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Copperhead Snakes: Facts, Bites and Treatment

May 8, 2017
Copperhead snake with a bug on head

Copperhead snakes are some of the most common snakes in North America – but they’re certainly not a welcomed sight. They’re not as deadly as other snakes, like the coral snake, but they do have venom, and they can be aggressive. The only good news here is that the copperhead’s venom is mild and their bites are rarely ever fatal in humans.

Copperhead is a fitting name for this snake: it has a copper-colored head.

How Dangerous is the Copperhead?

The copperhead’s bite isn’t quite as potent as the cottonmouth snake or the rattlesnake, but its bite still requires medical attention. While these bites are rarely fatal, deaths can and do occur.  Copperheads aren’t extremely dangerous, but you should still avoid these snakes – or any wild snake for that matter – if you cross its path. There’s never a reason to handle a wild snake unless it’s in self-defense.

Copperhead Characteristics

The copperhead is a pit viper, just like the water moccasin (cottonmouth) and rattlesnake. They have heat-sensory pits between the the nostril and eye on each sids of its head. These heat pits can detect subtle changes in temperature, which helps the snake find and strike its prey.

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1. Copperhead Appearance

Copperheads are considered a medium-sized snake, and they can grow to be between two and three feet long. While males have longer tails, females are bigger overall. One thing that sets copperheads apart from other species of snakes is its distinct patterning. These snakes have brown or reddish-brown dorsal crossbands that are shaped like hourglasses, saddlebags or dumbbells. Hourglass markings are the copperhead’s most defining feature, as no other snake species has this marking shape. The tops of their heads have just two small, dark dots, and their bellies are either white, yellow or light brown.

Copperheads have thick and muscular bodies with keeled scales. Like other pit vipers, they have a triangular head that’s distinctive from its neck. Their pupils are vertical, too, and their irises are usually red, tan or orange in color. Baby copperheads have a grayish color with bright green or yellow tail tips.

2. Copperhead Habitat

Copperheads can be found all throughout North America, from southern New England all the way down to Texas and Mexico.

There are five subspecies of copperheads, and they correspond to their geographic location:

  • Northwestern
  • Northern
  • Southwestern (2 subspecies)
  • Southern

The northern copperhead, experts say, is the largest range. Copperheads can thrive in a wide range of habitats, but they tend to prefer living in the woods or forests. They also like to hang out in what’s called “ecotones,” which are transition areas in between two types of habitats. That’s why we find a lot of copperheads in the mountains, wooded areas, rocky areas, desert oases, the thickets near streams and canyons.

These snakes are resilient, too, and can even thrive in suburban areas. Copperheads are the most commonly-seen snake in North America, so it’s no surprise that their habitat is so diverse.

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3. Copperhead Behavior and Habits

The copperhead snake uses camouflage to hide from predators and to sneak up on its prey. They tend to have their own unique personalities, too. Some are reluctant to bite, while others are extremely aggressive. Copperheads are generally more aggressive when they’re on the prowl at night than when they’re at rest during the day.

Like many other snakes, copperheads use mimicry to scare off predators. If they become agitated, they will vibrate their tails just like a rattlesnake. They also emit a strong, nasty musk smell to send you running the other way.

Unlike other snakes, copperheads are semi-social, which means they do like some interaction with other snakes. They fly solo when hunting, but they sleep in communal dens. They usually sleep in the same den year after year.

Copperheads that live in the montane will actually hibernate with other species of snakes, including timber rattlesnakes and rat snakes. These snakes may even hang out together when they’re out basking in the sun in warmer temperatures.

【Read more about Hibernate】

4. Diet

Like other pit vipers, copperheads are carnivorous creatures that like to eat mice and other small rodents. In fact, this species of snakes plays an important role in keeping the rodent population in check. Along with rodents, snakes will also eat frogs, birds, lizards, salamanders, large insects and small snakes.

Copperheads are ambush predators, meaning that they sit and wait for their prey to walk by, and then ambush them. If they have to, copperheads will actively hunt and use their heat-sensing pits to find their dinner. When pursuing large prey, copperheads will bite their victim and then release it. Once the venom works its magic and kills the victim, the snake will track it down and devour it whole. If their prey is small, the copperhead will just hold its victim in its mouth until it dies. One meal fills up a copperhead for quite a while. Experts say these snakes may only eat between 10 and 12 meals per year.

5. Reproduction

Copperheads have two mating seasons: February through May, and August through October. Spring and autumn mating seasons can be dramatic affairs. To win the chance to mate with a female, male copperhead snakes will engage in ritual combat – which is basically just one big body-shoving contest. Males who lose the fight don’t usually challenge again. Females may even get in on the fighting and challenge potential partners. And if males back down from her challenge, they lose their chance to mate.

Like many other snakes, the copperhead snake is ovoviviparous, which means moms carry their eggs inside of their bodies to incubate them. These snakes give live birth, usually in the late summer or fall. They may have anywhere between two to 18 babies at a time. When females mate in the fall, they may store sperm to delay fertilization until after they’re done hibernating for the winter. Baby copperheads are born with venom and fully functional fangs, so their bites can be just as potent and painful as an adult’s bite. Juveniles can be anywhere between eight and ten inches long, and they dine mostly on insects. Babies love to eat caterpillars.

