Copperheads are one of the most prevalent species of snake found in North America. These reptiles are not likely to attack unless provoked. But they have a quick response if we handle them or step on them. As with most snakes, the lower extremities of the legs are the area most prone to a copperhead attack. A bite from this species is dangerous but rarely fatal. Due to the slightly different markings of baby copperheads, you may ask, “Actually, what does a baby copperhead look like?” We provide the answer to this question among others in this article.
Identifying snakes can be a confusing process, but it is essential to be able to do it. Firstly, you need to be able to distinguish between the venomous and non-venomous ones. You may not realize it, but snakes form a vital part of our ecosystem. They are the farmer’s friends as they feed on rats and other rodents which are responsible for destroying crops. Many snake species are similar in appearance to copperheads. It is useful to know the difference.
Apart from being able to identify it, it is also important to know where they live. Knowing a bit about how copperhead snakes behave, will tell you what to do if you see one. We discuss all these interesting and useful facts here. Read on become more acquainted with these fascinating but potentially dangerous reptiles and how to safely co-exist with them.
Copperhead snakes: background
Copperheads get their name from the copper-colored head of the species. There are many similar-looking snakes like cottonmouths, black rat snakes and certain other varieties of pit vipers mistakenly called copperheads. However, they are not the same – copperheads have distinct features that set them apart from other.
Copperheads are pit vipers and come from the same family of rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. The “pit” of a pit viper is a heat-sensing pit that you can find between each eye and nostril. These pits help the snake to detect a heat source which is usually a prey or predator.
They are medium-sized with lengths that vary from two to three feet. The females of the species are usually longer than the males. The male, however, has a longer tail.
Apart from the copper-colored head, we can identify them by hourglass-shaped patches all along their bodies. The colors range from chestnut-brown, reddish-brown to dark brown. The hourglass-shaped crossbands are sometimes broken with dark spots in between. Their belly is yellow or light brown, with some dark spots or smudges on the sides.
The venom of this reptile is “hemolytic” which breaks down the red blood corpuscles resulting in tissue damage. The size of the fangs is proportional to the length – the longer the snake, the bigger the fangs.
Even newly-born copperheads produce venom and can deliver a painful bite. So, take adequate precautions while even around the baby snakes.
Identification of copperhead snakes
It is essential to be capable of making a positive identification of a copperhead snake. This will confirm whether the snake that you have seen is poisonous or not. If venomous and it is not a copperhead, then it could be a deadlier species. Countless non-poisonous snakes get killed each year because people cannot distinguish between a poisonous and non-poisonous. You do not even have to kill toxic ones if you can handle them properly. To reiterate, here are the main distinguishing features between copperheads and other species:
Copperhead versus black snakes
The black snake or the black rat snake as it is also called lives in the same areas as copperheads. Although black snakes have similarly thick bodies, they are longer. Of course, the color being black makes it easy to differentiate.
Black snakes also avoid people but can show aggression if approached by a human. They make a sound similar to that of a rattlesnake in a bid to frighten predators. They are unpredictable, but a few of them tend to be docile. It is non-poisonous and unlike the copperhead uses constriction, killing its prey by suffocating it until dead.
Copperhead versus rattlesnakes
The rattlesnake has a unique end to its tail which consists of a rattle. This rattle of interlocking segments of keratin which when vibrated, emits the characteristic rattle. This sound serves the purpose of warding off predators. The head is also different and is diamond-shaped with flared nostrils. They are longer than copperheads and can grow up to 8 feet.
A copperhead is copper-colored, but a rattlesnake is brown. Rattlesnakes prefer dry territory and hence tend to populate the southwest region of North America. You can expect to encounter a rattlesnake in scrublands or dry, desert-like environment. Like copperheads, a rattlesnake’s bite is painful but seldom fatal.
Copperhead versus garter snakes
There is quite a significant difference between these two. While copperheads are poisonous, garter or garden snakes are smaller and non-venomous. They grow to a maximum of 2 feet and can be found in gardens, grasslands, and other grassy areas. It has three long yellow lines which run across the length of the body. An adult garter snake can be grey, olive green or reddish in color. It is also more docile than the copperhead, being a much stronger and aggressive serpent.
