Agkistrodon contortrixSouthern Copperhead

Geographic Range

Overall, the species inhabits the Florida panhandle north to Massachusetts and west to Nebraska (Georgia Wildlife Federation 1999)

The Northern Copperhead (A. c. mokasen) inhabits northern Georgia and Alabama north to Massachusetts and west to Illinois.

The Southern Copperhead (A. c. contortrix) inhabits the Florida panhandle north to Southern Delaware and west to SE Missouri, SE Oklahoma and E Texas.

The Broad-banded Copperhead (A. contortrix laticinctus) ranges from northern Oklahoma to south-central Texas.

The Osage Copperhead (A. c. phaeogaster) lives in eastern Missouri to eastern Kansas and south to northeastern Oklahoma.

The Trans-pecos Copperhead (A. c. pictigaster) lives in west Texas. (Conant and Collins, 1998; Conant and Collins, 1998)

Habitat

Copperheads prefer terrestrial to semi-aquatic habitats, which include rocky-forested hillsides and various wetlands (Tyning 1990). They have also been known to occupy abandoned and rotting slab or sawdust piles (Conant 1998).

Physical Description

Average length of adult copperheads is 30 inches. They have an unmarked copper-colored head, reddish-brown, coppery bodies with chestnut brown crossbands that constrict towards the midline. Copperheads are thick-bodied and have keeled scales.

There is a temperature sensitive pit organ on each side of the head between the eye and the nostril. There is a single row of scales beneath the tail (Schmidt 1941, Tyning 1990).

Tails have no rattle (Ernst 1989).

Young copperheads are 7-10 inches 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.

Copperheads are sexually dimorphic in size. Males have longer tails than females and females grow to greater lengths (Tyning 1990).

The head of the Northern Copperhead is a red, copper color with the rest of its body being pinkish to gray-brown with a dark chestnut colored hourglass shaped pattern. The hourglass pattern is narrow on the top of its back and wider on its sides. It has elliptical pupils and facial pits between its eyes and nostrils (Ohio DNR 1999).

The underside, belly area, of the northern subspecies is dark (Schmidt & Davis 1941).

The southern copperhead subspecies is similar to the northern copperhead but the coloration is paler and the crossbands fail to meet at the midline. Also the belly of the southern subspecies is light in color (Schmidt & Davis 1941).

Broad-banded copperheads have bright coloration with a sharp contrast between the pattern and the ground color. The crossbands are very broad at the midline and always meet. The belly is dark (Schmidt and Davis 1941).

The osage copperhead is similar to those of the northern subspecies but the crossbands are often edged in white (Conant and Collins 1998).

The belly of the Trans-pecos Copperhead is strongly patterned. Also there is a pale area located at the base of each broad crossband (Conant and Collins 1998). (Conant and Collins, 1998; Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Schmidt and Davis, 1941)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger

Reproduction

The life span of the copperhead is 18 years. Both sexes reach sexual maturity at 4 years when they are about two feet in length. However, Ernst (1989) notes that the age and size of maturity in the male copperhead is unknown. The breeding season is from February to May and from August to October. Females who breed in autumn can store the sperm until after she emerges from the overwintering site (Tyning 1990). 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 only 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 (Ernst 1989). Copperheads have a gestation period of 3-9 months. They are a live-bearing snake, typically producing 2-10 young, where larger females produce larger broods. After birth, the female provides no direct care for the young (Tyning 1990).

Females are ovoviviparous. Eggs develop in the body of the female and hatch within or immediately after being expelled. They produce large, yolk-filled eggs and store the eggs in the reproductive tract for development. The embryo, during this time, receives no nourishment from the female, only from the yolk. The young are expelled in a membranous sac. At birth they weigh less than an ounce and are 7-10 inches in length (Ohio DNR 1999).