While young copperheads are a lot like their adult counterparts, one area where they differ is hunting. Young copperheads will sit motionless, flicking their tail tips. This is what’s called caudal luring. Their tails look just like small caterpillars and other insects, so this flicking action attracts lizards and frogs. Having taken the lure, the snake will strike its prey and enjoy a nice dinner.

【Read more about Venom】

6. Classification

The copperhead snake is a part of the Viperidae family and the Crotalinae subfamily. Their species is the Agkistrodon contortrix.

There are also several subspecies of this snake that are recognized, including:

  • Trans-Pecos copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix pictigaster)
  • Southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix)
  • Northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen)
  • Broad-banded copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus)
  • Osage copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster)

With a name like Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen, it’s easy to see why people still confuse the Northern copperhead with the water moccasin (or cottonmouth) snake.

Copperhead Bites

Copperheads bite more people than most other U.S. species of snakes, but their venom isn’t very potent. The issue with copperheads is that unlike other venomous snakes, they don’t give out any warning signs before they strike. If they become agitated, they’re more likely to strike immediately. It’s more of a “strike now, ask questions later” kind of thing. Because they strike before they think, their bites often cause temporary tissue damage in the affected area. While painful, a copperhead bite is rarely fatal to a human.

With that siad, there are some people who are more vulnerable to complications from a copperhead bite, such as:

  • Children
  • People with compromised immune systems
  • The elderly

Still, anyone who is bit by a copperhead needs to seek medical attention immediately to avoid any potential complications.

How to Treat Copperhead Bites

If you’re bit by a copperhead, don’t try to treat the bite yourself. Seek medical attention immediately. A copperhead’s venom may be mild, but it’s important to remember that this is still a venomous snake bite and there are lot of things that could go wrong if you don’t get to a hospital. Call the poison help hotline at your local poison center, or better yet, go to the emergency room. These are one of the most common venomous snakes in North America, so treatment shouldn’t be an issue.

Common symptoms associated with a copperhead bite include:

  • Pain (copperhead bites are very painful)
  • Shock
  • Low blood pressure
  • Weakness
  • Change in skin color

It’s best not to rely on commercial snakebite kits and head straight for a hospital.

Also, here are some other things NOT to do:

  • Don’t attempt to cut into the snake bite.
  • Don’t use a tourniquet.
  • Don’t take any medications unless directed by your doctor.
  • Don’t use a cold compress.
  • Don’t engage in any strenuous physical activity.
  • Don’t use a pump suction device to try to pump out snake venom.
  • Don’t raise the bite above your heart.
  • Don’t try to suck out the venom with your mouth.

Pump devices were once recommended for snake bites to try and pump out the venom, but medical professionals now believe they may actually do more harm than good. Again, please don’t try to treat a snake bite on your own. Go to the emergency room right away. Even though copperhead bites are rarely fatal, you don’t want to wind up being that rare case. Children, people with weakened immune systems and those with severe envenomation are more likely experience complications or death from a copperhead bite. And unless you can be absolutely certain that you were struck by a copperhead, you have no real way of knowing what type of snake bit you. It could have been a dangerous, deadly snake for all you know. Don’t wait – get help right away.

When you do get help, the doctor will probably recommend a course of antibiotics, pain management and medical supervision for your recovery. In rare cases, antivenin may be administered. This course of treatment is usually reserved for those who are at great risk of complications from the bite.

Other Facts

  • Copperheads are often confused with other snakes that have similar appearances, such as water moccasins, Australian copperheads, radiated rat snakes and sharp-nosed pit vipers. People mistakenly give copperheads these names, but they are actually different species from the North American copperhead.
  • Researchers have found a chemical in the copperhead’s venom that may help stop the growth of cancerous tumors. In one experiment, researchers injected mice with human breast cancer cells and then injected them with a protein found in the copperhead’s venom. The protein helped stop the growth of the tumor and even slowed down the growth of the vessels (therefore, slowing blood flow) feeding the tumor.
  • The size of a copperhead’s fangs is related to the length of its body. The longer the snake is, the longer its fangs will be.
  • Copperheads sometimes emit a stinky musk that smells like cucumbers.
  • Copperheads have many different names, including: chunk head, pilot snake, dry-land moccasin, highland moccasin, white oak snake, red oak, poplar leaf and red snake.
  • Like other venomous snakes, copperheads leave behind a puncture wound when they bite.
  • Australian copperheads, sometimes called lowlands copperheads, are found in the cooler parts of Australia, and their bites can damage nerves. But their bites rarely cause fatalities. The lowlands copperhead may be the only creature in Australia that isn’t trying to kill you.
  • A lethal dose of copperhead venom is about 100 mg. When tested on mice, their venom is found to be the least potent among all pit vipers.
  • Copperheads will sometimes give a warning bite if they’re stepped on, which may have very little venom or no venom at all.
  • The antivenin CroFab can be used to treat copperhead bites, but doctors rarely administer it. The danger of an allergic reaction or complications from the treatment are greater than the risk of the snake bite itself. CroFab can cause an immune system reaction called serum sickness.

【Read More About Snake Bite Kits】

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