Copperhead snakes: Facts, bites & babies (2023)

Copperhead snakes: Facts, bites & babies (1)

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  • Characteristics
  • Habitat
  • Behaviour
  • Diet
  • Reproduction
  • Classification and taxonomy
  • Bite
  • Research
  • Other facts
  • Additional resources

Copperhead snakes are some of the more commonly seen North American snakes. They're also the most likely to bite, although their venom is relatively mild, and their bites are rarely fatal for humans.

These snakes get their name, fittingly, from their copper-red heads, according to the biology department at Pennsylvania State University (opens in new tab). Some other snakes are referred to as copperheads, which is a common (nonscientific) name.Water moccasins (cottonmouths), radiated rat snakes, Australian copperheads and sharp-nosed pit vipers are all sometimes called copperheads, but these are different species from the North American copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix).

Copperheads are pit vipers, like rattlesnakes and water moccasins. Pit vipers have "heat-sensory pits between eye and nostril on each side of head," which are able to detect minute differences in temperatures so that the snakes can accurately strike the source of heat, which is often potential prey. Copperhead "behavior is very much like that of most other pit vipers," said herpetologist Jeff Beane, collections manager of amphibians and reptiles at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (opens in new tab).

Characteristics

Copperheads are medium-size snakes, averaging between 2 and 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 meters) in length. According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (opens in new tab), female copperheads are longer than males; however, males possess proportionally longer tails.

(Video) Baby Copperhead: How to identify Baby Copperhead Snake?

According to Beane, copperheads' bodies are distinctly patterned. Their "dorsal pattern is a series of dark, chestnut-brown or reddish-brown crossbands, each shaped like an hourglass, dumbbell or saddlebag … on a background of lighter brown, tan, salmon or pinkish," Beane said. He further described the saddlebags as "wide on sides of body, narrow in center of back — the crossbands typically have darker margins and lighter lateral centers." Meanwhile, "some crossbands may be broken, and sometimes small dark spots may be in the spaces between the crossbands."

Several other nonvenomous species of snakes have similar coloring, and so are frequently confused for copperheads. However, copperheads are the only kind of snakes with hourglass-shaped markings.

In contrast to its patterned body, the snake's coppery-brown head lacks such adornments, "except for a pair of tiny dark dots usually present on top of the head," said Beane. He described copperheads' bellies as "whitish, yellowish or a light brownish, stippled or mottled, with brown, gray or blackish, often large, paired dark spots or smudges along sides of [its] belly."

Copperheads have muscular, thick bodies and keeled (ridged) scales. Their heads are "somewhat triangular/arrow-shaped and distinct from the neck," with a "somewhat distinct ridge separating [the] top of head from side snout between eye and nostril," said Beane. Their pupils are vertical, like cats' eyes, and their irises are usually orange, tan or reddish-brown.

Young copperheads are more grayish in color than adults and possess "bright yellow or greenish yellow tail tips." According to Beane, "this color fades in about a year."

Habitat

Copperheads reside "from southern New England to West Texas and northern Mexico," said Beane, advising those interested to check out range maps in a number of field guides.

Copperhead snakes: Facts, bites & babies (2)

There are five subspecies of copperhead distributed according to geographic range: the northern, northwestern, southern and two southwestern subspecies. According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (opens in new tab), the northern copperhead has by far the largest range, from Alabama to Massachusetts and Illinois.

According to Beane, copperheads are happy in "an extremely wide range of habitats," though usually "at least some semblance of woods or forest habitat is present." They are "particularly fond of ecotones," which are transition areas between two ecological communities. They like rocky, wooded areas, mountains, thickets near streams, desert oases, canyons and other natural environments, according to Penn State; Beane added that they like "almost any habitat with both sunlight and cover."

According to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (opens in new tab), copperheads are "quite tolerant of habitat alteration." This means that they can survive well in suburban areas. Copperheads can sometimes be found in wood and sawdust piles, abandoned farm buildings, junkyards and old construction areas. They "often seek shelter under surface cover such as boards, sheet metal, logs or large flat rocks," said Beane.

(Video) Tiny.... but Deadly? - The baby Copperhead!

Behaviour

Copperheads are semi-social snakes. While they usually hunt alone, they usually hibernate in communal dens and often return to the same den every year. Beane said that populations in the "montane" (a forest area below the timberline with large, coniferous trees) often spend the winter hibernating "with timber rattlesnakes, rat snakes or other species." However, "Piedmont and Coastal Plain snakes are more likely to hibernate individually," Beane said.They also can be seen near one another while basking in the sun, drinking, eating and courting, according to the Smithsonian Zoo.

According to the Ohio Public Library Information Network (opens in new tab), copperheads are usually out and about during the day in the spring and fall, but during the summer they become nocturnal. They especially like being out on humid, warm nights after rain. While they usually stay on the ground, copperheads will sometimes climb into low bushes or trees in search of prey or to bask in the sun. Sometimes, they even voluntarily go swimming.