Copperhead versus cottonmouth snakes
The cottonmouth snake is also known as “water moccasin,” It is distinguished by a prominent white interior of the moth, which it exposes when it detects a threat. This white interior of the mouth is probably from where it gets its name, as the mouth when opened looks like a boll of cotton. The size is similar to the copperhead, and it grows up to 4 feet in length. This snake is muddy brown, but with different scale colors. Unlike the copperhead, the cottonmouth has black or grey bands on its body. Being shy, the cottonmouth tends to hide a lot. It is also a good swimmer. They prefer the southeastern states, whereas the copperhead occupies the north and west regions. If a cottonmouth bites you, it will be as painful as a copperhead bite, and you should seek medical attention immediately.
Habitat of copperhead snakes
There are five distinct subspecies of copperhead snakes in line with their geographic range. Hence the four categories are:
The commonest-occurring subspecies is the northern copperhead. They are found in Alabama, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
These snakes are quite adaptable to differing surroundings, but are most comfortable in forest areas, as is the case with most snakes. You will find them commonly in “ecotones,” a transition zone between two different ecological regions. Copperheads can be best observed in places with an abundance of rocks and trees, in mountainous areas and near water bodies. You will see them in areas where sunlight and shade are both available.
Other than finding these snakes in their natural habitat, you can find them in sawdust piles, abandoned buildings, and construction sites. They also like to take shelter under large flat stones like paving stones or sheets of wood and boards.
One of the main reasons why copperheads are so easily stepped on is their fantastic camouflage. Even if you see them in a photograph or video, at first glance, you can’t distinguish them from the foliage.
Habits of copperheads
As we mentioned previously, copperhead snake bites are seldom fatal. In fact, when one of these attacks a human, it is more out of defense than offense. The reptile considers the human a predator and is likely to inject a smaller dose of venom than for prey.
Due to this reason, the best approach to an encounter with a copperhead is NOT to approach it. If you ignore it, it will ignore you. Unfortunately, because they are incredibly well-camouflaged. This results in getting in contact with them by accidentally stepping on them. This is worsened by the fact that they freeze if anything moving approaches them. That is when they attack, which is almost always without warning. A useful tip is to use a stick while hiking in terrain populated by these snakes.
Diet of copperheads
Moving on the other habits of copperheads, let’s take a closer look at their diet. These reptiles are carnivores and feed on rodents, insects, and amphibians. They are ambush predators which means that they hide at a vantage point and wait to pounce on their prey. However, they do also forage for food and often prey on caterpillars and cicadas. Their favored diet is rodents and amphibians like frogs and salamanders. Yet, they are also known to feast on birds, small snakes, and lizards whenever they can get them.
These reptiles kill their victims by attacking and biting them, injecting venom and releasing them. They then wait until the venom does it work. Once the prey dies, they track it down and eat it. However, if the prey is small, they may just hold it in the mouth and wait for the victim to die. Having flexibly-hinged jaws, they are able to swallow their food whole. They do not have a chewing mechanism in their mouths.
During the summer, they are nocturnal, and exhibit a high degree of activity during the daylight hours. Like all reptiles, they hibernate during the winter. They go into communal dens or crevices in the rocks.
During this period, they may not eat much and will be sleeping most of the time, even at night. These snakes consume food on a limited basis. On average, an adult copperhead will eat only 10-12 meals during the year. If only more humans could take a leaf out of the book of these predators, we would live much healthier lives.
Breeding pattern of copperhead snakes
Copperhead snakes breed in the summertime. However, they do not reproduce every year. It is common for a female to reproduce consistently over a few years and then suddenly stop. Each female mates with a single male only. The reason for this is during copulation, the male releases a hormone which repels other males from the female.
The mating season of copperheads occurs twice a year. The first period is from February to May and the second from August to October. The mating ritual is rather dramatic. The males compete over the females in what could be best described as “body shoving.” The female stands witness to this contest, where she accepts the dominant male. A male who loses such a challenge will usually admit defeat and make a hasty retreat. Sometimes a female will challenge a prospective male partner and will reject a docile one.
