Copperhead


Say "hello" to the Copperhead, the current holder for the Most Prolific Biter title of all of the venomous snakes in North America.   Not only is the Copperhead the claimant for North America, this snake is also responsible for the most bites of any venomous snake in every state in which it lives. (source).  A University of Georgia website account of the Copperhead has a nice range map of the species.  It is interesting to note that this snake is not common in Florida.

Perhaps the primary reason for the number of bites from this snake is simply because it is usually the most commonly found venomous snake in its region.  Another reason may be because of its habit of not moving when a human approaches it.  The Copperhead relies on its outstanding camouflage as its primary defense and as a result. Its best defense is simply not to move when a predator approaches.  Other venomous snakes like the Rattlesnakes and Cottonmouths will make their presence known by shaking their rattle or showing their gaping white mouth and fangs.  The Copperhead does none of that- it simply lies still.

The Copperhead in these photos was stretched across a trail that runs along a fence in my yard.  I was walking along the trail and I came within inches of stepping on the snake.  The snake never moved.  I was able to get my camera to within a foot of it to obtain its photo with a close-up lens.  The Copperhead never tried to bite, nor did it strike out at me.  In my occasional encounters with Copperheads, that has always been my experience- the Copperheads have always been non-aggressive.

However, my experiences with the snake may not be the norm. The well known herpetologist, Professor Dr. Walt Gibbons of the University of Georgia, reports of opposite experiences in his encounters and studies of the Copperhead.  According to an article from a North Carolina Co-op Extension web page,  Dr. Gibbons notes that: "Most copperheads tested have struck out immediately when they felt threatened." (source)

And Copperhead bites are not to be taken lightly.  Although their bites are seldom fatal (only one fatality from a Copperhead bite has ever been documented source), their bite can cause serious pain and swelling.  There is also the risk of allergic reactions to the venom which can be fatal as well.  For a great first person account of a Copperhead bite, please read Leo Spinner's story at http://www.venomousreptiles.org/articles/373.  Had I read his story first, I probably would not have stretched out on the ground at eye level within a foot of the head of a Copperhead to get a better photo.

The scientific name of the Copperhead is Agkistrodon contortrix. The word Agkistrodon seems to be derived from the Greek word for "fish hook"- ancistron.  (It is thought that the snake was thus named in reference to its recurved fangs.)  The word contortrix is from the Latin word contortus which means "twisted, or contorted".  (It is thought that it was so named because of the twisted patterns on its back.) (source)

Copperheads are beautiful snakes and they serve a valuable purpose in nature.  But, they are to be respected, after all, they bite.

8 comments:

Eve said...

I don't know whether to say "YIKES" or "OH DEAR"! Of course all I can think of is my daughter stepping on one in the woods. OH DEAR! This is a great post Daniel. All good information. So far I've seen two Rattlesnakes here but not this fellow. If only they came with little flags! Great pictures but I would have defiantly used my 400mm lens!!! Thanks Daniel. You always give us something to worr....I mean think about!!

The Giraffe Head Tree said...

Holy schmoly those are great shots, Daniel. What a beautiful snake. I've never, ever been that close to one nor do I ever want to be. He may seem docile, but ya never know when a snake's had a bad day. Glad you got some neat shots and lived to tell the tale - lol!

Joan said...

Wow! I’m envious.

I had a recent encounter with a Copperhead. Every afternoon, I walk a trail parallel and approximately 10 meters from the road in front of our property. My husband had clipped some dogfennel stalks and they had fallen across the trail. I stepped on one and had the sense that something in the grass beside the trail jumped. I looked but couldn’t see anything and I’m sure, in denial, decided it was just the stalk. I turned around to retrace my steps but couldn’t ignore the sense that there was something in the grass. When I went back and stepped on the stalk again it was clear that something jumped. I looked closely and could see the Copperhead lying hidden in the grass – only about a foot length showing between the clumps of grass. It must have been 2-feet in length if not longer. It was beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the tools to get the snake out into the open to photograph it. I did manage to get a blurry photo to prove – more to others – who would doubt my identification.

On one hand I was happy to see a Copperhead since we hadn’t seen one in so long we thought that they might not be any in the area. On the other hand, the encounter has made me more alert. I don’t regard Copperheads as aggressive. I’ve wrangled many for my husband to photograph and they have shown no aggressive tendencies - only a wish to leave. But it stands to reason that if I had stepped on it, I should expect it to defend itself and, in doing so, bite me.

