The Top 10 Deadliest Snakes in the United States

Updated on June 17, 2020
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree from UNC Charlotte. He has a keen interest in reptiles, insects, and arachnids.

The 10 most dangerous snakes in North America.
The 10 most dangerous snakes in North America.

10 of the Deadliest Snakes in the U.S.

Throughout the United States and Canada, there exists a handful of snake species capable of causing serious injuries (including death) to humans. While it is true that the majority of snakes are relatively harmless, a small number of North American species are considered extremely dangerous to humans due to their aggressiveness and deadly venom.

This work explores the 10 most dangerous snakes known to currently exist in the United States and Canada. The research presented below analyzes overall venom toxicity and the snake’s potential for human fatalities in the absence of medical care or administration of antivenom.

Selection Criteria

In selecting the snakes presented below, the author makes a number of basic assumptions. Since the majority of venomous snake bites can be effectively treated by antivenom, a presumptive mindset is necessary for the extent and purpose of this study. As such, each of the snakes listed below are analyzed according to their potential for causing human fatalities in the absence of antivenom or rapid medical care. This is a necessary component to this study, as snake bite deaths have been relatively rare in North America since the mid-1900s.

The average (expected) time of death following a bite (without treatment) and venom toxicity are also considered for this study. While imperfect, this criteria offers a reasonable measurement for determining the most dangerous and deadliest snakes of North America.

The Top 10 Deadliest Snakes in North America

  • Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake
  • Tiger Rattlesnake
  • Massasauga Rattlesnake
  • Copperhead
  • Cottonmouth
  • Eastern Coral Snake
  • Timber Rattlesnake
  • Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
  • Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
  • Mojave Rattlesnake

"A rattlesnake loose in the living room tends to end all discussion of animal rights."

— Lance Morrow
The Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake. As its name implies, the snake possesses a bright yellow underbelly that contrasts sharply with its darkened back.
The Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake. As its name implies, the snake possesses a bright yellow underbelly that contrasts sharply with its darkened back. | Source

10. Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake

  • Common Name: Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake
  • Binomial Name: Hydrophis platurus
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Elapidae
  • Genus: Hydrophis
  • Species: H. platurus

The Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake is a venomous snake species first discovered in the Eighteenth-Century. In North America, the snake is found predominantly along the West Coast from California to Northern Peru, but also lives along the coasts of Africa and Southeast Asia. As its name implies, the Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake possesses a yellow underbelly coupled with a dark brown back, making it an easily distinguishable species. The snake is fully adapted to ocean conditions, with the ability to remain underwater for extended periods of time. Typical prey for the snake involves small pelagic fish. Setting up ambush points to engage its prey, the Yellow-Bellied Snake is known to rapidly lunge towards fish, striking rapidly with its sharp jaws with a series of powerful bites.

Venom Characteristics

The Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake possesses a highly potent venom that is similar to other sea snake species. Typical venom yield is approximately 1.0 to 4.0 milligrams, and contains multiple neurotoxins as well as two separate isotoxins. The snake’s venom is known to directly attack the muscular skeletal system of humans, resulting in myoglobinuria, muscular paralysis, as well as renal damage.

Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake Bite Symptoms and Treatment

Symptoms of envenomation include drooping eyelids, extreme fatigue, vomiting, muscle pain and weakness, and abdominal pain. Although deaths from the snake’s bite are rare, due to the availability of effective antivenoms, fatalities have still been recorded over the last few decades. Immediate medical attention should be sought out following any snake bite.

The notorious Tiger Rattlesnake.
The notorious Tiger Rattlesnake. | Source

9. Tiger Rattlesnake

  • Common Name: Tiger Rattlesnake
  • Binomial Name: Crotalus tigris
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Viperidae
  • Genus: Crotalus
  • Species: C. tigris

The Tiger Rattlesnake is a species of highly venomous pit-vipers that is found throughout the Southwestern United States and Northwestern sectors of Mexico. As with most rattlesnakes, the Tiger Rattlesnake can be easily identified by its spade-shaped head, large rattle, and cross-pattern of gray, lavender, blue, and pink. Although relatively small (at only 36 inches, maximum), the snake makes up for its size with its powerful bite that is capable of subduing most wildlife. As a nocturnal species, the Tiger Rattlesnake is known to primarily hunt at night. Typical prey includes small mammals (such as mice and rats), as well as lizards. Although possessing few natural predators, hawks, eagles, and coyotes have been known to pose potential threats to the Tiger Rattlesnake.

