 5 feet in length, and are heavy-bodied. Sometimes timber rattlesnakes can be solid black, but they are often yellow, gray, brown, or have a greenish color, with a darker shade of band that crosses the body.
Timber rattlesnakes can be found in the woods of Kentucky in most every area except for parts of Central and Northern Kentucky. These snakes are not aggressive by nature, and will lie in wait for their next meal to approach, which is most often a squirrel.
4. Western Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius steckeri)
This tiny snake – only averaging between 5-20 inches in size – is only found in three specific counties in Kentucky: Calloway, Trigg, and Lyon. Thus far, the Western pygmy rattlesnake has not been extensively studied in the state of Kentucky, so much of the information gathered by the KDFWR was from pygmy rattlesnake behaviors exhibited in other locations.
Like the cottonmouth, the pygmy rattlesnake is typically found around water. The pygmy is a lighter grayish-brown color, and has dark-patterned spots on its body. It may have rusty-colored bars or stripes along its back. Like other venomous snakes, the pygmy rattlesnake likes to feed on rodents, and even preys on small snakes and frogs.
In a state known for recreation and outdoor activities, it is important to provide education about potentially dangerous wildlife, instead of inciting fear based on exaggerated notions or facts. Unprovoked attacks from these venomous snakes is highly unlikely. In fact, only around 10 deaths occur annually in the U.S. from venomous snake bites.
If you see any of these snakes, or think that you have seen one keep your distance, do not try to capture or kill the snake, and contact the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources at 1-800-858-1549 for further information. In the rare case that you are bitten by a venomous snake, please seek medical attention immediately.