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Rattlesnake vs. Gopher Snake: Can you & your kids tell the difference?

By Gary Bogue
Thursday, July 9th, 2009 at 7:44 am in Snakes.

Western Rattlesnake by Brian Murphy
westernrattlesnake

If you can get a close look at a rattlesnake or a gopher snake, they’re pretty easy to tell apart. But you don’t always get a close look when you find one crawling in your yard … and at a time like that they can look pretty similar and you may be fooled.

If you find a rattlesnake in your yard, make sure your children stay away from it and put your dog in the house so it can’t go sniff the snake and get bitten. If you need help … call your local animal services department or the police. Then keep an eye on the snake (from a safe distance) so you can show the authorities where it is when they arrive.

Western Rattlesnake by Brian Murphy
western rattlesnake

RATTLESNAKES:
Yes, rattlesnakes are poisonous, but they are just as frightened of you as you are of them and they’d rather not stick around to bite anyone. They usually hang around areas where there are animals that they like to eat, like mice, rats and ground squirrels. Get rid of board piles in your yard, and other places where rodents like to hide so you don’t attract rattlers. And if you live next to open space areas, keep your grass cut short enough so you can spot any snakes lying around.

Western Rattlesnake by Brian Murphy
western rattlesnake1

Make sure your family members, especially the kids, know what rattlesnakes look like. You can also go to http://www.google.com and do a search for rattlesnakes (and any other snake species) to find more photos to help you identify them.

Western Rattlesnake by Brian Murphy
rattler2

Rattlesnakes are fatter than gopher snakes. Rattlesnakes have rattles on their tails, they have elliptical pupils (cat eyes), their scales have a rough look and they don’t hiss.

Pacific Gopher Snake
gopher snak1

GOPHER SNAKES:
Gopher snakes are one of the most common snakes in the area. They are non-poisonous and eat rodents and particularly like gophers. They are often mistaken for rattlesnakes because they have similar markings. However, they are “skinny” compared to rattlesnakes and have slender heads and round pupils in their eyes. As I said above, rattlesnakes have elliptical pupils or “cat eyes.”

Pacific Gopher Snake by Brian Murphy
gophersnake, brian

Gopher snakes, when frightened, will flatten their heads (to make them look bigger like a rattlesnake), coil, hiss, and “rattle” their tails to imitate rattlesnakes, hoping you’ll keep away. NOTE: They have no rattles and their tails are sharply pointed, and their scales have a shiny, yellowish look to them. Please don’t hurt them. They’re actually good guys to have around.

Pacific Gopher Snake by Brian Murphy
gopher snak2

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18 Responses to “Rattlesnake vs. Gopher Snake: Can you & your kids tell the difference?”

  1. Bryan D. Hughes Says:

    Thanks for the great article. I do rattlesnake capture and relocation in Phoenix, Arizona, and I can say that very few individuals can really tell the difference between a gophersnake and a rattlesnake when faced with one. Even more concerning, they don’t seem to care, and are apt to start swinging a shovel in any case; they do not realize this is the origination of most bites.

  2. Gary Bogue Says:

    Bryan: I used to do a lot of rattler capture and relocation back in the good old days (1970s) when I was curator of the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, CA. Yes, people usually get so freaked when a gopher snake starts hissing and striking at them, out comes the old shovel and they start hacking away. Unfortunately, as you say, when they try this with a rattlesnake, they sometimes get too close and too careless when trying to kill snakes, and if one is a rattler, it can end up in them getting bitten. Thanks for the input. /Gary

  3. Barbara Says:

    For years I’ve been escorting gopher snakes, ringnecks, garters, etc.–(I have yet to encounter a rattler)–to the territory behind my back yard.
    I’ve since stopped that and allow them their temporary refuge. I’m not doing them any favors by moving them; and, they are doing me no harm by using my garden as a resting area.

  4. Gary Bogue Says:

    Barbara:
    They are not only doing you no harm by using your garden as a resting area … they are actually of GREAT benefit to your garden.Gopher snakes prey on mice, voles and gophers than might be munching on your garden. Ringnecks and gartersnakes prey on insects and slugs … so you should welcome them with open arms. Rattlesnakes also play an important and beneficial role in the local ecosystems. Unfortunately they are also poisonous, so it’s not appropriate to have them lurking in your garden. /Gary

  5. Kate West Says:

    Hi, I have a mole (maybe gopher) in my garden. I think it might be a good idea to introduce a gopher snake. My neighbors also have this problem…and some mice as well. Where would I get a gopher snake or two and how do I keep them happy? Kate

  6. Gary Bogue Says:

    Kate: gopher snakes are actually not a very efficient way to control moles or gophers. If you release one, it just might crawl away to your neighbor’s yard. Even if the snake does catch a gopher, it can take a week or more to digest it. Finally, you can’t buy gopher snakes. It’s illegal to catch and sell native wildlife. Locating and catching a gopher snake and transporting it to your yard is VERY labor intensive and as I said, not an efficient way to deal with these digging critters. /Gary

  7. John Marshall Says:

    I often encounter Gopher snakes while walking around NASA Ames’ marshland area in Mountain View. They are readily identified by both their slender shape and placid mood. I usually lift them off the road to prevent them being run over. Two days ago, I found one lying in the road in the dark (never seen this before), and it was uncharacteristically aggressive –striking instantly. It also hissed loudly and made a rattling sound, identical to a rattle snake. But the sound appeared to emanate from its throat, not its tail –and there was no rattle. This may additionally lead people to misidentify this species.

