Northern Copperhead
Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen

*** VENOMOUS ***

Venomous Snake Bite Information || Copperhead look-a-likes || Cottonmouth look-a-likes || Safety Precautions in Copperhead Country

Common Name:

Northern Copperhead

Scientific Name:

Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen

Etymology:

Genus:

Agkistrodon is derived from the Greek word ancistron which means "fishhook". This is in reference to recurved fangs.

Species:

contortrix is from the Latin word contortus which means "twisted" or "intricate" in reference to the dorsal pattern.

Subspecies:

mokasen is the Native American Algonquian word meaning "moccasin".

Vernacular Names:

Dumb rattlesnake, red adder, red eye, red snake, white oak snake, deaf snake, beech-leaf snake, chuck head, copper adder, copper-bell, deaf adder, hazel head, popular leaf snake, thunder snake, harlequin snake.

Average Length:

24-36 in. (61-90 cm)

Virginia Record Length:

48 in. (121.9 cm)

Record length:

53 in. (134.6 cm)

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: The length of this species is 24-36 inches and the color is coppery-red on the head with an hourglass pattern. There are dark rounded spots at the sides of belly and the scales are weakly keeled *882*. The dorsum of the body and tail are pinkish tan to dark brown and almost black, with hourglass shaped crossbands colored chestnut to dark brown; most dorsal scales are sprinkled with black flecks; head is triangular and the labial region of chin and the venter are cream colored; the neck is narrow and the dorsum of the head is flat *10760*. Adult males are generally larger than females; Juveniles have the same color patterns as the adults, except the tip of the tail is a sulfur yellow and lack the black flecking of the adults *10760*. There is some regional differences in body color and pattern throughout Virginia *10760*. At least seven melanistic individuals have been documented. The record length is 53 inches. The longevity record for this species is 9 years, 5 months *11523*.

REPRODUCTION: This species mates in April or May *1008*. Fall mating has also been recorded in September *11523,11499*. 1-17 young are born from mid-August to early October *1101*, occasionally as early as July *1008*. The young are 8-9 3/4 inches at birth *882*. The young have a yellow tail tip, and a narrow dark line through the eye that divides the dark head from the pale lips *882*. Sexual activity is rarely observed, and they are probably nocturnal and under cover. Mating often occurs when individuals congregate along hibernation ledges in the spring and fall *2066,949,10760*. Hibernation is from November to April *2066,1008*, in crevices in rock outcroppings, with a preference for a southern exposure *2066*. They will often hibernate in the company of other snakes *882*. Most of the birthing occurs from late August to early October; litter sizes range from 3-15 in Virginia *10760*.

BEHAVIOR: This species is normally sluggish, and they rely on camouflage to escape detection *1013*. They are gregarious *882* and largely nocturnal *2067*. They may vibrate the tail rapidly when alarmed *882*. The summer cover is under logs, rocks, piles of rubbish, in stone walls and cracks in foundations *949,10760*. The home range for males average 27.4 acres, and for females 8.5 acres. In autumn, after birth of the young, at least 5 individuals may be found per acre of favorable habitat *2066*. Studies have shown that six or seven adult copperheads per acre can be found when conditions are optimal *11523,11500*. They may wander into brush, grassland or weedy fields *2066*. The alert pose is a coiled body, with the head at a 45 degree angle; vibrates tail when disturbed; generally remains alert and motionless to hide itself; usually docile when caught but will strike if aggravated; give off a pungent odor when very warm; males sometimes engage in combat before the mating period; during mating one observation found them to coil around each other and look at each other and occasionally unwrap one coil length and then recoil with the heads always about 4in. apart *10760*.

AQUATIC/TERRESTRIAL ASSOCIATIONS: This species is associated with Microtus pennsylvanicus, Peromycus leucopus, Blarina brevicauda, Quercus alba, Quercus rubra, Kalmia latifolia *2066*. Black racers (Coluber constrictor) and red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are known to prey on this species *11523*.

References for Life History

  • 882 - Conant, R., 1958, A field guide to reptiles and amphibians of the United States and Canada east of the 100th Meridian, 366 pgs., Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA
  • 949 - Minton, S.A., 1972, Amphibians and Reptiles of Indiana, Indiana Academy of Science Monograph, Vol. 3, 346 pgs., Indiana Academy of Science, Indianapolis
  • 1008 - Barbour, R.W., 1971, Amphibians and reptiles of Kentucky, 334 pgs., Univ. of Kentucky Press, Lexington, KY
  • 1101 - Mitchell, J. C., 1974, Snakes of Virginia, Virginia Wildl., Vol. 35, Num. 2, pg. 16-19
  • 2066 - Fitch, H.S., 1960, Autecology of the copperhead, Univ. Kans. Publ. Mus. Nat. Hist., Vol. 13, pg. 85-288
  • 2067 - Commission, Pennsylvania Fish, 1976, Pennsylvania reptiles and amphibians, 44 pgs., Pa. Fish. Comm., Harrisburg
  • 10760 - Mitchell, J. C., 1994, The Reptiles of Virginia, 352 pgs., Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC
  • 11499 - Palmer, W.M., A.L. Braswell, 1994, The Reptiles of North Carolina, UNC Press, Chapel Hill, NC
  • 11500 - Tennant, A., R.D. Bartlett, 2000, Snakes of North America, Eastern and Central Regions, Gulf Publishing Company, Houston, TX
  • 11523 - Thorp, T.J., 2001, Personal Communication, Expert Review for GAP Analysis Project, Three Lakes Nature Center and Aquarium

Description

Northern Copperheads have dark colored crossbands that are for the most part shaped like an hourglass.
Usually some of the crossbands are broken and do not connect.


