Northern Rough Greensnake

Opheodrys aestivus aestivus

written by Adam Mann


Adult Northern Rough Greensnake captured in Milton, Cabell County.
Photo by Adam Mann

Natural History


This small to medium sized, slender snake has bright green scales on the dorsal surface of the head, body and tail.  The ventral surface is uniformly light green, yellowish, or cream colored.  The dorsal scales are keeled and total 17 at midbody; the anal plate is divided (Green and Pauley, 1987).  Individuals may grow to almost 4 feet, but the tail comprises about one-third of that length.  There is little distinction between males and females, except in size.  Juveniles are colored and patterned as adults (Mitchell, 1994).

Similar Species:

Greensnakes are easily recognized by people  of all ages due to their bright coloration.  In West Virginia, Northern Rough Greensnakes can only be confused with Smooth Greensnakes (Opheodrys vernalis), which are also a brilliant green color.  Smooth Greensnakes are generally smaller, less slender, and have smooth scales (Conant and Collins, 1998).  Smooth Greensnakes are usually found in the higher elevations of the mountains.

Habitat and Habits:

Northern Rough Greensnakes are quick and agile climbers.  Their long slender bodies lend greatly to an arboreal lifestyle because they resemble and sometimes imitate vegetation such as vines and branches.  They are most frequently seen in microhabitats such as vines, bushes, shrubs or trees rather than near the ground.  While not aquatic, they are often found near moist habitats such as marsh or river edges and have been seen crossing bodies of water (Ernst and Barbour, 1989).  It is not uncommon to see them in or near disturbed areas such as backyards and road edges. 

Northern Rough Greensnakes feed exclusively on live invertebrates, which they swallow whole.  Their prey mainly falls into three groups: lepidopteran larvae (caterpillars), grasshoppers and crickets, and spiders (Mitchell, 1994).  They are completely diurnal, spending much of their time basking or foraging in broad daylight.  At night, they remain dormant inside bushes or shrubs (Ernst and Barbour, 1989).

Northern Rough Greensnakes are not aggressive when handled, and rarely try to bite.  When captured, they attempt escape first and then quickly calm down.  If startled, they have been known to gape their mouth and release musk from glands in their cloaca.  Because of their tranquil nature and beautiful coloration, they are one of the few snakes in the state that do not elicit a fearful response from people when encountered.


Northern Rough Greensnakes emerge from hibernation later in the year (and return to hibernation earlier in the year) than any other native snakes.  Females lay one clutch of 3 to 14 small, elliptical eggs in loose or sandy soil, tree cavities or decaying logs from late June through July.  Hatchlings that are about 7 inches long emerge after a short incubation period of 6 and 12 weeks (Green and Pauley, 1987).  The young snakes mature in one or two years.


Northern Rough Greensnakes are common at low elevations in the western half of the state and in the eastern panhandle, but are absent in the mountains where Smooth Greensnakes are found.  Due to their green camouflage, they are very rarely seen as they hide among vines and branches.



The Northern Rough Greensnake is not listed as rare, threatened or endangered on the state or federal level.  The rarity of individual sightings is mainly due to the secretive and shy nature of these snakes.


Interesting Facts

1)  Etymology: “Opheodrys” is derived from the Greek word “ophios” meaning “snake”, an “drys” meaning “tree” (Mitchell, 1994).  This describes its arboreal nature. The word “aestivus” is Latin for “summer”, implying the snake’s tendency to be more numerous during the hottest months of the year.

2)  Rough Greensnakes are often called “garden snakes”, “grass snakes” and “vine snakes” by people in different areas.

3)  Rough Greensnake numbers may be reduced in areas due to the application of insecticides, which essentially eliminate their source of food.


Conant, Roger, and Joseph Collins.  1998.  A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern/Central North America.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Ernst, C.H. and R.W. Barbour.  1989.  Snakes of Eastern North America.  Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press.

Green, N. Bayard, and Thomas K. Pauley.  1987.  Amphibians and Reptiles in West Virginia.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Mitchell, Joseph C.  1994.  The Reptiles of Virginia.  Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.



Page created by Adam Mann
Last Updated - February 2003
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