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The American Copperhead

(Agkistrodon contortrix)

by Jay Sharp

The American Copperhead

The American Copperhead

The decorative but dangerous American copperhead holds membership in the pit viper family—those venomous snakes that include cottonmouth water moccasins and rattlesnakes.

Copperhead Characteristics

The American copperhead, with five subspecies, occurs over much of the southern two thirds of the eastern United States.

  • Size and Weight: The adult copperhead, which has a relatively thick body, typically measures two to three feet in length and weighs one-half to three-quarters of a pound.

  • Head: The copperhead has a somewhat flattened and roughly triangular-shaped head capped with a solid copper color. The intensity of the color varies with the subspecies and the location. On each side of the face, between the nostril and the eye, the copperhead – like other pit vipers – has two special heat-sensing pit-like organs. Its eyes have vertical elliptical-shaped pupils. Like other snakes, it has a forked tongue. From newborn to adult, it has hollow, folding fangs at the front of the mouth. An adult's fangs typically measure about half an inch in length.

  • Body: Generally, says authority Bree Herrmann, copperheads have "reddish-brown, coppery bodies with chestnut brown crossbands..." The male has a somewhat longer tail than the female, while the female has somewhat longer overall length.

  • Species' Body Crossband Patterns: According to Roger Conant, A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America:

    1. The northern copperhead (A. contortrix mokasen) has crossbands that are wide along the sides and narrowing along the back. It has spots on its back between the bands.

    2. The southern copperhead (A. contortrix contortrix) has crossbands that are wide along the sides and that are distinctively constricting, usually not even joining, along the back.

    3. The Osage copperhead (A. contortrix phaeogaster) has crossbands similar to, but darker than, those of the northern copperhead, and it has no spots between the crossbands.

    4. The broad-banded copperhead (A. contortrix laticinctus) has crossbands that are wide at the sides and irregularly shaped along the snake's back.

    5. The Trans-Pecos copperhead has crossbands that are wide at the sides and irregularly shaped along the back but that also are marked by a pale patch on the sides, at the base of the bands. Additionally, it has a strongly patterned belly.

      The snake's cross banding and coloration provide excellent camouflage in its usual habitats.

  • Senses: Like other pit vipers, the copperhead has several senses that enhance its ability to hunt, for example:

    1. The heat-sensing organs on its face apparently produce, in its brain, an infrared-like image of a warm-blooded prey, allowing detection and tracking even in total darkness.

    2. The elliptical shaped, cat-like pupils of its eyes provide superior vision for hunting at night.

    3. The forked tongue continually samples the air, delivering particles to its Jacobson's organs – tiny sacs on the roof of the snake's mouth – which serve as odor detectors of potential prey, again facilitating night hunting.


The Bite

The copperhead – typically so well camouflaged that it may often be difficult to see and avoid – bites more people than any other snake in North America, injecting its venom through its hollow fangs into the tissue of its victim. Although it "has the least toxic venom of all venomous snakes in the United States," says a University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences article on the copperhead, its bite can have serious, though rarely fatal, consequences. After a bite, the venom immediately begins destroying red blood cells, triggering rapid hemorrhaging. In addition to intense pain, said Herrmann, it can cause conditions such as swelling, fever, sweating, nausea, unconsciousness and gangrene. (Should you suffer a copperhead bite, try to verify the identity of the species. Keep the bitten site as nearly immobile as possible and lower than the heart. Try to remain as calm as possible to minimize the heart's pumping of the venom through your body. Get medical attention as promptly as possible!)

Distribution, Habitat and Diet

The American copperhead's range extends from Massachusetts southwestward to Texas' Big Bend. It encompasses much of our Atlantic and Gulf coasts (excepting the Florida and southernmost Texas coasts) as well as the southern plains. The northern and southern copperheads occupy the eastern two thirds of the range, and the Osage, broad-banded and Trans-Pecos subspecies occupy the westernmost part of the range. Ranges overlap in various areas.

The copperhead occupies a variety of different habitats, varying from pine and deciduous forests to mixed woodlands to various wetlands. It seems to especially prefer rocky outcrops and ledges, where its coloration and pattern blend into the terrain. It may climb low shrubs or trees in pursuit of prey. It may even take to water. It may also be drawn to human neighborhoods, especially to sites with features such as wood piles, building debris, rock walls, flat stone structures and compost piles. They may also turn up in flower beds and around porches and outdoor steps. (In copperhead-infested country, you should consider keeping a clear yard, wearing protective clothing, and maintaining a careful watch. If you are especially concerned, you might also consider a snake repelling device that transmits vibrations through the ground.)

The copperhead preys primarily on small mammals, particularly mice, but, says the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, it will also eat "small birds, lizards, small snakes, amphibians, and insects—especially cicadas." Usually, it lies in wait and ambushes its prey. The copperhead keeps a fanged hold on a small prey until it dies, then swallows it whole. If the snake strikes a larger prey, it immediately releases its hold. Using its senses, it tracks the larger prey while the venom takes its lethal effect. It then overtakes and swallows its victim. It hunts through the day during the spring and fall and through the night during hot summer periods.

Behavior and Life Cycle

Copperheads lead a sociable lifestyle. Several may inhabit the same area, sunning, courting, mating, hunting and drinking. They may migrate to common underground denning sites in the fall and return to their feeding grounds in the spring. They may even share dens with other species, including, for instance, rattlesnakes.

Copperheads reach sexual maturity at about three to four years of age. They mate in the spring and fall, seasons when the males tend to become combative—grappling and trying, like reptilian wrestlers, to pin each other to the ground, presumably to demonstrate their prowess and sexual attractiveness. Meanwhile, a female prepared to mate secretes chemicals known as "pheromones," which a male detects by sampling the air with his tongue. When mating, a male and female engage in an elaborate reptilian ritual, with the courtship often lasting an hour or more and the intercourse lasting several hours. Immediately after mating, the male secretes pheromones that render the female unattractive to other males.

The male’s pheromones notwithstanding, the female mates only once each year. If she has mated during the spring, she may deliver her offspring, usually two to ten, about three months later. They arrive, not as eggs, but as fully active young, each measuring seven to ten inches in length and weighing less than an ounce. If she mates during the fall, she may store the sperm in her body through the winter, extending the gestation period for months, until spring or early summer. She promptly sends her newborn on their way, offering no further care.

The baby copperhead arrives ready to feed and defend itself. It soon begins preying on insects, with a special taste for caterpillars. Instinctively, it uses its yellow-tipped tail – a distinctive feature of the young copperhead – as a wiggling lure to attract prey. It is prepared to employ its fully armed fangs in defending itself. With luck, the young copperhead can expect live for nearly two decades in the wild.

The Copperhead's Perils

With bad luck, the copperhead becomes a meal for a predatory bird, a kingsnake or even a feral hog. It is, however, most endangered by humans, who may kill it and destroy its habitat. Nevertheless, it currently remains safe as a species across its range.

Interesting Facts

The copperhead has a number of common names, including, for instance, "chunk head," "dry-land moccasin," "pilot snake," "cantil cobrizo" and "death adder."

In ideal habitats with sufficient prey, copperhead populations may number as many as three or four per acre.

Should a copperhead lose a fang, it soon produces a replacement from a set of five to seven spares located in the gums, just above and behind the original fang.

"In a recent 10-year study, 308 copperhead bites were reported," said The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "Not a single person died from the copperhead bite."



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