Copperheads are venomous snakes in the viper family. They are endemic to the United States and parts of northern Mexico, and are most active in the spring and fall. Although copperhead venom is weak, bites do require hospital treatment.
Copperhead snakes have wide, copper-colored heads with slit pupils and large pits near the nostrils. Their bodies are pinkish-tan in color, with distinctive red-brown horizontal bands shaped like hourglasses. These bands are thin in the middle, and widen as they extend down either side of the spine.
Being relatively small snakes, copperheads rarely grow longer than 3 feet. They have heavy and thick bodies, with thinner necks. Juvenile copperheads, under one year old, have fluorescent yellow tail tips that they use to lure frogs.
What Are Copperhead Snakes?
The copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), also known as the highland moccasin, is a species of pit viper native to North America. Copperheads are closely related to water moccasins (otherwise known as cottonmouths), and more distantly related to rattlesnakes.
Like all pit vipers, copperhead snakes have heat-sensing facial pits that help them detect warm-blooded prey. They are venomous, and kill by injecting venom into their prey using their large fangs.
People living in rural areas, especially near woodlands, may encounter copperheads in their backyards. Although copperheads aren’t aggressive, they bite if they feel threatened. Most bites occur when a copperhead is accidentally stepped on.
Copperhead venom is hemotoxic, causing tissue damage. Symptoms include pain, swelling, and bruising at the site of the bite, nausea, and numbness of the extremities. More serious envenomations can cause blurred vision and labored breathing.
Human deaths from copperhead bites are extremely rare, according to the Journal of the American College of Surgeons. They have the weakest venom of all pit vipers. However, bites are medically significant and must still be treated in a hospital with antivenom.
Where Do Copperhead Snakes Live?
Copperhead snakes are endemic to North America, meaning they don’t live anywhere else in the world. They are only found in the United States, and a tiny portion of northern Mexico (Chihuahua and Coahuila).
Every south-eastern state, from Florida to Texas, is home to copperheads. They live as far north as Nebraska in the central U.S., and Massachusetts in the east. There are five subspecies of copperheads, but they all have a similar appearance.
You’ll mostly find copperheads in woodland and deciduous forest areas. Their reddish-brown markings allow them to camouflage easily in dead leaves and among trees. However, copperheads may also inhabit rocky areas and marshland. They’re great swimmers, and are often spotted around freshwater sources such as streams and ponds.
In winter, copperhead snakes go into brumation (reptilian hibernation). They gather with many other types of snakes and lie dormant in underground dens and rock crevices.
How to Identify a Copperhead Snake
Copperheads are most active from February to May, and again from late August to October. They breed during the spring, and give birth in the fall. Copperheads may enter backyards during the day or at night, while hunting or searching for a mate.
If you spot a snake that looks like a copperhead, don’t approach it or attempt to chase it away. Instead, stay still and look out for the following identifying characteristics. This will tell you whether the snake you’ve found is a venomous copperhead, or a harmless mimic.
Skin Pattern and Markings
As their name suggests, the defining characteristic of a copperhead snake is its color. Copperheads have:
- Patternless heads, ranging from dull burnished gold to a rich red-brown, depending on subspecies
- Pale pinkish or orangish-tan bodies, which lighten as they get older
- 10 to 18 horizontal crossbands, stretching across the spine and down both sides of the snake’s body. These bands are tan to pale brown in the center, and darker brown towards the edges.
- Keeled (ridged) scales, so their bodies appear dull, not shiny
When viewed from above, a copperhead’s bands are hourglass-shaped (though they can be broken or uneven). They’re thin along the spine, and wider on each side. If you view the snake side-on, their bands are shaped like Hershey’s kisses.
Certain subspecies, such as the broad-banded copperhead, have straight bands without the hourglass shape. Other subspecies may have small brown spots in between each crossband, or in the centre of each hourglass.
All snakes have horizontal scales on their undersides, called scutes. These scutes extend from the head down to the tip of the tail, and protect the snake’s belly.
Most snakes have two rows of scutes on their tail. A snake’s tail starts at its cloaca, which is covered by a thick, wide scale called the anal plate.
Copperheads, however, only have one row of ventral scales all the way down to their tail tip. Copperheads’ undersides are cream-colored, with dark brown uneven blotches that can sometimes look like a checkered pattern.
