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.