Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) are venomous pit-vipers, endemic to the southern and eastern states of the United States. Though uncommon, copperheads are well known, and are responsible for the largest number of snake bites within the United States.
What do copperheads look like? Medium-sized with wide bodies, these snakes are brownish tan, with distinctive, dark, horizontal hourglass bands from head to tail. Their heads are triangular, with vertical slit pupils.
The ‘pit’ in pit-viper refers to the heat-sensing pit found between eyes and nostrils on the snake’s head, which allows them to ‘visualize’ infrared heat. While different types of pit-viper are found all over the world, copperheads are only found in the United States.
Copperheads are masters of camouflage, so they can be very tricky to spot. This is especially so because of their habit of freezing when frightened. Freezing allows their camouflage to take full effect. For this reason, most copperhead bites occur when passers-by accidentally step on them. They are not aggressive towards humans, but are known for striking without warning, if they feel threatened.
How can you tell a copperhead from a northern water snake, a corn snake or a black racer? What should you do if you see one in the wild—or in your backyard? Are the babies just as dangerous as the adult copperheads?
In this guide, I will attempt to answer all your burning questions. It covers everything you need to know when it comes to copperhead snakes:
- How dangerous are copperheads?
- How can you identify copperheads?
- What is a copperhead’s ideal habitat, and in which states are they most commonly found?
- What does a baby copperhead look like?
- How do you distinguish between copperheads and other similar snake species? (This is important, because most of their doppelgangers are harmless!)
- What is the best way to avoid copperheads? How should you act around them?
- And finally, if it comes to it—what should you do if you’re bitten by a copperhead?
That’s right—if you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to identifying, avoiding and handling copperheads, you’re in the right place!
Danger Level: How dangerous are copperheads?
Copperheads belong to the same genus as cottonmouths (or water moccasins), and the same subfamily as rattlesnakes (Crotalinae), both of which are also venomous. They inject their venom through two sharp fangs, which is how they immobilize and, ultimately, kill their prey.
There are many venomous snakes in the United States, among which the copper head actually possesses the weakest venom. The copperhead diet typically consists of insects, frogs and small rodents, so their venom only needs to be strong enough to kill those animals. It is very uncommon that a copperhead bite has proved fatal to a human.
That may be reassuring, but copperhead bites are still very unpleasant.
While there have only been a handful of fatalities due to copperhead bites over the last 100 years, they are definitely something to watch out for. They are sometimes found in campsites and on walking trails, so it’s important to be able to identify them, and to know what to do if you come face to face with one! I’ll go into more detail about what to do if you are bitten later on.
First, you need to know what they look like.
A note on the benefits of copperheads: Venomous snakes play into the age old phobia of the serpent (or ophiophobia), but copperheads actually perform a very useful task. They predominantly feed on rodents, and play a pivotal role in maintaining rodent populations. Without copperheads and other rodent-eating snakes, rodent populations would spike, which would lead to a large increase in disease and crop damage. So try not to hate on them too much!
Description: Identifying features and characteristics
Copperhead snakes are medium sized, rarely growing to more than 2.5 ft. Here are the main things to look out for, when identifying a copperhead.
1. Head and Body Shape
The most obvious feature of a copperhead is its stout body and tapering tail. If you’re looking at a slender snake, it’s almost certainly not a copperhead.
Another distinctive feature of the copperhead is its well defined, distinctive neck. This is an uncommon characteristic—in many snakes, the neck is invisible, making the head and body completely indistinguishable.
Next, note the copperhead’s flat, broad head. Its head extends over its mouth and its snout slopes backwards. Don’t try to identify it purely by its head shape though, as several other similar looking snakes have evolved to imitate the idiosyncratic flat head of the viper. Tricky!
In terms of coloration and patterning, the copperhead has a base color of light brown, tan or muddy orange. Sometimes, it has a faint, pinkish hue. Thick, irregular hourglass shaped bands run along its length, from the head to the tip of the tail. The pigmentation of the bands varies – they can be solid or fade out as they expand. They also vary in color, from blackish brown to muddy green-brown.
These markings enable the snake to blend in to the leaves on the forest floor, so watch out for them if you go hiking in their neck of the woods!
