A guide to the snakes of the Cumberland Plateau

Snakes. There is perhaps no wild animal that strikes more fear in the hearts of humans than these misunderstood, legless creatures that slither along the forest floor.

Maybe the fear and distrust stems from the snake’s role in the Bible — it was the serpent that tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, resulting in the fall of man, and Genesis Chapter 3 begins, “Now the serpent was more subtle (cunning) than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made.”

Or, maybe it is because, as comedian Bill Engvall described the snake, “It can move, but it ain’t got any legs. That ain’t right.”

Mostly, though, we’re afraid of snakes because it’s human nature to fear what we don’t understand. Hopefully, after reading through this guide to snakes of the Cumberland Plateau, you’ll have a bit more of an understanding about the snakes that share our forests and back yards, and the purposes they serve.

Snakes you won’t find here

First things first: There are several snakes that you won’t find in Scott County or on the Cumberland Plateau, though some people will swear otherwise. For one, you will not find cottonmouths (water moccasins) in this part of Tennessee.

Cottonmouths are venomous snakes that are especially feared in swamps and lowland areas. In Tennessee, their habitat is relegated to the western third of the state. Some people will argue that they’ve seen them in East Tennessee, but the TN Wildlife Resources Agency says they are not found this far east, although they’re relatively common in much of West Tennessee, including the Reelfoot Lake region.

One of the reasons for the confusion: Some water snakes found on the Cumberland Plateau, which are completely harmless, bear a strong resemblance to cottonmouths.

Another snake you won’t find on the Cumberland Plateau — or anywhere else in Tennessee — is the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. There are only two species of rattlesnakes found in the Volunteer State, and only one in East Tennessee: the timber rattler. The much larger eastern diamondback is found primarily in areas nearer to the coast — such as the eastern Carolinas, southern Georgia, southern Alabama, southern Mississippi, and parts of Florida.

Venomous snakes

There are only two types of venomous snakes found in East Tennessee and on the northern Cumberland Plateau: the timber rattler and the copperhead. Both can cause serious injury or death, but neither are aggressive and only bite when threatened.

Copperhead: The copperhead is the most common of the two venomous snake species found in Scott County. It is a pit viper that occurs across the entire state of Tennessee. The species that is found on the Cumberland Plateau is the Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). The copperhead is a heavy-bodied snake that — like other venomous pit vipers — is distinguishable by its large, triangular-shaped head, vertical pupils and the facial pits between its eye and nostril. They’re also distinguishable by the coppery-red color of their head and the dark brown “hourglass” crossbones on their back. Although the pattern is not completely dissimilar to several species of nonvenomous snakes, copperheads are the only snake with the distinctive hourglass figure.

Copperheads prefer forested areas and aren’t often found in open fields or pastures. They’re more often found on rocky, wooded hillsides with an abundance of logs, rocks and other cover. They’re occasionally found near stream edges. They feed primarily on mice but also feast on insects — especially cicadas — as well as amphibians, small birds and even other snakes.

Juvenile copperheads look much like their adult counterparts, except their tails have a bright yellow tip, which they wiggle to lure prey to within striking distance.

Timber Rattler: The Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is the largest and most dangerous of the four venomous snakes found in Tennessee (two of the four, pygmy rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, are not found in East Tennessee). The timber rattler is a large, heavy-bodied snake that is usually at least three feet in length and can grow up to five feet in length with a large, triangular-shaped head, vertical pupils, facial pits, and the characteristic rattle at the end of the tail, which the snake will shake vigorously to warn off predators — including humans.

Timber rattlers prefer forested areas, especially mature, heavily-wooded forests with rocky, south-facing hillsides. Locally, they’re most often found in the mountains of eastern Scott County, though they can also be found in the Big South Fork and other parts of Scott County — often around bluffs or rock ledges. They primarily feed on small rodents like mice, rats, chipmunks and squirrels.

A cool fact to know about rattlesnakes: a newborn — female timber rattlers give birth to a litter of five to 14 young in the late summer or early fall of every other year — has a single segment to their rattle, called a “button.” Every time the snake sheds its skin, it adds a new segment to its rattle (although the rattles sometimes break off, making counting the segments an inaccurate way of determining the snake’s age).

