Northern copperhead

Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Family: Viperidae
Genus and Species: Agkistrodon contortrix mokeson
  • A copper colored snake with dark bands along its body, called a northern copperhead
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Northern copperhead

The northern copperhead is a large, social, venomous snake found across the eastern United States in habitats that range from terrestrial to semiaquatic.
Physical Description

Copperheads are thick-bodied snakes with keeled scales. The northern copperhead has an unmarked, copper-colored head and reddish-brown, coppery body with chestnut brown crossbands. The bands are mostly hourglass-shaped, with the wider portions of the shape on either side of the snake's body and the narrower part of the shape crossing the snake's back over the tailbone.

Young copperheads are grayer in color compared to adults and have a sulfur yellow-tipped tail, which fades over time and is lost by age 3 or 4.

The copperhead is a pit viper and, like others pit vipers, it has heat-sensitive pit organs on each side of its head between the eye and the nostril. These pits detect objects that are warmer than the environment and enable copperheads to locate nocturnal, mammalian prey.

Copperheads have fangs that release a hemolytic venom, a venom that causes the breakdown of red blood cells, used to subdue prey. The length of the snake's fangs is related to its size — the longer the snake, the longer its fangs. Even newborn copperheads have fully functional fangs capable of injecting venom that is just as toxic as an adult's venom. This snake's fangs are replaced periodically throughout its life; each snake has a series of five to seven replacement fangs located in the gums behind and above its current fangs.

Though the copperhead is the cause of many snakebites annually, those bites are rarely fatal. They typically occur when someone accidentally touches or steps on a snake that is well camouflaged within its surroundings. When touched, the copperhead may quickly strike or remain quiet and try to slither away.

Size

The average length of an adult copperhead is between 61 and 90 centimeters (24 and 36 inches). Young copperheads are typically 18 to 25 centimeters (7 to 10 inches) long. Copperheads are sexually dimorphic in size; females grow to greater lengths than males, but males have longer tails than females.

Native Habitat

 Northern copperheads live in the United States from the Florida panhandle, north to Massachusetts and west to Nebraska. Of the five copperhead subspecies, the northern copperhead has the greatest range. It is found in northern Georgia and Alabama, north to Massachusetts and west to Illinois.

Copperheads live in a range of habitats, from terrestrial to semiaquatic, including rocky, forested hillsides and wetlands. They are also known to occupy abandoned and rotting wood or sawdust piles, construction sites and sometimes suburban areas. They climb into low bushes or trees to hunt prey and will also bask in the sun and swim in the water.

Food/Eating Habits

The copperhead is a carnivore, as an adult eating mostly mice but also small birds, lizards, small snakes, amphibians and insects‐especially cicadas. Copperheads have fangs that inject its prey with venom that causes red blood cells to break down. Thus subdued, the prey is easy for the snake to swallow whole.

The copperhead seeks out its prey using its heat-sensitive pits to detect objects that are warmer than its environment. The pits also enable them to find nocturnal mammalian prey. Adult copperheads are primarily ambushers. When attacking large prey, the copperhead bites then releases immediately to allow the venom to take its effect; then later the snake tracks its prey. Smaller prey is usually held in its mouth until it dies.

The copperhead is the cause of many snakebites yearly but they are rarely fatal. Bites occur by accidentally stepping on or touching the snake, which tends to be well camouflaged with its surroundings. When touched, the copperhead quickly strikes or remains quiet and tries to crawl away. Sometimes when touched, they emit a musk that smells like cucumbers.

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

The copperhead at the Smithsonian's National Zoo eats mice and rats.

Social Structure

This is a social snake, which may hibernate in a communal den with other copperheads or other species of snakes including timber rattlesnakes and black rat snakes. They tend to return to the same den year after year. Copperheads can be found close to one another near denning, sunning, courting, mating, eating and drinking sites. They are believed to migrate late in the spring to reach summer feeding territories and reverse this migration in early autumn. Males are aggressive during the spring and autumn mating seasons. They will try to overpower each other and even pin the other's body to the ground. This behavior is exhibited most often in front of females but is not always the case. These interactions can include elevating their bodies, swaying side to side, hooking necks and eventually intertwining their entire body length. Copperheads have been reported to climb into low bushes or trees after prey or to bask in the sun. They have also been seen voluntarily entering water and swimming on numerous occasions.

Reproduction and Development

Both sexes reach sexual maturity at four years when they are about two feet in length. The breeding season is from February to May and from August to October. Males seek out sexually active females using their tongue to detect pheromones in the air. Once he has located a female, the male will begin moving his head or rubbing his chin on the ground. Eventually, after courtship, the male aligns his body with hers. This courtship may last for an hour or more if the female does not respond. After being sufficiently stimulated, the female lifts and arches her tail and lowers the scale that covers her cloaca. Then the male arches his body and tail, everting one of his two hemipenes and mates with the female. Mating time varies; the range can be as much as 3.5 to 8.5 hours. The long mating time could correlate with the fact that females usually only mate with one male per year. During the mating period, males produce a pheromone that makes the female unattractive to other males who pay little or no attention to mating or just mated females. Females also have little interest in mating after a long, successful first mating.

A female who breeds in autumn can store the sperm until after she emerges from a hibernating site. The length of time that the sperm can be stored appears to differ depending on where it is being stored. If the sperm is stored in the cloaca, it lasts a relatively short time, whereas if it is stored in the upper end of the oviducts in vascular tissues specialized as seminal receptacles, it seems to last much longer. Copperheads have a gestation period of three to nine months. They are a live-bearing snake, typically producing two to ten young. Larger females produce larger broods. After birth, the female provides no direct care for the young.

They produce large, yolk-filled eggs and store the eggs in the reproductive tract for development. When carrying young, some females will not eat at all because the embryos occupy so much of the body cavity. The embryo, during this time, receives no nourishment from the female, only from the yolk. The young are expelled in a membranous sac and weigh less than an ounce (28 grams).

Young copperheads are 7 to 10 inches (18 to 25 centimeters) long and grayer in color than adults. They have a sulfur yellow tipped tail, which fades with age and is lost by age 3 or 4.

Even newborn copperheads have fully functional fangs capable of injecting venom. These newborns have venom that is just as toxic as adults' venom. The fangs are replaced periodically with each snake having a series of five to seven replacement fangs in the gums behind and above the current functional fang.

Sleep Habits

They are most active April through late October; diurnal in the spring and fall, and nocturnal during the summer.

Lifespan

The life span of the copperhead is around 18 years.

Globally, copperheads are a species of least concern, but they are listed as endangered in the state of Massachusetts.

Help this Species
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle — in that order! Cut back on single-use goods, and find creative ways to reuse products at the end of their life cycle. Choose recycling over trash when possible.
  • If you see a snake in the wild, leave it alone and encourage others to do the same. Don’t assume it is a venomous species, and don’t attack it if it doesn’t pose a threat to your safety. Tell your friends and family about the eco-services that snakes provide, such as keeping rodent populations in check.
  • Are you a student? Did you love what you learned about this animal? Make it the topic of your next school project, or start a conservation club at your school. You'll learn even more and share the importance of saving species with classmates and teachers, too.
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