Copperheads are sometimes nicknamed highland moccasins or dry-land moccasins, but the name ‘copperhead’ sticks because it describes their most distinctive feature. They owe this nickname to their coloration, which is most coppery on the head.
3. Pupil Shape
Another distinctive feature is the vertical slit pupil. This is hard to spot from a distance, but can be quite visually striking if you see it in the light. This is a characteristic the copperhead shares with three other venomous pit-vipers, namely the eastern copperhead, eastern cottonmouth and timber rattlesnake.
It is an excellent identifier of danger, as snakes with round pupils are almost always harmless.
4. Scale Configuration
This is a bit more specialist, and not entirely practical when identifying a copperhead in the wild, but it’s still worth knowing.
If you get the chance to inspect the underside of a copperhead, you will be able to identify it easily. The scales below the anal plate will be aligned in a single row, whereas other harmless snakes have a double row.
Now you know! So, where can you expect to find copperheads?
Habitat: Where will you find different types of copperhead?
Copperhead snakes are endemic to North America, which means they don’t occur naturally anywhere else.
Despite not being particularly common, copperheads can be found in 28 out of 50 US states, predominantly in the mid-south and east coast states. If you live in central US further north than Nebraska, you shouldn’t have to worry about them. Likewise, if you live on the east coast further north than Massachusetts, or anywhere near the west coast, in Hawaii or Alaska, you’re all clear.
There are five different subspecies of the copperhead. They look similar, and are all venomous, but have adapted differently to their relative surroundings. The five subspecies are:
- Northern copperhead
- This subspecies is found in northern Mississippi, southern Illinois, Alabama and Georgia, and stretches all the way up northeast to Massachusetts.
- They reside in the Appalachian Mountain area of the United States.
- Southern copperhead
- Found in the Mississippi Valley area, the states which border the Gulf of Mexico, and the South Atlantic Coastal Plain.
- This is the original copperhead snake, or ‘nominate’ subspecies.
- Broad-banded copperhead
- Found in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
- Osage copperhead
- Found in Missouri, Southern Nebraska and Kansas.
- Trans-Pecos copperhead
- Found only in northern Mexico and western Texas.
They like the cover of forest, though often make their dens in rocky areas. Some subspecies have adapted to marshlands, living off waterborne food sources. They are also attracted to standing water, like lakes and ponds; rivers, small and large; and rocky areas. They are able swimmers and can even climb trees.
So, if you live in a marshy or woodland area in the southeast of the United States, or plan on spending some leisure time there, you could come face to face with a copperhead. If so, you need to be able to identify a copperhead, and distinguish it from other similar species.
First, though, you might be wondering whether there are any significant differences in appearance between adult copperheads and juvenile, or baby, copperheads.
Copperhead Offspring: What’s the difference between an adult and a baby copperhead?
The bad news is that baby and juvenile copperheads are just as dangerous as their parents. Think of them like stinging nettles—you really have to watch out for the smaller ones, because they pack just as much of a punch as the big ones.
The good news is that baby and juvenile copperheads are easily identifiable—so you don’t need to learn anything else! They look just like adults, except one defining feature. This makes recognizing them a straightforward task. Their smaller size just means you have to look a bit closer to spot them.
There is just one practical distinction between baby and adult copperheads—babies have a caudal lure. In layman’s terms, a caudal lure is a feature, possessed by a predator (or an action taken by a predator) in order to lure its prey. There are many examples of this in the natural world.
All copperheads are born with a fluorescent yellow-green coloration on the tip of their tails. Baby copperheads wiggle this in order to imitate the movement of worms. This attracts frogs, which approach with a tasty lunch in mind.
This bright yellow-green color fades before the snake is a year old, at the same time that the snake starts to feed on rodents.
This distinctive feature is a telltale sign of a baby copperhead, and is something to watch out for. It is also worth noting that juvenile water moccasins, which belong to the same genus as copperheads, have a similar feature. They are also dangerous, so you can treat the fluorescent ‘caudal lure’ as a sign of danger.
- Are born around 8 inches long, but tend to grow quickly.
- Look very similar, if not identical, to their adult counterparts – they have the same body, head and eye shape.
- Are the same identifiable coppery head color as adults, and have the same characteristic horizontal hourglass pattern.