  8. Gary Bogue Says:

    John: Snakes will often lie on the pavement at night because the road surface retains some of the heat from the sun. Gopher snakes will buzz their tails like rattlesnakes and act aggressive when they feel threatened, imitating rattlesnakes to try and fool you into leaving them alone. Rattlesnakes, by the way, do not hiss like that. /Gary

  9. Karol Gallucci Says:

    I live in the South Bay, but just encountered a baby snake this weekend in my steel building in Red Bluff, an area known for rattlesnakes. This is my first encounter, and although I was shaking in my boots, I took the time to look at it (from a distance). I’ve never seen a rattler, let alone a baby, but this snake seemed skinny (body and head) and the markings just didn’t look quite the same. He did rear his head immediately and curled up, but was just as happy to go off in another direction when he got over being scared of me. I didn’t kill him, but now I’m worried since he may still be in the building. I opened all the doors hoping he’d go out. How do I tell the difference beteen the snakes when they are babies? (We’re going up again soon so I may encounter him again). Thanks.

  10. Jan Crown Says:

    Dear Gary, there is a post on Claycord.com that has raised some questions:

    http://claycord.blogspot.com/2009/10/rattle-snake-black-diamond-mines.html

    The snake in question has been labelled a rattlesnake. I think it’s a gopher snake. What say you? Could you post your answer on Claycord for all of us to see and learn?

    Thanks so much

  11. Gary Bogue Says:

    Jan Crown: the Claycord.com Web site has already changed the labeling on that photo to reflect that is is indeed a gopher snake and NOT a rattlesnake. Yes, it is a beautiful gopher snake. /Gary

  12. Gary Bogue Says:

    Karol Gallucci: Baby rattlesnakes still have a rattle. The rattle is smaller, just a single button on very young rattlesnakes. Gopher snakes have NO rattles and their tails come down to a sharp point. You can go online to http://www.google.com and do a search for baby rattlesnakes and another search for baby gopher snakes. You’ll find photos and can get a good look at what they look like./Gary

  13. komron Says:

    ATTENTION, PLEASE!
    You will not believe but its true!
    There will be sold the natural snake crown!
    This was considered as the symbol of power and wisdom to our ancesstors.
    In details, only for those who are interested!

  14. Kevin Says:

    Gary, left for work today & a few steps outside of my door was an 8″ snake that looked like a rattler. I didn’t check for a rattle because it started moving sideways with its head elevated a few inches off the ground (like a cobra) with its mouth wide open as it was moving. Obviously it was a baby & I frightened it as much as it did me. I went for a shoe on the porch but turned back & it was gone into the shrubs. Didn’t pay attention to the shape of its eyes. Do bullsnakes raise their head with mouths open in defense?

  15. David Says:

    Very nice article. I operate a snake removal service in the here in the Bay Area and would say roughly one half of my “rattlesnake calls” are in fact gopher snakes. Most of the time property owners are ok with leaving gopher snakes there after learning of the benefits they offer.

    Got Snakes?
    Humane Rattlesnake Removal & Consultation
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  16. Sue Says:

    How do you tell the babies apart,they look so similar and I don’t want to get close enough to see their eyes.

  17. Sue S. Says:

    We just found a coiled baby rattler in our neighbor yesterday, 4/15/2012. This website really helped us identify the snake. It looked exactly like the 4th picture even though the snake was tiny and only had one button. The head was what I call an equilateral triangle not a slim triangle like the gopher snake. I would also call it “chubby cheeks”. The rattler head is also very flat like it got smashed. The color of the head was also all one color brown. It was too hard to tell if it was “thin” or the shape of the eyes. The end of the tail was a little stubby not slim and pointed like the gopher snake. To me, the pattern down the back of the rattler is very diamond shaped until the rings at the end of the tail, compared to the gopher snake which has similar markings but has a more blotchy pattern on the back. This is kind of subtle but helpful from a distance. I think the easiest identification is the head. The rattler really has a flat head like an equal sided triangle.

  18. Russell Bales Says:

    I find the best way to identify is by the tail.
    A gopher snake has a definitely pointed tail and the rattlesnake, even if its rattler is not present, the tail is more “blunt”.
    I find gopher snakes in my yard about once a year. So far none has evidenced any aggression, They just crawl to cover, unhurriedly.
    No rattlesnakes have been seen in my yard for about six or seven years.
    Escondido, California

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