Eastern Copperhead
(Agkistrodon contortrix)

Caution: This snake is highly venomous! If you encounter this snake the best practice is to leave the snake alone and maintain a respectful distance from the snake. 

Description: Like many viperids, copperheads are fairly heavy bodied snake. The average adult length is 20-40 inches (50-100cm), with full grown males generally towards the larger end of that spectrum. They range in hue from tan to dark brown with darker brown hourglass shaped bands going down the length of the body. Their large ‘Triangular’ shaped copper-colored head gives them their common name. Juveniles are similar in appearance to adults, but have a vibrant yellow tail.

Like all other pit vipers in the area copperhead have elliptical pupils, keeled scales, and a single row of ventral scales after the anal plate. They also have heat-sensitive organs located on each side of their head just behind their nostrils that allow them to detect warmer objects in their environment. A common identification of the family is the large ‘triangular’ shaped head that has a definitively broader than the neck. In contrast, the widest part of the head in many other snakes is only marginally wider than the rest of the body.

Natural History: Copperheads can be found in a variety of habitats across their range, but show a preference for deciduous woodland habitat or forests with significant ground cover. Like most viperids, they are generally ambush predators and are extremely reliant on their exceptional camouflage. They will sit and wait in for prey items to arrive and then deploy a swift bite administering a hemolytic venom. Occasionally they will seek out and forage for prey – especially during periods of cicada emergences. Juveniles use their bright yellow tail as a caudal lure to proactively attract prey. Suitable prey items include small mammals, other reptiles, amphibians, birds, and a variety of invertebrates such as cicadas and caterpillars.

During the winter, Copperheads often brumate with other conspecifics as well as Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) and Eastern Ratsnakes (Pantherophis obsoletus). They reach sexual maturity at about 4 years old and mating generally occurs in the Spring, and occasionally in the Fall. During this time males travel far distances in search of females and can be witnessed engaging in male-male combat with other males. Females will give birth from 2-18 live young in late summer/early fall. It is suggested that facultative parthenogenesis may occur in this species meaning females can give virgin birth.

Distribution: This snake is distributed across a wide range of the in the Eastern and Central United States. It has been recorded as far west as western Texas and Northern Mexico, and as far north as Massachusetts. A. c. contortrix (the subspecies most commonly encountered in South Carolina) covers a range in the Southeastern United States and west to Texas. Very few sightings of this species have been recorded south of the Florida panhandle

Notes: Copperheads are responsible for the highest number of venomous snake bites in South Carolina. Envenomation symptoms include extreme pain, swelling, and nausea. Even though copperhead envenomations are typically less severe than other venomous species in the area, fatalities have occurred and all bites should be taken very seriously. Victims should attempt to stay calm and seek immediate medical attention.

Contributed by Jake Zadik (02/28/2020)