- Have fairly predictable patterns of behavior – they like to eat insects and small amphibians, and can be found in the same habitats as their prey.
Now that you can identify a baby copperhead from its adult counterpart, it’s time to learn how to identify a copperhead from its harmless cousins.
Similar Snakes: 7 snakes which you can mistake for copperheads
If you venture out into woodland or grassy, marshy areas in the US states outlined above, you should remain vigilant. Copperheads are excellently camouflaged and are known to bite without warning. However, there are harmless snakes which look very similar living in the same habitats. Here’s what you need to know:
- Black Rat Snake (aka Eastern Rat Snake): these are commonly found in gardens across the United States. This is the snake most commonly mixed up with the copperhead.
Unlike copperheads, black rat snakes are harmless. Adults are easy to tell apart from copperheads, as they don’t have a pattern—they are almost always uniformly black-brown. However, black rat snakes begin life with a vivid pattern of brown blotches on a pale background. These blotches mean they can easily be mistaken for juvenile copperheads. However, there are some giveaways.
- Grey or brown heads, as opposed to copperheads’ signature copper color heads.
- Narrow, ovular heads, easy to tell apart from the spade-like head of a copperhead.
- Round pupils, unlike the vertical slit pupils which are so distinctive in a copperhead.
- No caudal lure—juvenile black rat snakes don’t have the same yellow-green tail tip as copperheads, which makes them easy to tell apart.
Also, it is worth pointing out that black rat snakes like to take refuge in warm places during winter. Such warm places sometimes include human occupied dwellings, like attics and basements. In contrast, copperheads do not usually seek refuge in places occupied by humans.
- Black Racer Snake (or Northern Black Racer): these are a different species from black rat snakes, but are very similar in appearance.
As adults, they are obviously different from copperheads, but the juveniles have some similar characteristics. Like black rat snakes, they are born with a blotched pattern which typically fades as the snake reaches full growth. Juvenile black racers can be told apart from copperheads by looking at their head color, head shape, and tail color.
- Eastern Milk Snake: mostly, eastern milk snakes look different enough from copperheads to make distinction easy.
They normally have a much lighter background color, with bright black-red-yellow bands. Also, they are mostly found in mountainous areas, whereas copperheads prefer marshy or woodland areas. However, the brightness of their coloration varies, meaning they sometimes resemble copperheads.
- Smooth, flat scales, as opposed to the copperhead’s keeled scales.
- Narrow, ovular heads without any distinction between head and neck.
- Higher contrast between pattern and background colors; and their bands have thick black outlines.
- Northern Water Snake: these snakes have a pattern which varies greatly in color and shape. As a result, some look very different to copperheads, whereas others can look quite similar.
As the name suggests, these snakes are most often found near water. Like copperheads, they are tan with darker, reddish brown markings in the shape of thick bands. But there are some key features to watch out for.
- Much narrower heads, with little or no distinction between neck and head.
- Round pupils, in contrast to the vertical slit pupils of copperheads.
- Their markings are the inverse of the copperhead’s hourglass pattern—they are thick along the dorsal line, and thin on the sides.
- Northern water snakes are typically darker than copperheads—their background hue is darker brown, and their markings are more like mahogany than copper.
- Eastern Hog-nosed Snake: as with northern water snakes, the eastern hog-nosed snake varies greatly in color and pattern.
The key giveaway, if you come across an eastern hog-nose and it feels threatened, is that it will puff itself up and hiss loudly in order to intimidate you. It will also spread its neck and strike with its mouth closed, in an attempt to scare you away. This is markedly different from the behavior of a copperhead, which is to freeze and then slink away.
- Red Corn Snake (aka Red Rat Snake): wild corn snakes are a subspecies of rat snake, and can be mistaken for copperheads.
However, their bodies are different in shape and length, and they are usually redder than copperheads—hence the name. Unlike the eastern/black rat snake, red corn snakes keep their pattern as they age.
- Narrow heads without distinction between head and neck.
- Slimmer, more streamlined body.
- Ovular markings, as opposed to the hourglass-shaped markings of a copperhead.
- Brighter colors—corn snakes typically have an orangey background color, with brighter, more vivid orange-red markings.
- Black and white, checkered bellies—though you’re unlikely to get a good view of its underside, this is a clear giveaway.
