A Copperhead in Rhode Island?

by Todd McLeish

northern copperhead

When a northern copperhead snake was reported to have bitten an East Providence resident in his driveway last week, it raised a number of concerns among Rhode Islanders about the state’s snake population. The bite from the venomous snake resulted in a hospital stay for the man who attempted to pick up the animal, and it generated numerous news stories and postings on social media.

Lou Perrotti, a reptile expert and board member of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey who works at Roger Williams Park Zoo, said there is little for local residents to worry about from wild snakes in Rhode Island. None of the Ocean State’s 11 snake species are venomous.

“Snakes are a valuable part of every ecosystem they inhabit, acting as both predator and prey,” he said. “They help to control rodent populations, and they even keep the incidence of Lyme disease down by preying on deer mice, the first host of the Lyme-carrying deer tick.”

Although many people are frightened of snakes, Perrotti said they need not be. Snakes are misunderstood animals. “Children do not naturally fear snakes; they are taught to fear snakes,” he said. “We need to teach them, the future caretakers of this planet, that all species deserve respect and protection no matter how they look or how dangerous they are. If we fail, we will have very fragmented and non-functioning ecosystems that will be in danger of crashing.”

The northern copperhead that bit the East Providence man is not native to Rhode Island and has never been recorded here in the wild. There are populations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, but Rhode Island does not have the proper habitat to support copperhead populations. “It was not a wild snake from an unknown population. There are no copperheads living in Riverside,” Perrotti said.

It is illegal to own a venomous snake in Rhode Island without a permit, and the only permit-holder in the state is Roger Williams Park Zoo. However, that does not mean that a wild copperhead was not collected from a protected population and kept in captivity illegally and later intentionally or mistakenly released in Rhode Island.

“We don’t have a problem with pet snakes being released into the wild like they do in the Everglades and elsewhere,” Perrotti said. “If that’s what happened in this case, it’s highly unusual.”

So what is Perrotti’s message to Rhode Islanders in light of the copperhead incident? “Don’t be afraid of snakes. But also don’t pick up a snake if you can’t identify it.”

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  1. I’m confused, if there are no CH living in EP how did one bite this man? Also didn’t the state say for years there were no fisher cats or black bears, which both now make home in RI? Is it possible we have a small population of them seeing the surrounding states have them?

  2. Lou I agree with most of your statement and I don’t know how old you are but had you been around 50 years ago I could have taken you to Mautucket by the Sea where my neighbor had Copper Heads sunning on his porch and where I saw them on land at slacks reservoir and these were not the Common Water Snakes. Now this was about 50 years ago the last I saw of them. Also, a certain area of Tiverton was known for Rattle Snakes. A junk yard dealer there use to collect a $.50 bounty on them and also charge for people to view them. Later he was milking them. I collected a young one at Diamond Hill when I was youngster that was injured with a cut in it’s side, it died a few days later. I knew my sakes quite well as a Boy Scout.

    The State of Connecticut has had a minor explosion of Rattlers so we can’t be to cautious here in RI. As far as Copperheads… who knows..it seems as though wildlife left alone has a way of rebounding. I do wildlife photography as a hobby and hope some day to prove you wrong, and I promise I won’t try and handle them if I do find them.


  3. I thought there was a population of timber rattlers in tiverton. Certainly read about them in the newspaper before

  4. This happen about 50 years ago in my home town of Bristol R.I. A few friends and my cousin exploring and we came across a old dried up well . But at the mouth of the well sucking up some sun was a snake . Maybe 2 foot long but this snake had a raddle on it . But it didn’t make a raddle sound . It was very aggressive it did make 2 strike at us . then took off like a bat out of hell . And that’s all I can remember about that snake

  5. Just came across this website due to a conversation @ work. no believes there are poisonous snakes in R.I. but there are. About 30yrs. ago I worked for a company that was located behind the East Providence high school. Somehow, a snake found it’s way into the office and the women were freaking out. My boss at the time asked if anyone was afraid of snakes and I volunteered to remove it from the office. I put on gloves and grabbed the snake behind the head. unfortunately, I didn’t grab it correctly and it bit me. After I released it back into the woods I checked my hands and sure as sh*t there were two puncture marks on my hand. went to the walk-in clinic on Taunton ave and they called R.I. hospital poison ctr. In R.I. there are two kinds of venomous snakes, the eastern rattler and the copperhead. Again, this was thirty yrs. ago. So yes, there are poisonous snakes in R.I.

  6. Robert McCormick

    Not in RI you say? I was fishing in Barbers pond today in knee deep water on a 3 footer swam by me in front of my feet. I have lived in Exeter for 11 years now and thats the first one i have seen. I jave seen many of them in CT where im from so i know what i saw..

    • Are you sure it wasn’t a water snake? The young ones are very checkerboard-y and could easily be mistaken for a copperhead. Also, copperhead’s aren’t really too keen on water (which isn’t to say they NEVER go in water) whereas water snakes…well, they’re water snakes.

  7. My father caught a copperhead at Rogers high football field in the 60s .. the State is not snake repellent it has no St Patrick driving them out like ireland we just have cold winters that keep the cottonmouths from living here.. wish it was the same for the reptilian governor…

  8. Lots of reports of copperheads, rattlesnakes, etc. here calling into question the existence of venomous (“venomous”, not “poisonous”= two completely different things) snakes in RI. I’d sure like to see a diagnostic photo (or any photo for that matter) to substantiate any of these claims. Until I do, I’m in agreement that there are no venomous snakes in RI.

