Share this story

Dianne’s Creature Feature

Gopher snake or rattlesnake? Know your snakes!

Don’t let the slither get you in a dither


Doing the laundry doesn’t usually involve a snake, but in Laguna Beach resident Tom Joliet’s case, recently it did. Who knew laundry was dangerous? Well, it’s not really, because his snake was a gopher snake (a Pacific version of the bull snake). And although they closely (and frighteningly) resemble rattlesnakes, gopher snakes are harmless.

Joliet says, “I stepped on this gopher snake on the sidewalk while carrying laundry today. This is a reminder about snakes to all residents. There are more than one of these useful, harmless snakes by our condos. Be aware that rattlesnakes are also around.” 

Gopher snake Joliet 1

Click on photo for larger image

Photo by Tom Joliet

Gopher snake spotted at Tom Joliet’s condo 

Joliet reminds us: Watch, while walking, for sticks on the sidewalk that move; shut laundry room doors at all times; snakes like to stay under the heat of the hot water tanks; keep pets on leash.

Perhaps most importantly, he advises, “Know how to identify dangerous and common snakes.”

And that’s where we come in. Or rather the point where Outreach and Restoration Manager Cameron Davis from Laguna Canyon Foundation (LCF) offers her expertise, “Gopher snakes are the largest local snake - sometimes reaching almost six ft in length! They are fairly common in our wilderness park. They are often found coming in or out of holes dug by the native pocket gopher – one of the snakes’ favorite food sources, which also earned them their name. They eat a variety of small rodents.” 

gopher snake Davis

Click on photo for larger image

Photo by Cameron Davis, LCF

A baby gopher snake is very curious about Cameron Davis

Gopher snakes are constrictors, which means they suffocate their prey. Rattlesnakes use venom to overcome their prey and use their rattles to warn away enemies.

According to, rattlesnakes and gopher snakes can look eerily similar to the untrained eye. With similar square- or diamond-shaped markings and no-nonsense temperaments, these two species are often mistaken for each other. So, obviously, it’s important to recognize the differences between non-venomous gopher snakes (members of the Pituophis genus) and venomous rattlesnakes (members of the Crotalus genus and viper family).

Resemblance only skin deep

Gopher snakes and rattlesnakes resemble each other only superficially. They have the same sort of markings and colors, and both snakes can be a bit short-tempered. But they differ in length. The longest rattlesnake is about nine feet long, and the fangs of a big rattlesnake can grow up to an inch long. But most rattlesnakes only grow to five feet long. The gopher snake grows from six to nine feet long. Both snakes eat rabbits, squirrels, mice and other rodents. But there are other differences as well, per

Venomous versus nonvenomous

Rattlesnakes are pit vipers, which means they’re venomous and have facial pits between their eyes and their nostrils. These pits sense the temperature of what’s in front of them. The rattlesnake’s pits can detect temperature differences of as little as one third of a degree Fahrenheit, which helps the snake when hunting at night. The gopher snake doesn’t have pit organs and is non-venomous.

Head shape and pupils give away identity

Gopher snake rattlesnakeEven though their body types differ – the gopher snake is longer, its body is slender and whip-like compared to the rattlesnake’s heavy-bodied, broad appearance – the big give-a-way is the shape of the head and pupils. Rattlesnakes have a flat, triangular head in comparison to a gopher snake’s narrow, rounded one. And gopher snakes have a dark stripe that extends from the top of their heads to either side of their eyes.

Gopher snake gopherWhile rattlesnakes and gopher snakes both have round eyes on both sides of their heads, it’s their pupils that signal their identity. Rattlesnakes have vertical, cat-like pupils, while gopher snakes have rounded pupils. (However, this method of identification requires that you get a bit too close for my liking.)

Gopher snakes mimic rattle, but don’t have the goods

To keep predators away, in an extremely smart method of impersonation, a gopher snake tries to imitate the rattling of a rattlesnake’s tail. A gopher snake will often hiss and vibrate its tail when agitated. This aggressive behavior and tail “rattling” mimics the rattlesnake. Although the buzzing sound of a gopher snake’s tail vibrating against the ground sounds nearly identical to the vibration of a rattlesnake’s actual rattle, gopher snakes lack the rattle found on the end of a rattlesnake’s tail. 

Gopher snake Joliet 2

Click on photo for larger image

Photo by Tom Joliet

Rather artistic pose of gopher snake by Tom Juliet’s condo

Look for tail position and shape 

Whether rattling or hissing, the position of the tail differs as well. Rattlers raise their tail when threatened, but bull snakes keep their tail low to the ground. Additionally, a rattlesnake’s tail is wide and blunt, while a gopher snake’s tail is slender and pointed. 

Although not important for identification purposes, another of the obvious differences between a gopher snake and a rattlesnake is their reproductive process. Rattlesnakes give live birth to young, whereas gopher snakes lay eggs. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) gives birth to a brood of six to 21 live young. Gopher snakes, on average, lay two clutches of two to 24 eggs each year.

I don’t know any herpetologists or even anyone who has a pet snake, but it is said that gopher snakes make excellent pets after they’re captured. So here’s another difference between the two: very few people would capture and make a pet out of a rattlesnake…

Whether you are out on the trails or just doing your laundry, watch your step! And know your snakes.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO -

Lana Johnson, Editor -

Tom Johnson, Publisher -

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

Email: with news releases, letters, etc.


Email: for questions about advertising


*The content and ads in this publication do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the publisher.

© 2023 2S Publishing, LLC - All Rights Reserved.