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American Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)

By: C.M.Shorter

The American Copperhead snake, more commonly referred to simply as a "Copperhead" is one of the most well known poisonous snakes of North America. Mother Nature has made a blueprint for us to follow and both the novice and seasoned herpetologist alike will immediately recognize this poisonous snake by the prominent copper color of its head. The American Copperhead is overall chestnut in color with dark brown bands crisscrossing the length of its rust and copper colored body forming a striking geometric cross-band pattern. This pattern is wider in the center of the body narrowing towards each end.

American Copperhead
American Copperhead
Pictures of American Copperheads >> CLICK HERE TO SEE ANIMAL WEBCAMS
One must be careful when exploring the wilderness because it is these same beautiful markings that give the Copperhead its natural camouflage. When a Copperhead snake coils up on a bed of fallen leaves they become virtually invisible. Like most snakes, the preferred snake habitat for Copperheads is wooded hillsides, the cover of dense forest edges and overgrown thickets where there is plenty of ground cover with rocks and fallen debris. The snake venom of the American Copperhead is hemotoxic with most snake bites occurring when the snakes are stepped on accidentally or by campers bedding down right next to one. Copperheads, not known to be aggressive, normally have a quiet disposition but when threatened or startled they will vigorously defend themselves from danger.

The American Copperheads, including the Northern Copperhead & Southern Copperhead subspecies, are common over much of their range. These Copperhead snakes are found most often in rocky, wooded and mountainous regions throughout the Eastern Gulf States, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio and most of the southeastern United States extending from northern Florida all the way into Massachusetts. Average length of the American Copperhead is 60 centimeters, but some specimens have been recorded to reach 120 centimeters.

Copperheads are members of the Viperidae (Pit Viper) family of snakes having folded-fangs classified in the group solenoglypha. Pit Vipers are thick bodied and characterized by a triangular shaped head that is quite wide in relation to their necks. All Pit Vipers have heat sensitive "pits" on each side of their face positioned between the nostril and eye which they use to locate prey. Snakes in the Crotalidae family, like the Cottonmouth and Rattlesnakes are broad spectrum carnivores performing a task very beneficial to mankind by consuming many small mammals, particularly rats and mice, a very important factor in natural rodent population control. Snakes help us sustain a healthy balance of life in natural ecosystems by eating a variety of prey including small rodents, birds, frogs, large insects, lizards and often other snakes.

One interesting trait common in all young Copperhead species is the young have light green to yellowish tipped tails - see Pictures of Copperheads. When hidden among the brush and fallen leaves, baby Copperheads use this brightly colored natural decoy to simulate the movement of a worm or grub. Nature's very clever way for the young snakes to lure potential predators close enough for them to devour for their own meal! This yellow-green tail decoy disappears as the snake matures and becomes more proficient at feeding.

Poisonous snakes have eye pupils that are elliptical, a special nocturnal vision adaptation for night hunting. Like all snakes in the Pit Viper family, Copperheads are ambush predators surprising prey from a vantage point. American Copperheads are venomous with a very efficient hollow fang venom delivery system. Copperheads are responsible for inflicting numerous recorded snake bites. Equipped with long fangs curved to the back for holding onto prey, Copperheads are efficient predators but their bite is rarely deadly to human victims. Many snake bites delivered by snakes in the Copperhead family occur on the outer extremities such as hands and feet where there is little muscle tissue to absorb the envenomization. These hemotoxic snake bites usually result in severe swelling, throbbing and nausea to the victim. An effective Copperhead Antivenom exists, but is only administered as a last resort because the threat of allergic reaction is usually more dangerous to the victim than the snakebite itself.

Wilderness exploration is a valuable and enriching experience. The most avid naturalists believe that wilderness is best viewed from a distance and left undisturbed the way nature intended. It is best before venturing out on your explorations to become educated about Wilderness Survival to be able to appreciate the wonder of its beauty but be aware of the potential dangers that come with the territory.

Common Name: American Copperhead
Scientific Name: Agkistrodon contortrix
Snake Family: Viperidae
Genus: Agkistrodon
Description: Chestnut in color with dark brown bands crisscrossing the length of its rust and copper colored body with prominent copper head color.
Characteristics: Not known to be aggressive but will defend themselves when threatened.
Reproduction: Copperheads are viviparous (bearing live young) and breed from spring to fall giving birth to as many as 14 young from late summer to early fall.
Length: 50 - 100 centimeters (Approx. 1 1/2 - 3 ft)
Habitat Distribution: America - Eastern Gulf States, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio and throughout most of the southeastern United States from north Florida and into Massachusetts
Northern Copperhead (A. contortrix mokasen)
Southern Copperhead (A. contortrix contortrix)
Broad-Banded Copperhead (A. contortrix laticinctus)
Trans-Pecos Copperhead (A. contortrix pictigaster)
The genus Agkistrodon includes 10 species. Not known to be overly aggressive Copperheads are one of the 4 species native to North America. Another native North American species is the Cottonmouth or "Water Moccasin". Remaining Agkistrodon subspecies are found in Asia and the Asian islands and include the Himalayan Viper, Okinawan Habu and Siberian Moccasin. The three known Australian Copperhead subspecies, although similarly named, are members of the Elapidae family of snakes and not related.

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