  • Average number of offspring
    6
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    730 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    730 days
    AnAge

Lifespan/Longevity

  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    29.8 years
    AnAge

Behavior

MATING:

Mating begins in the spring after the snakes emerge from winter dens (there are some reports of autumn mating). At this time males begin to 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 a lot of tail movements, slow to rapid back to forth waving from the female, 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 sex organs 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 correlates with the fact that females usually only mate with one male per year. This is because 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 (Tyning 1990).

SOCIAL:

This is a social snake, which may overwinter 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. Females with young are gregarious whereas barren females and males are solitary (Ohio DNR 1999). Copperheads are found close to one another near denning, sunning, courting, mating, eating and drinking sites. The 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 others 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 each others necks, eventually intertwining their entire body length (Tyning 1990). 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 (Ernst 1989).

Food Habits

The Copperhead is primarily a carnivore, as an adult eating mostly mice but also small birds, lizards, small snakes, amphibians and insects-especially cicadas (Conant and Collins 1998). The snakes are capable of swallowing prey that is several times larger than their own diameter. This is possible because they have a very flexible jaw and it has digestive juices that allow it to digest both bones and fur. Copperheads have fangs that inject its prey with a hemolytic venom (causes the breakdown of red blood cells) which subdues its prey, making it easy for the snake to swallow it. The copperhead seeks out its prey using its heat sensitive pits to detect objects that are warmer then its environment. This also enables them to find nocturnal mammalian prey (Ohio DNR 1999). 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 tracks its prey. Whereas the smaller prey is held in its mouth until it dies (Ernst 1989). When the copperhead eats depends on the time of the year. They are most active April through late October, diurnal in the spring and fall, and nocturnal during the summer months (Ohio DNR 1999). When carrying young, some females will not eat at all because the embryos occupy so much of the body cavity. It has been found that some copperheads consume only eight meals in a single growing season. The only possible explanations for this could be due to a slow metabolism and/or difficulty finding prey ( Tyning 1990).

Young copperheads eat mostly insects, especially caterpillars, and use their yellow tipped tails to function as a worm-like lure to attract prey (Georgia Wildlife Federation 1999).

Conservation Status

No special status federally, however it is listed in the state of Massachusetts as endangered (Umass 1999).

Other Comments

Venom and Bites:

The copperhead has solenogiyphous fangs that tend to be 1.1-7.2 mm in length. The length of the snake relates to the length of the fangs; the longer the snake, the longer the fangs. Even newborn copperheads have fully functional fangs that are capable of injecting venom. These newborns have venom that is just as toxic as adults do. 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.

The venom, which is highly hemolytic, causes massive hemorrhaging to the copperhead's prey. As for humans, recorded symptoms include pain, swelling, weakness, giddiness, breathing difficulty, hemorrhage, either an increased or decreased pulse, nausea, vomiting, gangrene, ecchymosis, unconsciousness, stupor, fever, sweating, headache and intestinal discomfort. 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 (Ernst 1989).

Contributors

Bree Herrmann (author), Michigan State University, James Harding (editor), Michigan State University.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

ovoviviparous

reproduction in which eggs develop within the maternal body without additional nourishment from the parent and hatch within the parent or immediately after laying.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

References

Accessed October 16, 1999 at http://www.umass.edu/umext/snake/copper.html.

"The Highly Evolved and Adaptable Copperhead" (On-line). Accessed October 16, 1999 at http://www.gwf.org/library/wildlife/copper.html.

"Wildlife Notes-Copperhead" (On-line). Accessed October 16, 1999 at http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/odnr/wildlife/publications/wildnotes/copper.html.

Conant, R., J. Collins. 1998. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians Eastern/Central North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Ernst, C., R. Barbour. 1989. Snakes of North America. Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University Press.

Schmidt, K., D. Davis. 1941. Field Book of Snakes of the United States and Canada. New York: G.P. Putnams Sons.

Tyning, T. 1990. A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles. Boston Toronto London: Little, Brown and Company.