According to Animal Diversity Web (opens in new tab) (ADW), a database maintained by the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, scientists have hypothesized that copperheads migrate late in the spring to their summer feeding area, then return home in early fall.

Diet

He described copperheads as being "mobile ambush predators." Mostly, they get their prey by "sit-and-wait ambush"; however, they sometimes do hunt, using their heat-sensing pits to find prey.

The ADW explains that when attacking large prey, copperheads bite the victim, and then release it. They let the venom work, and then track down the prey once it has died. The snakes usually hold smaller prey in their mouths until the victim dies. Copperheads eat their food whole, using their flexibly hinged jaws to swallow the meal. According to Penn State, adult copperheads may eat only 10 or 12 meals per year, depending on the size of their dinners.

Reproduction

Copperhead mating season lasts from February to May and from late August to October, and it can be a dramatic affair. "Males may engage in ritual combat (body-shoving contests) when two or more meet in the presence of a receptive female," said Beane. According to Penn State, the snakes that lose rarely challenge again. A female may also fight prospective partners, and will always reject males who back down from a fight with her.

Copperhead snakes: Facts, bites & babies (3)

(Video) Baby Copperhead Identification Tips and More Information!

Copperheads are ovoviviparous, which means that eggs incubate inside the mother's body. Babies are born live. After mating in the spring, females will give birth to "from two to 18 live young in late summer or fall," said Beane. According to The Maryland Zoo (opens in new tab), after mating in the fall, the female will store sperm and defer fertilization for months, until she has finished hibernating. Baby copperheads are born with fangs and venom as potent as an adult's, according to the Smithsonian Zoo.

Young copperheads are 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 cm) long and are born with both fangs and venom, according to Penn State. They eat mostly insects, especially caterpillars.

Beane pointed out that young copperheads may exhibit different hunting patterns than adults. "Young snakes may sit otherwise motionless, flicking their yellow tail tips," he said. "This is known as 'caudal luring'; the tail resembles a small caterpillar or other insect and may attract a lizard or frog [to come] within striking range."

Classification and taxonomy

According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (opens in new tab) (ITIS), the taxonomy of copperheads is:

Kingdom: Animalia Subkingdom: Bilateria Infrakingdom: Deuterostomia Phylum: Chordata Subphylum: Vertebrata Infraphylum: Gnathostomata Superclass: Tetrapoda Class: Reptilia Order: Squamata Suborder: Serpentes Infraorder: Alethinophidia Family: Viperidae Subfamily: Crotalinae Genus & species: Agkistrodon contortrix Subspecies:

  • Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix (Southern copperhead),
  • Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus (broad-banded copperhead),
  • Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen (Northern copperhead),
  • Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster (Osage copperhead)
  • Agkistrodon contortrix pictigaster (trans-Pecos copperhead)

Bite

Copperheads bite more people in most years than any other U.S. species of snake, according to the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension Service (opens in new tab). Fortunately, copperhead venom is not very potent.

(opens in new tab)

Unlike most venomous snakes, copperheads give no warning signs and strike almost immediately if they feel threatened. Copperheads have hemotoxic venom, said Beane, which means that a copperhead bite "often results in temporary tissue damage in the immediate area of bite." Their bite may be painful but is "very rarely (almost never) fatal to humans." Children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems may have strong reactions to the venom, however, and anyone who is bitten by a copperhead should seek medical attention.

(Video) Baby copperhead snake season

Despite this, Beane thinks you should still let a Copperhead snake live in your back yard. He told North Carolina's Blue Ridge Public Radio (opens in new tab) that, "if you encounter them and they're coiled up somewhere where they want to be, they'll remain completely still and hope that you don't see them or bother them... If you do disturb them, the first thing they'll probably do is try to get away. If you move them... they're going to try to get back to something that's familiar."

Bean also talked about the benefits of having a Copperhead near your house: "They eat a lot of species that we don't like, like mice and rats, that can cause diseases and problems. And [by] eating a lot of rodents, snakes are swallowing a lot of ticks. And ticks cause things like Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease. One study showed that snakes are significant tick destroyers in Eastern forest sites."

Research

According to recent research on the US National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab), snake venom in general is "recognized as a potential resource of biologically active compounds" that can be used in cancer treatments. Scientists have found that a chemical in copperhead venom may be helpful in stopping the growth of cancerous tumors. Researchers at the University of Southern California injectedthe protein contortrostatin from the southern copperhead's venom,directlyintothe mammary glands of micewherehuman breast cancer cellshad been injected two weeks earlier.

The injection of the protein inhibited the growth of the tumor and also slowed the growth of blood vessels that supply the tumor with nutrients. The venom's protein also impaired the spread of the tumor to the lungs,one sitewhere breast cancer spreadseffectively.

