Did You Know?
A political party of Democrats that existed during the American Civil War, who opposed the war and were fighting for peace, were given the nickname "Copperheads" by the Republicans, in comparison to the snake of the same name!
Copperhead snakes are venomous pit vipers that are found in North America. They are notorious for their numerous encounters with humans, which lead to snakebites. There are 5 subspecies that are currently known of. The following paragraphs provide some information about these reptiles.
- Kingdom - Animalia
- Phylum - Chordata
- Class - Reptilia
- Order - Squamata
- Family - Viperidae
- Genus - Agkistrodon
- Species - Agkistrodon contortrix
Copperhead snakes quite logically get their name from their unmarked, copper-colored head. They have orange, light brown, or sometimes even pinkish bodies that are well-highlighted by darker, chestnut-brown bands that form a whole series of hourglass shapes across their bodies. The continuity and thickness of these bands are very important characteristics when it comes to identifying the five different subspecies.
The belly markings range from gray to black splotches that are well-blended together to form a marbled, yet cloudy pattern. Copperheads are usually 2 to 3 feet (24 to 36 inches) in length, although there have been instances where people have come across copperheads that are even 4½ feet (54 inches) long. The females tend to be longer than their male counterparts, but the males generally have proportionally longer tails. Their bodies are stout and tend to taper abruptly towards the bottom, forming a tail that is much smaller in diameter. Baby copperheads have bright yellow tails and sometimes use these to attract prey.
Habitat and Distribution
Copperheads can thrive nearly anywhere, making their habitat very vast and varied. You'll find them in rocky regions, sawdust and wood piles, wooded areas, mountains, abandoned farm buildings, bushy zones along creeks and streams, junkyards, brush piles, swamps, canyons, and even desert oases.
Distribution-wise, they are found throughout Central and Eastern United States right from Kansas to Connecticut and Western Texas to Florida. The five subspecies are distributed in the northern and northwestern to the southern and southwestern sub-regions of their geographic range.
Copperheads are generally solitary in nature except during the mating season. They tend to hibernate in communal dens, not only with other copperheads like themselves, but with other species of snakes as well. In fall and spring, they can also be seen during the day, but in summer, they are primarily nocturnal. Warm and humid nights like the ones after it rains are ideal times to catch a glimpse of an active copperhead.
Copperheads are pit vipers. Their facial pits are structures that are sensory in nature and are located somewhere between their eyes and nostrils. These facial pits are used to detect and then accurately strike a warm-blooded prey. They prey on different species of rodents, including mice and chipmunks. Apart from rodents, they also eat frogs, other snakes, lizards, insects, and even small birds. An individual copperhead may only eat anywhere from 10 to 12 meals per year.
Once they locate their prey by heat sensation and olfaction (sense of smell), they strike swiftly and inject it with venom. The venom then breaks down the blood cells, which quickly leads to circulatory collapse. The snakes then swallow the prey as a whole, relying entirely on their powerful digestive juices to break down its body parts.
Male copperheads fight for the right to mate with their females, and the ones who lose in the mating contest are not very likely to challenge another male copperhead again. Females, on the other hand, are also capable of fighting for their prospective mates and won't mate with a male who backs down in the initial encounter.
The mating season starts somewhere in late spring or early fall. Ovulation and fertilization occur during the springtime. During fall, the female gives birth to 1 to 14 young ones near her hibernation den. Larger females give birth to more number of young ones. Young copperheads range from 8 to 10 inches in length.
Reports show that copperheads bite more people in the US than any other venomous snake in the country. The venom of these snakes is mild, and not fatal to an adult human. Pets and children may, however, have some very serious reactions to it.
The venom is hemolytic in nature. When a person is bitten, the red blood cells and tissues start breaking down because of it. This causes a lot of pain, swelling, nausea, and throbbing. Hence, although the venom is mild, a bite from a copperhead snake becomes a medical event.
Unlike other snakes that try to escape if they sense a threat, copperheads are known to freeze in one place. Also, unlike other species that give warning signs (such as rapidly moving the tail or opening the mouth), they are known to strike immediately. Thus, it is always better to keep a safe distance from these snakes, and if you happen to encounter one, let it leave if possible. As they attack without a warning at any perceived threat, they are quite dangerous.
Copperheads are usually found in places that camouflage them nicely and make them difficult to be seen. Thus, while clearing any piles of leaves or logs, be very vigilant and on the lookout for any snakes.
Other Interesting Facts
- These snakes possess solenoglyphous fangs that are measure 0.3 inches in length. The length of the fangs is directly proportional to the length of the snake. So, the longer the snake, the longer will be its fangs.
- Fangs are periodically replaced, with each copperhead having a series of anywhere between 5 to 7 replacements.
- The average lifespan of these snakes in the wild is 18 years.
- When touched, they will sometimes emit a musky odor that is very similar to the smell of cucumbers.
- They lie in the sun at times and soak up some sunlight after a meal.
- Copperhead babies have fully developed fangs that produce venom just like adults. The young ones also make use of their fangs to prey.
- These snakes are also known as highland moccasins, clunk heads, pilot snakes, death adders, and poplar leaf among other names.
A Strange Myth
One recent and strange myth about these snakes is that of their interbreeding with black rat snakes to form a new and very venomous hybrid snake. This, however, is not biologically possible. This myth probably took shape because of the observation that black rat snakes and copperheads often share the same hibernation dens. However, there is indeed a very big difference between communal denning and reproduction!
Copperhead snakes are very beautiful-looking reptiles that have a reputation of having bitten a lot of people. However, it is a rule of the wild; animals do not normally attack unless they feel cornered or threatened. Hence, unless there is a direct threat to you, your home, or to another person from a copperhead, just let it pass if it happens to cross your path. Do not kill it unless you have no other option, because the snake is just going its own way. In case of a snakebite, always know what to do until the medics arrive, and keep all emergency numbers and essentials at hand should such an event occur.