Venom Characteristics

The Tiger Rattlesnake contains a highly potent form of venom that is considered to be the second most toxic of all rattlesnake species. The venom contains numerous neurotoxins and myotoxins capable of inflicting serious damage on their victims. Due to the relatively rare number of human bites, however, very little is known about the Tiger Rattlesnake’s effect on human populations. However,

Tiger Rattlesnake Bite Symptoms and Treatment

Due to its inability to fully envenomate (because of its small fangs), the Tiger Rattlesnake’s venom usually produces only localized pain and swelling for humans, with moderate to severe pain. Despite its low venom yields, researchers warn that the Tiger Rattlesnake should not be taken lightly, as children and slim-built adults could face serious envenomation (a life-threatening emergency). As with all snake bites (particularly rattlesnakes), all bites should be considered medical emergencies.

The Massasauga Rattlesnake. Notice its distinct coloration and crossbands.
The Massasauga Rattlesnake. Notice its distinct coloration and crossbands.

8. Massasauga Rattlesnake

  • Common Name: Massasauga Rattlesnake
  • Binomial Name: Sistrurus catenatus
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Viperidae
  • Genus: Sistrurus
  • Species: S. catenatus

The Massasauga Rattlesnake is a highly venomous species of rattlesnake (pit vipers) found in midwestern North America (from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico). Similar to the Tiger Rattlesnake, the Massasauga is relatively small in length, reaching maximum lengths of thirty-inches. The species can be easily recognized due to its grey and tan coloration, and brown/black spots that dot the center of its back. As with most snakes, the Massasauga Rattlesnake feeds primarily on small mammals, including rats and mice. As an opportunistic feeder, however, the snake is also known to consume frogs, lizards, various insects, and the occasional snake as well.

Massasauga Rattlesnake Bite Symptoms and Treatment

As with all rattlesnakes, the Massasauga contains a highly potent venom. The venom is composed of various cytotoxins, enzymes, and neurotoxins known to destroy tissue, disrupt blood flow, and prevent proper clotting. As a result, bites from the Massasauga are known to cause severe internal bleeding, as well as severe pain.

Due to the shy nature of the Massasauga, bites are relatively rare (with only 1 to 2 bites per year, on average). Most bites that occur result from human provocation or by individuals accidentally stepping on the snake while hiking. Fortunately, no fatality from the snake has been reported in forty years, as nearly fifty-percent of its bites are dry (not producing envenomation).

Despite having a deadly form of venom, the snake’s small fangs also make full envenomation difficult. For this reason, antivenom is rarely used for the snake’s bite, as hospitalization alone is usually enough to prevent fatalities. Nevertheless, bites from the Massasauga should always be treated as medical emergencies, as the potential for death (particularly with the young and elderly) remains a constant threat with this species.

The venomous Copperhead.
The venomous Copperhead.

7. Copperhead

  • Common Name: Copperhead
  • Binomial Name: Agkistrodon contortix
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Viperidae
  • Genus: Agkistrodon
  • Species: A. contortix

The Copperhead is a species of pit viper snakes located in the Eastern and Southern United States. There are currently five different subspecies of the Copperhead known to exist in the wild. As its name implies, the Copperhead possesses a pale tan and pink coloration (copper-like) with crossbands of pink, tan, and brown. The Copperhead is relatively small, reaching a maximum length of 37 inches, and prefers a variety of habitats including forests, woodlands, rocky outcroppings, ledges, and swamps. As an ambush-predator, the snake primarily feeds on insects, small frogs, lizards, and mice. Although the Copperhead is relatively aggressive, they are known to “freeze-up” when approached by humans, using their camouflage in an attempt to avoid contact. As a result, most bites are the result of provocation, as well as individuals accidentally stepping on (or near) the snake. Similar to rattlesnakes, the Copperhead is also known to vibrate its tail (upwards of forty times per second) in an attempt to intimidate potential predators.

Venom Characteristics

The Copperhead possesses a venom with a lethal dose of approximately 100 milligrams, making its bite rarely fatal for humans. With the ability to control its venom output, the Copperhead is also known to employ “dry bites” (with only small amounts of venom) to ward off predators before striking a second time.

Copperhead Bite Symptoms and Treatment

In cases of envenomation, symptoms can be severe and include extreme pain, muscle spasms, tingling sensations, swelling, abdominal cramps, nausea, secondary infections, and severe allergic reactions. In bites that involve the hands and feet of humans, the venom is known to cause severe damage to muscle and bone tissue, due to the lack of muscle mass present in the outer extremities. Although antivenom exists to combat the Copperhead’s bite, it is rarely used to treat envenomation as the risk for allergic reactions to the compound is often worse than the snakebite itself. While rarely fatal, researchers warn that Copperhead bites should always be treated as medical emergencies, as complications and the possibility of death (particularly from allergic reactions) is always present with this species.