Being oviparous, the female stores the eggs and hatches them within her body. This means that the baby copperhead snake leaves its mother’s body after hatching from the egg. If mating occurs in spring, the female gives birth to 2 to 18 baby snakes in the summer or autumn. If a female mates in autumn, she stores sperm inside her body during her hibernation. In such a scenario, the actual fertilization takes place months later and the babies are born in the warmer months. Baby snakes have fangs and venom and can be equally poisonous as adults.
What does a baby copperhead snake look like?
Since baby copperheads are slightly different from the adult ones in appearance, it’s important to distinguish between both. This is particularly the case in a situation where there are no adults to compare the baby ones with. Here are some of the ways to identify baby copperheads:
- Baby copperheads have a grayish coloration, and the tips of their tails are sulfur-yellow. This yellow color gradually fades as the snake grows older.
- The baby copperhead uses “caudal luring” to wave its yellow tail tip to attract insects.
- Baby copperhead snakes have a diamond-shaped head, just like the adults.
- Another thing about baby copperheads is that the rest of the body markings are similar to the adults. So, you would have to get a bit close to identify them but take adequate precautions before approaching the reptile.
- The baby snakes can be as venomous as the adults, so you need to exercise caution while approaching them.
These basic visual tips about identifying baby copperhead snakes should be sufficient to make a positive identification. But if you want to see one in its element, have a look at this video:
How to deal with copperhead snake bites
Although copperhead snakes are among the least venomous snakes in North America, do not take their bites lightly. If neglected, such a bite could be fatal or result in the loss of a limb.
In case of a copperhead bite, follow these steps immediately:
- Call a local emergency number or 911 to get professional medical help. Remember that the chances of survival and recovery depend on how promptly you get medical assistance.
- If you live in areas populated by venomous snakes, emergency rooms usually keep a stock of antivenin.
Dos and don’ts for copperhead snake bites
Things you should do
- Do remain calm and move the victim from the vicinity of the snake.
- Do try to remember the color and marking of the snake for medical personnel to administer the appropriate antivenin.
- Do Discard restrictive clothing and jewelry.
- Do Place the victim in such a way that the bite is below the heart level.
- Do Wipe the wound with a cloth dipped in antiseptic but do not flush with excess water.
Things you should not do
- Don’t apply a tourniquet or an ice pack to the wound
- Don’t incise the wound to try to extract the venom
- Don’t consume caffeine or alcohol as this could accelerate the body’s absorption process of the poison
- Don’t try to catch the snake – leave that to the professionals.
Symptoms of a copperhead bite
- Usually, these bites are likely to be on the extremities of the body.
- Within 15 to 20 minutes there burning pain and inflammation will occur around the bite.
- Swelling, bruising and blistering can develop, which can spread across the entire length of a limb.
- Nausea and weakness can also be experienced.
- A funny taste in the mouth sometimes occurs.
Getting rid of copperhead snakes
It is an unpleasant experience to encounter a copperhead if you aren’t prepared for it. The experience is more traumatic if you have a fear of reptiles as many people do. It is wrong to believe that these snakes or any of them for that matter will stalk humans. Snakes will be happy to leave you alone if you leave them alone.
The best way to deal with a snake is to ignore it and move away. A snake will only launch a strike if it feels threatened. This will happen if you accidentally step on it, or if you make any sudden movements near it. Whatever may be the reason, here are a few tips for getting rid of the critters:
On spotting a copperhead in your house
- Try to move it out of the house with a broom or pusher.
- Use a snake trap.
- Call in an expert snake catcher.
The first choice is the riskiest, and don’t attempt it unless you are sure. Be aware of your surroundings, and look for an escape route for the snake and yourself. If threatened, the copperhead WILL become aggressive and try to attack you. Try to move the serpent out of an open door, into the open. Ensure that there is an escape route because if attacked, you can make a hasty retreat.
The second option, a snake trap is less risky. It may be a cage or a glue board. Once the snake is safely trapped, it can be released at a safe location. A snake bait is usually used with these traps which contain something that has an odor that attracts the snakes.