Other facts

  • The length of a copperhead's fangs is related to the length of the snake — the longer the snake, the longer the fangs.
  • When touched, copperheads sometimes emit a musk that smells like cucumbers.
  • The penny is sometimes called a copperhead.
  • Northern Democrats who opposed the U.S. Civil War were called Copperheads, according to the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (opens in new tab).

Additional resources

How dangerous are copperheads? The Cooperative Extension Service at North Carolina State University puts it simply: "Avoid Copperhead snakes! (opens in new tab)" Learn more about copperheads on the Animal Diversity Web (opens in new tab). Check out the Smithsonian Zoo's detailed fact sheet about copperheads (opens in new tab).

Originally published on Live Science Dec. 16, 2021 and updated July 31, 2022.

FAQs

What happens if you get bit by a baby copperhead? ›

Redness, swelling, bruising, bleeding or blistering around the bite. Severe pain and tenderness at the site of the bite. Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Labored breathing (in extreme cases, breathing may stop altogether)

How many babies does a copperhead have? ›

Copperheads typically mate in spring, although fall mating can also occur. They usually give birth to 3–10 young in August or September.

Do baby copperheads dump all their venom? ›

Fiction that we hope you'll find useful for understanding “baby copperhead season” better. Claim 1: Baby copperheads can't control their bites, so they end up excreting a lot more venom, which makes them more deadly than adult copperheads. Verdict: False.

What do baby copperheads eat? ›

Young copperheads eat mostly insects, especially caterpillars, and use their yellow tipped tails to function as a worm-like lure to attract prey.

Which bite is worse copperhead or rattlesnake? ›

Clinical effects after Crotalinae envenomation are generally more severe in patients with rattlesnake envenomation than from copperhead and cottonmouth species. However, fatalities are rare for any snakebite in the United States [5].

What does a baby copperhead bite feel like? ›

Severe pain at the site of the bite. Nausea and vomiting. Labored breathing (in extreme cases, breathing may stop altogether) Disturbed vision.

Do baby copperheads travel together? ›

If you ever encounter one baby copperhead, you're likely to encounter another one. Contrary to urban legend, copperheads don't travel in pairs, but you might very well find more than one (or even a lot) in a small area after they're born.

Where do copperheads lay their eggs? ›

Copperheads are ovoviviparous, which means that eggs incubate inside the mother's body. Babies are born live. After mating in the spring, females will give birth to "from two to 18 live young in late summer or fall," said Beane.

How long does a copperhead live? ›

Young reach sexual maturity after four years. Copperheads hibernate during the winter in dens with other snakes, some of different species. They live up to 18 years, on average.

What smell does a copperhead give off? ›

Copperhead snakes can smell like cucumbers.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) says copperhead snakes can give off an odor that's produced by glands at the base of the snake's tail and can also be mixed with feces. "To some individuals this musk may smell somewhat like cucumbers," they note.

What does a copperhead nest smell like? ›

Some people have described Copperhead musk as having a “melon or cucumber-like” odor, and it is possible that some people interpret the musk odor this way.

What color are baby copperheads? ›

Baby copperheads are lighter tan in color and have a pinkish-brown hourglass pattern. The darker patterns are skinner at the top and go wide at the side. The young copperhead snakes look just like the adults except for new hatchlings.

Do baby copperheads swim? ›

The short answer is, yes. Copperheads are known to be good swimmers. In fact, they are often seen swimming in ponds and streams. While these serpents are good swimmers, they are not as good at it as some other types of snakes.

Can a copperhead be a pet? ›

Yes, you can have a copperhead snake as a pet. There are no federal laws keeping you from owning one, but each state, city, county and even municipality can have different laws and ordinances regarding this. Most states allow you to keep copperheads as pets with a permit.

Can a human survive a copperhead bite? ›

Copperheads have hemotoxic venom, said Beane, which means that a copperhead bite "often results in temporary tissue damage in the immediate area of bite." Their bite may be painful but is "very rarely (almost never) fatal to humans." Children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems may have strong ...

How serious is a copperhead bite? ›

While most copperhead bites are not life-threatening, they can be very painful, and they require immediate medical attention. Some copperhead bites require antivenom treatment, and others (dry bites, or non-venomous bites) require only evaluation and observation by a doctor.

What should you do if you get bit by a copperhead? ›

If a venomous snake bites you, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately, especially if the bitten area changes color, begins to swell or is painful. Many emergency rooms stock antivenom drugs, which may help you.

Are copperhead bites fatal? ›

An estimated 2,920 people are bitten by copperheads (Ancistrodon contortrix) annually in the United States. The incidence of bites by these venomous snakes is 16.4 per million population per year. However, the case-fatality rate is exceedingly low, about 0.01%.

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