The dangerous and highly venomous Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin).
The dangerous and highly venomous Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin). | Source

6. Cottonmouth

  • Common Name: Cottonmouth
  • Binomial Name: Agkistrodon piscivorus
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Viperidae
  • Genus: Agkistrodon
  • Species: A. piscivorus

The Cottonmouth is a highly venomous pit viper from the family Viperidae, and is found primarily throughout the Southeastern United States. Also known as the “Water Moccasin,” this snake species is relatively large (reaching lengths of 74 inches), and are well-known for their aggression, as well as their painful and potentially fatal bites. The Cottonmouth is the world’s only semiaquatic viper species, and can usually be found near ponds, streams, lakes, and slow-moving rivers. The Cottonmouth gets its name from the white lining of its mouth (the same color as cotton), and possesses a brown (often times black) body with staggered crossbands of olive-brown, tan, and gray. As a water-based snake, the Cottonmouth primarily feeds on small mammals, birds, fish, frogs, and other snakes.

Venom Characteristics

The Cottonmouth’s venom is highly venomous and contains cytotoxins known to inflict severe damage on muscle and skin tissue (often leaving permanent scars). Some bites cause enough damage to require amputations as well. Although fatalities are rare, due to the availability of antivenom, prompt medical treatment is required following a bite to avoid complications and potential death.

Cottonmouth Bite Symptoms and Treatment

Common symptoms of a Cottonmouth bite include bruising and swelling, severe pain, muscle spasms, and necrosis. Due to the venom’s hemotoxins that prevent blood from clotting or coagulating, extreme bleeding has also been reported among victims, along with problems breathing. Victims of a Cottonmouth bite should seek immediate care to avoid long-term injuries or the possibility of death.

The highly venomous (and extremely dangerous) Eastern Coral Snake.
The highly venomous (and extremely dangerous) Eastern Coral Snake.

5. Eastern Coral Snake

  • Common Name: Eastern Coral Snake
  • Binomial Name: Micrurus fulvius
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Elapidae
  • Genus: Micrurus
  • Species: M. fulvius

The Eastern Coral Snake, also known as the “Common Coral Snake” and “American Cobra,” is a species of highly venomous snake from the Elapidae family (which includes Black Mambas and Cobras). As the name implies, the species is located primarily in the Southeastern United States. Similar in appearance to the Scarlet Kingsnake, the Coral Snake possess a black, yellow, and red color-pattern, and reaches an average length of approximately thirty-one inches (making it a relatively small snake). The Coral Snake can often be found living in forests, flatwoods, as well as lightly vegetated areas. As with most snakes, the Coral Snake primarily feeds on insects, small mice, lizards, frogs, and a variety of smaller snakes (including other Coral Snakes if the opportunity arises).

Venom Characteristics

The Eastern Coral Snake has a highly potent venom that is capable of killing the equivalent of five adults in cases of full envenomation (within only one to two hours). Despite being highly venomous, the Eastern Coral Snake is not known to be aggressive towards humans, with bites and fatalities being relatively rare (less than 100 bites per year). During the last seventy years, only two fatalities from the snake have been reported (in both cases, the victims failed to seek medical attention). Antivenom for Eastern Coral Snake bites is also available, and is nearly 100-percent effective in neutralizing the effects of its venomous bite. This is in stark contrast to pre-antivenom years (pre-1960s), where fatality rates from the Coral Snake’s bite were estimated to be nearly 20-percent.

Containing powerful neurotoxins, the Eastern Coral Snake is capable of delivering more than 12 milligrams of venom into their victims (lethal dose for humans is approximately 4 to 5 milligrams). Fortunately, this rarely occurs, as nearly forty-percent of the snake’s bites are “dry” and contain minuscule amounts of venom. Nevertheless, bites from Eastern Coral Snakes should always be treated as medical emergencies.