Anonymous said...

I dont agree with the range maps. I just killed a young copper head at my neighbors house and we live south of Jacksonville, FL.

Belle said...

Most snakebites in the US, including most of the very few fatal ones, are the result of people deliberately doing things to frighten the snake (like trying to pick it up or kill it), rather than accidents (like people stepping on a snake they didn't see). In their excellent _Venomous Snakes of the Western Hemisphere, Vol, I_, herpetologists Joseph Campbell and William Lamar comment that "An unfortunate combination of testosterone, alcohol, and venom seems to have led to death in the relatively few fatal cases of snakebite by copperheads."

Eve: where do you live, out of curiosity, that you've seen 2 rattlers? I'd be delighted to see just one rattlesnake in the wild. Alas, they haven't been seen in the county where I live, or any of the neighboring ones, in years, and are believed extirpated.

If you're worried about your daughter being bitten by a venomous snake, there are several things you can teach her to do that will help protect her. First, get her to wear shoes when she goes outside. One reason so many people are bitten in developing countries is that a lot of workers go barefoot, or they wear sandals that leave much of the foot uncovered. (That's just one of many factors, mind you, but it does contribute.) Also, teach her to watch where she steps and not to reach into places where she can't see, like animal burrows, tree hollows, piles of leaves, under various human detritus - old tires, pieces of sheet metal - etc. Snakes are very shy creatures, and they like to hide.

Perhaps the most important thing you can teach your children about snakes, though (and many adults could stand to learn this too), is, if they do see a snake, to let it be and not bother it or try to pick it up. From a snake's perspective, even a small child is a big scary monster. (Given how many people's first response when they see a snake is to try to kill it, the snakes have much more reason to be afraid of us than we have to be afraid of them). Copperheads (and other members of our scientifically fascinating, beautiful, and tragically diminishing native pit viper fauna) bite people only in self defense, because they are frightened, not because they are trying to be mean or something. Venomous snakes would much rather save their venom for something they can eat (like a mouse or rat). Indeed, in about 25% of copperhead bites, the snakes don't even use any venom - "dry bites," as they're called. I've heard various claims about the number of people who have died from copperhead bites, but there's one thing everyone seems to agree on: it's really really rare! The chances of an American dying from an auto accident, a staph infection, or even an earthquake (to list just a few examples) are much greater than those of dying from a venomous snakebite (from any kind of snake, not just copperheads). Remember that the next time you go for a drive.

Anonymous from Florida: Are you positive it was a copperhead? Juvenile cottonmouths often are light-colored with brown markings (they get darker as they get older) and could easily be mistaken for copperheads. So could some of the numerous harmless snake species native to that state.

Daniel Spurgeon said...

Wow! Thanks for the helpful feedback to the article, Belle. I agree with our assessments. I let the Copperhead live. We have found 2 of them in our 2 acre wooded yard- I am sure that there are more of them here and the kids have been taught to respect them. I also was thinking the same thing in your feedback regarding the snake south of Jacksonville, FL that someone reported. The young Cottonmouths do look a lot like Copperheads. Here is a link to a photo of a young Florida variety of the Cottonmouth: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_YS7D4A3EeLc/SMHdRQFLLCI/AAAAAAAAHOU/MuOaKNC3xe8/s1600-h/IMG_9410.jpg that I took in the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia. Again, thanks for the helpful feedback!

Carolyn Hietala said...

Oh how stunning!
....and so glad you didn't step on this beauty ;0)

Belle said...

Thanks, Daniel. I'm glad you found my comments helpful. I love your photos. My attempts at wildlife photography never turn out so perfect!

I think cottonmouths and copperheads are such handsome animals, especially the bright-colored young cottonmouths. The coloring of juvenile cottonmouths kind of reminds me of their tropical cousin, the cantil. I wonder why they're so bright-colored compared to the adults. I assume it's some kind of habitat/behavior difference but I can't imagine what it might be. I haven't had any real chance to observe them since I live too far inland for there to be any around here.

Thanks for posting these great photos and the accompanying articles! Like I said, the photos are beautiful, and it's always nice to see an article on the 'net about snakes (especially venomous ones) that is scientifically accurate rather than sensationalistic and takes a positive view of these fascinating creatures instead of talking about them as though they were monsters and out to get us all. I think that you've made an important contribution to the internet: hopefully, people who come to this page will learn something about the copperhead and maybe even revised their attitudes (okay, so that's probably too much to hope for...).