|THE ROBINSON LIBRARY|
Robinson Library >> Science >> Zoology >> Reptiles and
Amphibians >> Suborder Serpentes
This pit viper is most easily identified by its copper-colored head (hence the name). Its body is reddish-brown in color, with chestnut brown bands that constrict toward the midline (looking somewhat like hourglasses).
Adults average 30 inches in length. Juvenile copperheads are 7 to 10 inches long at birth, grayer in color than adults, and have sulfur yellow-tipped tails. Female copperheads are longer than males, but males have longer tails.
There are five recognized subspecies, as outlined below:
The Northern Copperhead (A.c. mokasen) has a pinkish to gray-brown body, with dark chestnut bands. Its underside is dark.
The Southern Copperhead (A.c. contortrix) is paler than the Northern. The crossbands do not meet at the midline, and the belly is light in color.
The Broad-banded Copperhead (A.c. laticinctus) is relatively bright in color, with a sharp contrast between the pattern and ground color. The crossbands are very broad at the midline and always meet. The belly is dark.
The Osage Copperhead (A.c. phaeogaster) is similar to the Northern, except that the crossbands are often edged in white.
The Trans-pecos Copperhead (A.c. pictigaster) has a belly that is strongly patterned, and a pale area at the base of each broad crossband.
Distribution and Habitat
Copperheads are found from the Florida panhandle north to Massachusetts and west to Nebraska. The Northern ranges from northern Georgia and Alabama north to Massachusetts and west to Illinois; the Southern, from the Florida panhandle north to southern Delaware and west to southeastern Missouri, southeastern Oklahoma and eastern Texas; the Broad-banded from northern Oklahoma to south-central Texas; the Osage from eastern Missouri to eastern Kansas and south to northeastern Oklahoma; and, the Trans-pecos in western Texas.
Copperheads live in a wide variety of habitats, but are most commonly found in areas with plenty of vegetation and/or debris in which to hide. They live in forests and forest edges, mixed woodlands, swampy areas, and even amongst rock outcroppings and on rocky ledges.
Copperheads usually breed from February to May, but some also mate between August and October. Females who breed in the autumn can store sperm until after emerging from their winter "hibernation." Males find receptive females by flicking their tongues to "taste" for female pheromones. After a courtship they may take an hour or more, mating commences. The mating itself may last up to 8½ hours, during which time the male produces a pheromone that makes the female unattractive to other males, thereby all but assuring that she will not mate again until the next breeding season. Females can give birth each year, but will often go a few years without mating.
Up to 10 live young are born after a gestation period of 3 to 9 months. The mother does not provide any direct care for her young.
Copperheads become sexually active at 4 years (both sexes), and have a life span of about 18 years.
A very social snake, copperheads are often found close together when sunning, eating and drinking. They often overwinter in a communal den, which may also include other species of snakes. They tend to return to the same den year after year.
Despite being a terrestrial snake, a copperhead will climb into a low bush or tree in search of prey. It also readily takes to water and is a good swimmer.
Adult copperheads prey primarily on mice and other rodents, but will also go after small birds, lizards, small snakes, amphibians, and insects (especially cicadas). Young copperheads feed primarily on insects.
Copperheads are ambush predators, and their coloration allows them to easily blend into their surroundings. Juveniles often use their yellowish tails to attract prey, wiggling them so that they look like small worms.
With large prey, the copperhead bites and then almost immediately releases the prey. It then waits until the venom takes effect before consuming it. Smaller prey is held until dead.
The venom itself causes red blood cells to break down, and the victim ultimately dies from hemorrhaging. The venom of a newborn copperhead is just as toxic as that of an adult.
Danger to Humans
Although a copperhead bite can be serious for a human, it is rarely fatal. In fact, unless the victim shows extreme symptoms, it is usually better to let the symptoms go away by themselves rather than treat with antivenom, since the antivenom frequently poses greater risks than the venom. Like almost every other snake, a copperhead will generally not strike at a human unless touched or cornered. Most bites occur because the individual didn't see the snake until he/she either stepped on it or otherwise disturbed it.
This page was last updated on February 22, 2017.