Copperhead snakes have wide, triangular or arrow-shaped heads, similar to other pit vipers like rattlesnakes. They’re shaped in such a way to accommodate the venom glands. These glands are behind the eyes on either side of the head.
From above, you can see that a copperhead’s neck is skinny compared to its head. This sets the viper family apart from non-venomous snakes. Harmless snakes, such as rat snakes, have narrow heads that are approximately the same width as their necks.
Copperheads have two large, hinged fangs, for injecting venom. These fangs are only visible when the snake’s mouth is open.
Body Shape and Size
Copperhead snakes are ambush predators. They spend most of their time lying in wait for a prey animal to pass by. Because of this, their bodies are stout and heavy, as they have no need to chase prey. Active predators, such as corn snakes, have thin and light bodies.
The average length of an adult copperhead snake is 1.5 to 3 feet. Males grow larger than females, but rarely exceed 3.3 feet in length. A copperhead’s body is always much thicker than its neck.
A copperhead’s eyes can range from light tan to deep amber in color. They have narrow, slit-like pupils, resembling those of a cat. Non-venomous snakes, by contrast, have round pupils like our own. There is only one venomous snake in the U.S. that has round pupils (the coral snake).
However, copperhead pupils get wider and more rounded in low light conditions. If you see a copperhead on a cloudy day or at night, its pupils may appear almost circular.
Like all vipers, copperheads have ridges above their eyes that almost give them an angry expression. They don’t have any eyelids and, therefore, cannot blink or close their eyes.
Belonging to the pit viper family, copperheads have a unique way of hunting prey. They have a pair of infrared-sensing ‘pit organs’, one on each side of the face.
According to the Journal of Experimental Biology, these organs allow pit vipers to precisely target warm-blooded animals, like rodents and birds. As they pass the snake’s hiding place, their body heat stands out against the cool background. The snake is able to sense the exact location of its prey, even in pitch darkness.
If you look at a copperhead’s face, you can see these heat-sensing pits. They are shaped like two small holes, located just in front of the eyes. They look like a second pair of nostrils.
Only venomous snakes in the U.S. have heat pits (copperheads, rattlesnakes, and water moccasins). Certain pythons and boas also have them, but these snakes aren’t native to North America.
Copperhead snakes are nocturnal during the warm summer months. They hide in log piles, rock crevices, bushes, or animal dens during the day, and hunt at night. In the fall and early spring, they are diurnal (active in the day).
If a copperhead encounters a human, its first instinct is to escape. If it can’t get away, it will remain perfectly still, often with its body tensed up in an s-shape. It may also shake its tail rapidly, to create a buzzing sound in leaf litter or dry grass.
When they feel extremely threatened, copperheads may release a strong-smelling musk. Some say that the scent is similar to cucumber.
A copperhead’s last resort, when cornered, is to strike. It will only do this if it feels it has no alternative – most often when touched or stepped on. In some cases, copperheads deliver a ‘dry bite’ first, which contains no venom.
What Do Baby Copperheads Look Like?
Copperheads are born with fully-formed fangs, and pre-loaded venom glands. Though juveniles don’t produce as much venom by volume, it’s just as potent drop-for-drop as that of an adult.
Young copperheads are more defensive by nature, and may be more likely to bite. Juvenile copperheads look different from adults in many ways:
- They are smaller – when first born, copperhead snakes are only 8 to 10 inches long
- Juveniles have grey bodies with brown markings, rather than the tan and red seen in adults
- Baby copperheads are born with a neon greenish-yellow tail tip, the color of a tennis ball. They lose this between 1 and 2 years of age.
According to the Florida Academy of Sciences, young copperheads’ bright tails function as ‘caudal lures’. They share this trait with juvenile water moccasins (cottonmouths).
As baby copperheads are much smaller than adults, their prey options are limited. They can’t catch rodents or birds initially. But by wiggling their brightly-colored tails to imitate a worm, they attract small frogs, toads and lizards.
What Do Copperhead Eggs Look Like?
Unlike most other serpents, copperhead snakes don’t lay eggs. They give birth to live young, like rattlesnakes, boa constructor, and garter snakes. The only venomous snake in the U.S. that lays eggs is the coral snake.
It’s thought that around 25% of the world’s snakes are live-bearing. This is an evolutionary adaptation that allows snakes to better protect their young. Copperhead snakes do grow inside eggs, but these eggs remain inside the mother until they hatch. This is called ovoviviparity.