The northern copperhead is a pit-viper, as are all three of Virginia's venomous snake species (northern copperhead, eastern cottonmouth and timber rattlesnake). The "pit" in pit-viper refers to the heating sensing pit located between the eye and the nostrils on the snake's head. In addition to the heat sensing pit all three venomous snakes in Virginia have vertical pupils. All harmless snakes in Virginia have round pupils and lack the heat sensing pits. Another characteristic of all Virginia's venomous snakes is the single row of scales on the underside of the tail after the anal plate (vent).

While close inspection of a snake's face and/or it's anal plate is a definitive way to distinguish a venomous snake from a harmless species, it requires one to get dangerously close to a potentially dangerous animal. It is far better to learn the pattern and coloration of a few snakes so that a specimen may be identified from a safe distance.

Copperheads play a pivotal role in controlling rodent populations. Without copperheads and other rodent eating snakes there would be a drastic increase in crop/food damage and rodent spread diseases. While Copperheads are venomous they are very placid snakes that only bite if stepped on or otherwise threatened. If you see a copperhead, leave it alone and rest assured it will do its best to avoid you.



Confusing Species

Probably the most common snake misidentified as a copperhead is the harmless juvenile eastern ratsnake (formerly called the blackrat snake). The eastern ratsnake starts life with a strong pattern of gray or brown blotches on a pale gray background. As the eastern ratsnake ages the pattern fades and the snake becomes black, often with just a hint of the juvenile pattern remaining.

Around late August to mid October depending on the temperatures, eastern rat snakes look for a nice warm place to wait out the upcoming winter. Frequently these snake will choose a house attic, crawlspace or basement. Luckily, copperheads don't usually seek winter refuge in human occupied dwellings.

Northern Copperhead vs. Eastern Ratsnake

Venomous Northern Copperhead Harmless Eastern Ratsnake
Both the northern copperhead and eastern ratsnake are found state wide in Virginia.
The hourglass pattern on the copperhead's back starts on the side of the snake. The blotch pattern of the eastern ratsnake do not extend to the sides.

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Northern Copperhead vs. Northern Black Racer

Like the eastern ratsnake, black racers are also born with a blotched pattern. However, unlike the eastern rat snake that may retain the juvenile pattern for several years, the pattern of the black racer usually fades to a uniformed black within the first two years of life. Juvenile black racers usually do not seek winter refuge in human occupied dwellings. Black racers are usually one of the first snakes to become active when spring arrives.

Venomous Northern Copperhead Harmless Northern Black Racer
Both the northern copperhead and northern black racer are found state wide in Virginia.

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Northern Copperhead vs. Northern Watersnake

Juvenile and subadult northern watersnakes have a pattern that can vary greatly in color, from dark grayish to a reddish brown. The color of some individuals watersnakes can come close to that of some copperheads, however the pattern on the northern watersnake is always narrow on the sides and wide near the backbone. This is completely opposite of the pattern found on the copperhead (wide on the sides and narrow near the back bone). Some adult northern watersnakes retain a strong, distinct juvenile pattern while others become a uniformed brown. As the name implies, the northern watersnake is usually found in close proximity to water.

Venomous Northern Copperhead Harmless Northern Water Snake
Both the northern copperhead and northern watersnake are found state wide in Virginia.

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Northern Copperhead vs. Eastern Milksnake

The pattern of the eastern milksnake is fairly consistent in Virginia, however the intensity of the colors can vary quite a bit. Usually the blotches across the back are outlined in black. Eastern milksnakes are found state wide, but are more abundant in the mountainous regions.

Venomous Northern Copperhead Harmless Eastern Milksnake
Both the northern copperhead and eastern milksnake are found state wide in Virginia.

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Northern Copperhead vs. Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern hognose snakes are the great actors of the snake world. In an effort to ward off predators these snakes will puff-up, hiss loudly, spread their neck and strike with the mouth closed. If all else fails the hognose snake will roll over and play dead. Found state wide the pattern and coloration of these snake can vary greatly. Eastern hognose snakes prefer sandy soil and primarily feed on toads.

Venomous Northern Copperhead Harmless Eastern Hognose Snake
Both the northern copperhead and eastern hog-nosed snake are found state wide in Virginia.
The pattern of the eastern hognose snake can vary greatly and thus isn't a reliable identifying characteristic.

The upturned snout of the hognose snake is unique among Virginia's snakes.

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Northern Copperhead vs. Corn Snake

The corn snake also known as the red ratsnake is usually more brightly colored and and has a more reddish hue than that of the copperhead. The pattern of the corn snake is a blotch that does not extend down the sides to the ground. Unlike the juvenile pattern of the eastern ratsnake that fades as the snake ages, the pattern of the corn snake remains distinct regardless of age.

Venomous Northern Copperhead Harmless Corn Snake

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Northern Copperhead vs. Mole Kingsnake

Juvenile mole kingsnakes have a strong pattern that usually, but not always fades to a uniformed brown as the snake ages. Mole kingsnakes are seldom seen out in the open and are general found under surface cover (plywood, tin, flat rocks, etc..). Mole kingsnakes will sometime venture out in the open after a heavy rain.

Venomous Northern Copperhead Harmless Mole Kingsnake

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FROGS

Virginia is home to 28 species of frogs and toads.

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We have a large diversity of salamanders consisting of 56 different species and subspecies.

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Virginia is home to 9 native lizard species and two introduced species, the Mediterranean Gecko and the Italian Wall Lizard.

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