The deadly Timber Rattlesnake.
The deadly Timber Rattlesnake. | Source

4. Timber Rattlesnake

  • Common Name: Timber Rattlesnake
  • Binomial Name: Crotalus horridus
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Viperidae
  • Genus: Crotalus
  • Species: C. horridus

The Timber Rattlesnake is a species of highly venomous pit vipers that are located in the Eastern United States. This relatively large snake, which reaches lengths of approximately sixty inches, is easily distinguished by its brown coloration, rattle, and crossbands of brown, black, yellow, and gray. The snake prefers rugged terrain, and often lives within forests, rocky ledges, and dense woodlands with plenty of local vegetation to keep it shielded from predators and the elements. As an ambush-predator, the Timber Rattlesnake is known to use logs and other debris as ambush sites, waiting for prey to come into striking distance. Primary food sources for the rattlesnake include squirrels, mice, rats, shrews, juvenile rabbits, birds, and small lizards.

Venom Characteristics

The Timber Rattlesnake is one of the deadliest snakes in North America due to its large fangs and high venom yield (containing neurotoxins, hematoxins, and myotoxins). Although generally timid, the snake is well-known for its painful bite that is capable of inflicting serious damage on its victims.

Timber Rattlesnake Bite Symptoms and Treatment

Common symptoms of a Timber Rattlesnake bite include muscle pain and spasms, extreme bleeding, as well as defibrination, in which large blood clots form throughout the body causing chest pain, difficulty breathing, difficulty speaking, and eventually death. Other common symptoms include swelling, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. Fortunately, bites are rarely fatal due to the abundance of CroFab Antivenom that is highly effective in neutralizing the venom’s effects (if medical treatment is sought out promptly). Moreover, the Timber Rattlesnake’s bite, while painful, are often “dry” bites containing little to no venom. As with all rattlesnake bites, however, any bite from a Timber Rattlesnake should be considered as a medical emergency.

The extremely dangerous Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.
The extremely dangerous Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.

3. Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

  • Common Name: Western Diamondback
  • Binomial Name: Crotalus atrox
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Viperidae
  • Genus: Crotalus
  • Species: C. atrox

The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, also known as the “Texas Diamondback,” is a highly venomous species of rattlesnake found in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. The snake is relatively large, with a maximum length of nearly seven feet. Similar to other rattlesnake species, the Western Diamondback is grayish-brown in color, and is distinguishable by its series of dark brown/gray “diamond” bands that dot is back (hence its name).

The snake prefers dryer climates, and is commonly found in desert regions, as well as grasslands, and pine-oak forests. The Western Diamondback tends to spend most of its time around rocky canyons and hills due to the heat-retention of these areas (particularly in the winter and fall). The snake is one of the most aggressive rattlesnake species in the United States, and will actively strike when threatened. Due to its large size, the snake has few predators aside from hawks, other snakes, wild hogs, roadrunners, and eagles, and typically feeds on small mammals, including squirrels, cottontail rabbits, moles, mice, rats, voles, gophers, and prairie dogs. Other common prey includes birds, lizards, and various insects.

Venom Characteristics

The Western Diamondback is highly venomous and is capable of inflicting tremendous damage on its victims due to the presence of hemotoxins, cytotoxins, myotoxins, proteolytic enzymes.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Bite Symptoms and Treatment

In bites involving humans, the venom is known to attack skin and muscle tissue directly, and causes severe bleeding. Other more common symptoms include internal bleeding, swelling, bruising, blistering, necrosis, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, diarrhea, and convulsions. If left untreated, individuals are known to experience cardiovascular system failure and severe blood loss, often leading to death in as many as 20-percent of its bites. For this reason, Western Diamondback bites are medical emergencies requiring prompt attention, with antivenoms available to combat the effects of their venom.

The deadly Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake.
The deadly Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. | Source

2. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

  • Common Name: Eastern Diamondback
  • Binomial Name: Crotalus adamanteus
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Viperidae
  • Genus: Crotalus
  • Species: C. adamanteus

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is a species of highly venomous snakes from the Viperidae family. The snake is considered one of the largest snakes in North America, with a maximum length of nearly 8.5 feet, and an impressive weight of thirty-four pounds (average). As with most rattlesnake species, the Eastern Diamondback is easily recognizable due to its large rattle, its brown, yellow, and gray coloration, as well as the “diamond” pattern that dots its back.