- Northern Mole Kingsnake: the pattern on these snakes usually fades to a uniform brown as the snake reaches adulthood. But not always.
The main similarity in their relative patterns is that they both have a light background color, with darker dorsal bands. However, the colors are different: northern mole kingsnakes have a bluish-grey background with smaller, darker red markings.
Congratulations! Now you can tell copperheads from corn snakes, black rat snakes, black racers, eastern milk snakes, northern water snakes, red corn snakes, eastern hog-nosed snakes and northern mole kingsnakes.
The question remains: what do you do if you see a copperhead in your backyard, or in the wild?
Staying Safe: How do you avoid copperheads, and how should you act around them?
Many venomous snakes give off some kind of warning sign before striking. Copperheads, however, are shy until they are erratic, and can strike suddenly, without signal. That being said, do not think of them as aggressive. They will only attack if provoked.
If you see a copperhead snake,
- Stay calm and give it a wide berth. Whether you’re in its habitat (i.e., the wild), or it’s in yours (they do turn up in backyards from time to time), the best thing to do is remain calm and keep your distance. Spotting it in the first place means you’re almost certain not to get bitten. Most bites occur when someone accidentally steps on a copperhead, so by seeing it first, you’ve won half the battle.
- No sudden movements. If you’re within its strike zone, stop moving completely. This will let it know that you don’t mean to attack it.
- Slowly, back away from the snake. Don’t try to scare it away, catch it or kill it—it’s not worth the risk. Copperheads are not aggressive towards humans, so if you leave it alone, that will most likely be reciprocated.
You might be thinking, ‘I did all that, but I still got bitten! What should I do?’
If you are bitten by any snake, try to identify the species. Take a photo of the snake, as it will be much easier for someone else to identify it from an image, rather than a description.
Injury: What should you do if bitten by a copperhead?
These are the steps you should take:
- Relax. Panicking will not help whoever has been bitten, whether it’s you or someone else.
- Do not try and drive yourself to the hospital. Symptoms include lightheadedness and disturbed vision, so driving may be unsafe. If you have someone with you who can drive, go immediately with them to the hospital. If not, call the emergency services.
- Sanitize the site of the wound. Remove any jewelry or tight clothing from the area, before the swelling sets in. If you have a medical kit to hand, apply a pressure immobilization bandage to the wound site.
- Do not try to suck out the venom. You might be tempted to apply ice or a tourniquet, or even to try and suck out the venom. This is not recommended. Do not interfere with the wound in any way. Instead, ensure the site is clean and await medical attention.
There is a 50% chance you will be required to stay overnight at the hospital.The venom is nasty, but very rarely fatal. If you’re bitten, you may experience any or all of the following symptoms:
- Shock and a feeling of weakness
- Disturbed or distorted vision
- Sweating and increased salivation
- Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Labored breathing
- Swelling (edema)
- A feeling of numbness or tingling on the face or limbs
- Bruising and discoloration of the skin
- A reduction in blood pressure
- Immediate, localized pain, which spreads outwards from the site of the bite
The good news is that copperhead bites seldom necessitate antivenin. The symptoms will naturally subside. The bad news is that some people are allergic to the venom, which means they experience a host of other side effects.
CONCLUSION: Final Thoughts
Of all snakes extant in the United States, copperheads are responsible for the highest number of bites. This is not because they are aggressive or provocative, rather it is because they are excellently camouflaged and tend to freeze when in danger. As a result, they are frequently stepped on by unsuspecting passers-by.
There is no reason to kill these snakes—attacking them will only make them more likely to retaliate. If you see a snake which resembles a copperhead, keep in mind the descriptions I have given you, of similar snakes. Note their distinctive characteristics: the triangular head, the narrow neck, the stout body, the hourglass-shaped bands and the vertical slit pupils.
If you see one in the wild, or in your backyard, give it space. It will almost certainly stay where it is until it knows you are not a threat, and then back away. In many ways, snakes are beautiful creatures. Try to understand them, and treat them with respect and distance, and you are very unlikely to have any problems with them!
Do you have something to share? Have you had any good or bad experiences? Do you like snakes, or are you terrified of them? Let us know in the comments below—we’d love to hear about your personal experiences!
Good luck out there!