Copperheads give birth in the fall, from late August to early October. The neonates are sometimes born inside their eggs, which are thin, flexible, and transparent. They soon break out, and leave their mother straight away.
Snakes That Look Like Copperheads
The United States is home to dozens of non-venomous snake species. These snakes are harmless to humans, but many species are often mistaken for copperheads. This is because they have evolved features that resemble venomous snakes, as a form of mimicry.
This mimicry is designed to protect the snake from being attacked by predators. Unfortunately, it often backfires when humans kill the snake, assuming it to be dangerous.
Here are some examples of harmless, non-venomous snakes that look similar to copperheads. We’ll explain how you can tell them apart.
Black Rat Snakes
Black rat snakes are members of the genus Panterophis, along with corn snakes and fox snakes. As adults, you’d never mistake one for a copperhead, as they are black all over and patternless.
However, juvenile black rat snakes (under one year old) are often misidentified as baby copperheads. They are grey-brown and have a pattern of dorsal blotches that can resemble that of a copperhead. However, rat snakes differ from copperheads in the following ways:
- Their blotches do not extend down the sides of their body, as copperheads’ do
- Their markings are more oval and not hourglass-shaped
- Their heads are narrow, not triangular, and grey or brown rather than copper-colored
- They have round pupils
- They have smooth scales that makes their bodies appear shiny
Juvenile black rat snakes also lack the bright yellow-green tail tips that baby copperheads possess.
Corn snakes belong to the same genus as black rat snakes (Pantherophis). They are sometimes nicknamed ‘red rat snakes’.
Because they are orange-red with dorsal blotches, both juvenile and adult corn snakes are sometimes mistaken for copperheads. However, there are some differences:
- Corn snakes have round pupils and narrow heads
- Their markings are saddle-shaped and do not extend down the sides of the body
- Corn snakes are brightly-colored: their orange pigment is more vivid than the rusty tan of a copperhead
- Their dorsal botches are red rather than brown, and outlined in black
Baby corn snakes are less brightly colored and more of a greyish tan. However, they still lack the bright yellow-green tail tips.
Northern Water Snakes
Northern water snakes inhabit many of the same habitats as copperheads and water moccasins. They are non-venomous, but have evolved to look similar to pit vipers as a defense mechanism.
They have tan bodies with reddish-brown markings, just like a copperhead. Although they usually have narrow heads, they can flatten out their cheeks when threatened. This makes their head appear triangular, like a viper’s.
However, northern water snakes always have round pupils. Their markings are usually wider at the spine and thinner on the sides, which is the opposite of a copperhead’s. They have olive-green to brown heads, instead of copper.
Eastern Milk Snakes
Most species of milk snakes have brightly colored red, black and white bands. However, one species in particular – the eastern milk snake – is an exception.
Eastern milk snakes have pale tan bodies and reddish-brown dorsal blotches. They are therefore occasionally mistaken for copperheads. However, they differ from copperheads in the following ways:
- Milk snakes have thin, light bodies, rather than short, stout ones
- A milk snake’s head is narrow, the same width as its neck
- Milk snakes have more contrast between their markings and base color, and their saddles are surrounded in a thick black line
- Milk snakes have round pupils
Eastern milk snakes have extremely smooth scales, which gives them a shiny or glossy appearance. Copperheads look rather dull by contrast.
Eastern Hognose Snakes
Hognoses are small non-venomous snakes in the colubrid family. The two main species in the U.S. are western and eastern hognoses. Eastern hognose snakes live in many of the same states as copperheads.
The appearance of an eastern hognose snake can vary depending on where it’s found. They are normally grey-brown in color, with brown markings. However, some subtypes can have more of a reddish appearance.
Hognoses have rough, keeled scales, and stout, thick bodies. They can flatten out their heads and necks, giving a hooded appearance. This can make their heads look triangular, similar to a copperhead. They may also shake their tails when threatened.
However, hognose snakes have round pupils. They also have distinctive upturned ‘snouts’, and their heads are grey or brown, often with stripes. Their dorsal markings are oval-shaped and do not extend down the sides.
If you encounter a wild snake, and you’re not sure of its species, don’t approach it. All snakes can bite when threatened. Even non-venomous species can leave wounds that may become infected.