If you want to be out of danger, the last option is the best – contact a professional. If you do not have enough experience with snakes, do NOT attempt to handle the situation on your own. Snake handlers will deal with the issue efficiently and will even help you to take measures to prevent future intrusions.
Preventing copperheads from your yard
You are most likely to come across a copperhead outdoors. This is due to the preference the snakes attach to long grass and water bodies found in a yard. That said, we can prevent them from entering the yard in the first place by removing these things. So, you will have less likelihood of having these snakes in your yard if you:
- Keep your grass well-trimmed.
- Do not leave stored water uncovered.
- Spray a snake repellant around your yard.
- Consult a professional snake catcher if you see evidence of copperheads.
Myths about copperheads
There is a variety of myths surrounding copperheads. Let’s take a look at some of these myths and examine the truth in these claims:
One myth is regarding cross-breeding with other species to create an active, venomous hybrid. This has never happened and is not possible. On this subject, however, it is common for copperheads to cohabit with rattlesnakes and black snakes during hibernation.
- Baby copperheads are more poisonous
Some people feel that a baby copperhead snake is more venomous because it cannot control the amount of venom it injects. Moreover, people say that the poison in these baby snakes is more concentrated. This is false on both counts. They can be as poisonous as fully-grown adults.
- Copperheads use trees for a mating ground
This is not true. Although these snakes may sometimes climb onto the lower limbs of trees sometimes, their bodies aren’t well-adapted for climbing.
- Copperheads have a cucumber-like smell
Copperhead snakes secrete a defensive musk if they feel threatened. However, whether it smells like cucumber or not is a debatable question. Many who are familiar with these snakes confirm that this cucumber smell does exist.
- Apply a tourniquet to a snake bite
Whether it is a copperhead or any other species, do not apply a tourniquet. The venom of the pit viper species digests human tissue, causing damage. Using a tourniquet may damage the tissue further.
- Sucking a snake bite puncture
Whether it is a bite by a copperhead or any other species of snake, sucking is not the solution. A snake will embed its fangs deep into the tissue before releasing its venom. Hence the puncture is too deep to be affected by sucking. The best remedy is to get the victim professional medical attention as soon as possible.
Research on copperhead venom
The University of Southern California has researched extensively on the potential anti-cancer properties of copperhead venom. Biochemistry Prof. Frank Markland has been involved in research on the possibilities of this venom being used to combat cancer.
According to Prof. Markland, there is a protein present in the venom of these snakes that can attack cancer cells. In his lab, they injected a protein present in southern copperheads, contortrostatin into the mammary glands of female mice. Human cancer cells had been introduced into these mice a couple of weeks previously. Tumors had been successfully grown in them.
Introduction of contortrostatin had the effect of inhibiting the growth of the tumors in the mice. This protein also retarded “angiogenesis,” a process which enables blood vessels to grow and supply nutrients to a tumor. Furthermore, the protein also inhibited cancer from reaching the lungs, a common occurrence in breast cancer.
The challenge of using this extract from copperhead venom is that it is present in trace amounts only. The poison from an almost never-ending number of snakes would not be sufficient to provide enough contortrostatin for a single patient.
Prof. Markland and his team were able to overcome this challenge innovatively. They devised a method for engineering the genetic material responsible for coding the protein in bacteria. The result was the synthesis of a new protein, vicrostatin, which could be grown in bacteria. It is possible to produce this protein in large quantities whenever required.
Copperheads need not get the better of you
Try to remove the idea from your head that copperhead snakes are dangerous and we should kill them. They play an essential role in controlling pests like rodents and other destructive insects. They are only a threat if we threaten them, intentionally or unintentionally.
Copperheads are unpopular because they are commonly encountered while stepping on them. Obviously, that is when they strike, and it is too late to take remedial action. The trick is to be aware of these reptiles to take required precautions.
These are fascinating creatures, and by now you should be more aware of the facts about these snake. We also discussed the habits of these reptiles. Your question, “What does a baby copperhead snake look like?” Should be adequately answered by now. You should be able to identify these snakes in the wild and know what to do if you come across one. Also, if you or anyone near you gets bitten by a copperhead, you now know what to do. So, next time you step into the open and happen to see one, you won’t need to press all those panic buttons.