The snake flashed beneath the weeds and struck me just below the right knee with a whump! that felt like I’d been hit with a rubber hammer. Then just as quickly, it was gone, its patterned body blending into the leaf litter. I stood there, listening to my heart trying to pound its way out of my chest, wondering why I felt no pain. I checked my leg; no bite marks. My pants apparently deflected the fangs, if the snake had any. The reptile I watched glide away resembled a copperhead, but so do several harmless species of snakes that reside in my neck of the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains.
Did I come close to being bitten by a venomous snake? Because I didn’t know what to look for back then, I’ll never be certain. But I can tell you this: It was a long, careful hike back to the trailhead.
Nature is full of lookalikes, and while there’s no great need to be able to distinguish a song sparrow from a chipping sparrow, the smart hiker knows how to tell the dangerous flora and fauna from the similar, safe ones. It can mean the difference between a pleasant trip and one on which your well-being is at risk.
The United States harbors only two groups of venomous snakes: the somewhat rare coral snakes and the more common pit vipers, which include rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. Pit vipers are equipped with venom-injecting fangs and are so named for the tiny, heat-sensing pit located on each side of the head, between the eye and nostril. The pit helps them to locate prey.
Of course, if you see a snake with rattles, you know it’s venomous. This simplifies matters in the West, where rattlesnakes are the only pit vipers. But in the eastern half of the country, rattleless cottonmouths and copperheads both bear markings akin to many harmless species.
To determine which variety you’ve encountered, look (at a comfortable distance, using binoculars) for a triangular head and other safe-or-sorry distinctions (see “Deadly Nuances,” next page).
Water snakes in particular are easily mistaken for pit vipers. “Cottonmouths can look a lot like some water snakes,” says Jeff Beane, curator of herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Body language is a good clue. “Cottonmouths are poor climbers and are likely to form a tight circular coil on a stump or log just above water level. Water snakes usually hang draped over a branch in a tree or bush.”