Nonvenomous snakes

There are several species of nonvenomous snakes found on the northern Cumberland Plateau. All of them are completely harmless to humans and most pets, although some will prey on chicken eggs and baby chicks. 

Gartersnake: The Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is a medium-sized snake ranging from 18 to 26 inches in length that may very well be the most common snake found anywhere in Tennessee. The gartersnake’s coloration and pattern is highly variable, causing it to present with different looks. However, it typically has three light stripes, which can be white, yellow, blue, brown or green and run the length of the snake’s body. Typically, one stripe will run down the center of the snake’s back, while the other stripes will run along its sides. Not all gartersnakes have stripes, however.

Gartersnakes can be found almost anywhere, but they’re especially common near water. That’s because they feed primarily on frogs, toads, tadpoles, salamanders and fish. They’re commonly caught as pets. Females give birth in the late summer or early fall, and can have as many as 100 young.

Red-Bellied Snake: The Northern Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) is a small snake, usually less than 10 inches in length, that occurs across most of the state. The Northern Red-bellied snake has three light spots on the nape of its neck. The snake is usually gray or reddish-brown, and may have four narrow stripes along the length of its body. The belly is usually red, but can also be yellow or orange. The head is usually darker than the body.

Red-bellied snakes eat slugs, snails, earthworms and other soft insects, and are usually found in moist woodland areas, under leaf litter, inside rotten logs or beneath rocks. They’re not especially common in Scott County. But where they are found, they’re usually found in abundance because they’re successful breeders. Females give birth to an average of seven or eight young (up to 21) during the late summer or early autumn.

Queen Snake: The Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata) is found across the eastern two-thirds of Tennessee, although it is not found in eastern Kentucky. It is a medium-sized snake that can grow up to two feet in length, with a creamy white or pale yellow stripe along the lower sides of its body. The body itself is usually light brown or gray. The snake has a yellow belly with four brown stripes.

The queen snake is an aquatic snake that prefers cool, rocky streams and rivers, and can usually be found beneath rocks or logs around bodies of water. The snake mostly eats crayfish but sometimes eats fish and tadpoles, as well. If there’s an absence of crayfish, there will generally be an absence of queen snakes. Females give birth to up to two dozen young in the late summer or fall.

Pinesnake: The Northern Pinesnake (Pituophis melanoleucus) is a large constrictor snake that can grow nearly six feet in length and has a light-colored body with dark brown to reddish blotches on the sides and back. The blotches usually resemble a saddle pattern.

Pinesnakes are usually found in well-drained, sandy soils, particularly in pine forests. They feed mainly on small rodents, as well as ground-nesting birds and their eggs. Females lay up to 12 large eggs (the largest of any North American snake) in the summer, and sometimes use communal nests. The young can be as much as a foot long when they hatch. Pinesnakes are secretive and not often seen, but they produce a loud hissing noise when they’re encountered. The Pinesnake is not particularly common in Tennessee; its status is listed as “threatened” by the TN Wildlife Resources Agency. The TN Dept. of Environment & Conservation considers it a rare snake.

Greensnake: The Northern Rough Greensnake (Opheodrys aestivusaestivus) is a very distinctive snake in Tennessee because it’s the only green snake found in the state. There are no other snakes here that can be mistaken for it. The green snake is a moderately-long but slender snake that can grow nearly three feet in length. It is light green with a white, yellow or pale green belly.

Greensnakes, which are also called vine snakes, are usually found in dense vegetation, especially near bodies of water, and are often found in overhanging limbs. They feed primarily on insects like grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, dragonflies and spiders. Females nest in leaves or rotting logs and lay up to 10 elongated eggs in the summer. Greensnakes are quite common, but aren’t often seen because they camouflage so well in the dense vegetation and because they hide out in the trees above ground.

Watersnake: The Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis) is one of the most commonly misidentified snakes found on the Cumberland Plateau. It is a large, heavy-bodied snake that can grow up to four feet in length, and while its coloration is highly variable, it can look remarkably like a copperhead or cottonmouth — especially a cottonmouth. However, if you’re close enough to examine the snake, you’ll notice its lack of a triangular head, slanted pupils or facial pits. Unlike the copperhead and the cottonmouth, water snakes are completely harmless.

Watersnakes are usually found in quiet waters, like ponds and lakes. Bu