It’s becoming that time of the year again friends. The warming weather may start bringing the critters out of their nesting areas. Be prepared, by studying up on the difference between bullsnakes and rattlesnakes below.

by WenOut Staff
Lisa Robinson sent us some snake info and a question. We did a little research to answer her question.

Lisa writes: Not sure if it’s the run of hot weather or just our yard, but we’ve seen about 6-8 snakes the last couple of days… My husband said he saw two big and one small bull snakes and several rattlers. Which brings up a question: Is there any truth to the tale that having bull snakes keeps rattlers out of the area? Someone told me that there used to be lots of bull snakes [around the river trail] and when they freaked people out they were supposedly removed–and that’s why the rattlers have moved in.

Bullsnakes have narrow, pointed tails and narrow heads with eyes farther to the side.

We’ll answer this question below, but first, a few notes on the differences between bullsnakes and rattlesnakes. The two are easily confused, often causing bullsnakes to unjustly suffer the lash from those who are rattler-phobics.

Bullsnakes (aka gopher snakes) have pointed tails without rattles. Confusingly, they may vibrate their tail when threatened, producing a sound like a rattle in dry grass. To tell the two snakes apart, look for the rattle and note the tail position. Rattlers raise their tail when threatened, but bullsnakes keep their tail low to the ground.

The two snakes also have distinct heads. Rattlesnakes have triangular heads that are wider than their body, while bullsnakes have narrow heads streamlined to their body. Bullsnakes have eyes on the side of their head with circular pupils. Rattlers have eyes that are more forward-facing and have slit-like pupils.

The head is well camouflaged in this photo but, when you find it, note its triangular shape and the vertical slit of the pupil. Of course if you’re scared of snakes you may have trouble getting close enough to look either snake in the eye.

Now, to answer Lisa’s question about whether bullsnakes keep rattlesnakes on the lam, we found this article from Denver zookeeper and rattlesnake researcher Bryon Shipley. In it, Bryon lays out and lays low some of the most common bullsnake myths:

1. Bullsnakes eat rattlesnake eggs.
2. Bullsnakes eat rattlesnakes.
3. Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes breed together.
4. Bullsnakes chase away rattlesnakes.

The myths, debunked:
1. Bullsnakes eat rattlesnake eggs:  Since rattlesnakes do not lay eggs, this cannot be true. Rattlesnake eggs hatch within their bodies; consequently young rattlesnakes are born live.
2. Bullsnakes eat rattlesnakes: A thorough search of the literature and discussions with researchers who study both snakes has revealed next to nothing that supports the idea that bullsnakes eat rattlesnakes. Bullsnakes are primarily consumers of warm-blooded prey. In one instance, the body of a small rattlesnake showed up in the gut of a bullsnake, but no information exists on whether the ingested rattlesnake was already deceased or even what species it was. It is possible that a young bullsnake may eat a lizard, but no rattlesnake population could be significantly affected by bullsnakes. The natural mortal enemy of rattlesnakes is, in fact, the kingsnake.

Bull or rattlesnake? Rattlesnake, with triangular head and forward-facing eyes. Venomous snakes bite 8,000 people in the U.S. annually, but only 10-15 of these bites are fatal. In other words, each American has a 0.0000048% chance of dying from snake bite. Still, if you’re bitten: immobilize the wound and seek immediate medical attention.

3. Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes breed together:  Rattlesnakes and bullsnakes commonly hibernate together, along with other snakes and amphibians. Rattlesnakes are live-bearers and bullsnakes are egg layers, and even within the reptile group, where breeding between species of like physiology can happen (i.e. egg layers with egg layers, live-bearers with live-bearers), successful breeding between egg layers and live-bearers could never occur due to the biology involved.
4. Bullsnakes chase away rattlesnakes: Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes have always coexisted in their habitat. Their activity schedules in a season can be very different. The sudden disappearance of rattlesnakes in mid-spring results from their switching to a nocturnal schedule, when they are not as noticeable as they were in early spring.

Other Myths:
• Bullsnakes kept in your tent keep rattlesnakes away.
• Bullsnakes kill rattlesnakes for sport.
• Bullsnake bites are worse because of the infection that results.
• Bullsnakes are venomous.
• Bullsnakes eat all of the rattlesnakes’ food.

Photo from Lisa Robinson. Bull or rattlesnake? The eyes of this snake are on the side of the head and the pupils are very round. That makes it a bullsnake.

To learn more about the differences between bullsnakes and rattlesnakes, read Bryon Shipley’s entire article here.

Bull or rattlesnake? If you don’t get this one: Go directly to jail. Do not pass ‘Go.’ Do not collect $200.

First published 5/22/2013. Reprinted with some new information and new pictures 6/01/2015.

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