As a terrestrial species, the Eastern Diamondback spends most of its time hunting along the ground for a variety of prey. These include small rabbits, rats, birds, mice, lizards, insects, and squirrels. Due to its relatively slow speed, the Eastern Diamondback typically sets up ambush points to subdue local prey, delivering a powerful bite with its massive fangs and potent venom that is capable of dropping small animals with ease. Currently, the snake can be found primarily in the Southeastern United States, showing a preference for dry pine forests, palmetto flatwoods, marshes, sandhills, swamps, maritime hammocks, and prairies.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake Bite Symptoms and Treatment

The Eastern Diamondback’s venom is extremely toxic. Bites currently have fatality rates of approximately 30-percent due to the snake’s large fangs which are capable of injecting massive amounts of venom into their victims. Containing low-molecular-weight peptides, as well as a thrombin-like enzyme known as crotalase, the venom often induces hemorrhaging, muscle pain and spasms, hypotension, severe pain, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps. Without medical treatment, the venom often causes its victims to enter cardiac arrest within hours, leading to death. Although antivenoms exist to combat the venom’s effects, rapid medical treatment (including hospitalization) should be sought out immediately to prevent long-term complications.

The Mojave Green Rattlesnake; the most dangerous snake in North America.
The Mojave Green Rattlesnake; the most dangerous snake in North America.

1. Mojave Rattlesnake

  • Common Name: Mojave Rattlesnake
  • Binomial Name: Crotalus scutulatus
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Viperidae
  • Genus: Crotalus
  • Species: C. scutulatus

The Mojave Rattlesnake, also known as the “Mojave Green,” is a species of pit viper from the Viperidae family, and is considered the deadliest snake in North America due to its powerful, deadly venom. Found predominantly in the Southwestern United States and Central Mexico, the snake is relatively large, reaching lengths of approximately 3.3 to 4.5 feet. Similar to other rattlesnake species, the Mojave Rattlesnake’s coloration often varies between brown and light green, with a large rattle possessing white bands around its tail (making it easily recognizable).

Common prey of the Mojave Rattlesnake includes small mammals, amphibians, lizards, insects, birds, and other snakes. Due to its preference for warm and dry conditions, the snake primarily inhabits desert-like areas and mountain slopes, as well as grassy plains, and lowland areas with sparse vegetation. Aside from hawks and eagles, the Mojave Rattlesnake possesses few natural predators due to its extremely aggressive behavior, large fangs, and toxic venom that is capable of subduing most attacking animals.

Mojave Rattlesnake Bite Symptoms and Treatment

The Mojave Rattlesnake’s venom is highly potent, with a toxicity that rivals elapid species (including the King Cobra and Black Mamba). Although most of the Mojave Rattlesnake’s bites have delayed symptoms (prompting individuals to underestimate the overall severity of the wound), within hours, serious complications begin to arise involving vision problems, difficulty breathing and swallowing, inability to speak, muscle weakness and spasms, as well as severe pain.

Left untreated, the snake’s venom (which contains neurotoxins) often leads to cardiac arrest or respiratory failure within hours of being bitten. Fortunately, fatalities from the Mojave Rattlesnake are relatively rare due to the availability of CroFab; an antivenom that has been in development for the last fifty years. Prior to the development of this antivenom, fatality rates from the Mojave Rattler were estimated to be around 25 to 30-percent. CroFab uses portions of the Mojave Rattlesnake’s venom in its manufacture, and is highly efficient against the snake’s bite. Nevertheless, bites from the Mojave Rattlesnake should always be treated as medical emergencies to avoid long-term complications or the possibility of death.

If you are bitten by a snake, it is essential that you follow these basic medical guidelines to prevent long-term complications or death.
If you are bitten by a snake, it is essential that you follow these basic medical guidelines to prevent long-term complications or death.

Works Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Larry Slawson

Comments

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    • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Slawson 

      7 months ago from North Carolina

      Thank you for the comments everyone :)

      I'm glad everyone enjoyed this article.

    • abwilliams profile image

      A B Williams 

      7 months ago from Central Florida

      We live in Florida, in the middle of the woods and we've had (1) diamondback (I think he was lost) (4) corals and several water moccasins (we have a small fishing pond) to contend with over the years. However, most of the snakes we come in contact with are harmless.

      Good job on this.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      7 months ago from Ohio

      Great rundown on venomous snakes I may run into living in the USA. I have had to deal with rattlesnakes a few times in NM and CA. I have also seen people with compartment syndrome from bites.

    • emge profile image

      MG Singh 

      8 months ago from Singapore

      Great information on snakes. Come to think of it the deadliest snake is in India - the king cobra..

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 months ago from Sunny Florida

      This is certainly a great list of dangerous snakes and I do not want to see any of them close up. Your pictures and informaiton is very good.

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 

      8 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Funny thing, Cheryl, but that is the same way they think of us.

    • Cheryl E Preston profile image

      Cheryl E Preston 

      8 months ago from Roanoke

      Snakes give me the creeps

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