  9. I have a summer house in Exeter RI on Boone Lake where we have had two different incidents with water moccasins aka cottonmouth one was about 25 years ago and the other was only 13 years ago. Both times water moccasin nests had to be removed!

    • Chris, thanks for looking at our piece on the copperhead and your note about water moccasins. I know some people insist they’ve seen water moccasins but all the reported cases so far, going back to colonial times, turn out to be northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon), a native non-venomous snake with squares on its back that could superficially resemble a water moccasin. The illusion is heightened by the water snake defensive strategy of flattening its body and head when threatened perhaps in order to more closely resemble a water moccasin. Also, because these two snakes are so often mistaken for each other, many online photos labeled as water moccasin are actually water snakes, so you can easily be led into a mis-identification that way. Water snakes do travel into uplands to find warm places to nest, so you may well have encountered a water snake nest away from the water. If you see another threatening looking snake, get a picture and we’ll see if we can help figure out the ID.

  10. There are no native water moccasins north of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. Of course, one could be released or escape into the wild, but it would never survive the winters up this way. Northern water snakes can be aggressive if provoked, just like you and me, and inflict a nasty bite. If you’re ever close enough to a snake in New England that you think might be poisonous, just look for the “pit” between the eye and nostril, and check out pupil shape. Rattlers and copperheads have pits (“pit vipers”)and vertical pupils. Last confirmed rattlesnakes in RI were in the 60s – they could definitely rebound if habitats remain intact. However, the earlier comment about an “explosion” in the Connecticut rattlesnake population is highly exaggerated. There are very few left. A hognose snake will flatten its head and vibrate its tail in the leaves to mimic a rattler – I’m sure many people have misidentified them as rattlesnakes, too.

  11. On Bulgamarsh Road in Tiverton there was a junkyard with a cage full full of rattlers. It was a fascinating place I had my parents stop on our way to and from Little Compton. This would have been in the late 1950s and 1960s. There are many south facing rock ledges nearby, and today, with a massive collection of old derelict cars, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear there are snakes there, including rattlesnakes. Nearby, just south of the old Stone Bridge, there is an island called Rattlesnake Rock. I diddn’t name it. It is loaded with poison ivy and who knows, maybe some of its infamous residents?

  12. I beg to differ about no native Copperheads in RI. I have seen 2. I grew up with a educator for a father and a deep interest in Nature and wildlife, We had many wildlife books in the house with full color illustrations and spent days in the fields, rocks, swamps and creeks chasing snakes, salamanders, fishing and working local farms. I grew up in Middletown, on Aquidneck Island. Lived on Prospect avenue right near the Windmill and Historical society. Spent hours playing in and around Maidford river and Sachuest(2nd) Beach.One day, around 1976 on the river(really a creek) was flipping rocks looking for Salamanders, about a foot up bank, flipped over this large rock and a Copperhead was under it, it came after me.Ran away. Another time riding my bicycle home from 2nd beach, the creek passes under Paradise Avenue, crossing the road right at the bridge saw another one. Both times went straight home and checked the books, Yes they were Copperheads

    • You’re SURE they weren’t juvenile northern water snakes? They do look similar. While all that rock ledge there is at least possible copperhead habitat, down low in the wet ground along the Maidford it’s really good water snake habitat.

  13. I am always a little skeptical about the ProJo but they have a picture of the snake, which is a copperhead. It must have been an escapee from a collection, or an accidental transport. For those of you who persist in claiming that Copperheads are native to RI, I’d like to see at least some photographic evidence (I would not recommend capturing one yourself). Otherwise please desist from spreading false information. I have seen snakes that were intentionally killed and personally rescued a “Copperhead” from attempted murder by a group of ill-informed rednecks. The snake was stuck trying to swallow a fish and they were throwing rocks at it in the water. Reptiles have it hard enough in our area without them being mis-characterized as dangerous.

  14. I have copperhead all over my land. I live in North Smithfield and see them all the time.

  15. I have a picture I could Email you of a baby snake…I took it on my back patio could forward it to you (I live in Burrillville near some water/wetlands and wooded). It is multi colored and is probably a water snake, but I’d like to be sure, since momma is probably around.

    What email address should I send it to??

    Thanks for your help.

    • Any photos would be awesome and a great contribution to our knowledge of ALL the snakes of RI. RINHS can be reached at info[at]rinhs.org.

  16. Living in rural Oklahoma, copperheads are plentiful around our house in the summer. We do not kill them, but instead observe and learn. Two things: copperheads are venomous but not deadly like rattlesnakes. And they are not aggressive. They do not run after or at you.

  17. I believe that I saw a dead timber rattler dead in the brook behind my house in Johnston. It was perhaps 55 years ago after a very bad storm.

  18. There are no venomous snakes in Rhode Island. The last population of Timber Rattlesnakes was found in Tiverton about 45 years ago. The reason there can’t be venomous snakes returning is because unlike bears and large mammals, snakes are philopartric and they have to regulate there own body temperature, so that have to stay in specific locations that enable them to do that, (ie; place with tall grass and boulders bordered by coniferous forest) so they’re constrained to specific locations, and they’re not able to establish populations in different areas without human intervention. also, East Providence doesn’t offer a supportive environment for a population of that particular species. Also, the snakes that most people call water moccasins in Rhode Island are harmless Northern Water Snakes. True Water Moccasins are pit vipers that are closely related to Copperheads and are found in Southern regions of the United States. Once again, This is a species that is not capable of surviving in colder climates.

  19. Another reason you’ll never find established populations of Copperheads in Rhode Island is they’re adapted to living at higher elevations.

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