Tuesday Toxics – Copperhead!

A couple weeks ago, our department had its yearly retreat, which we always have at one of Kentucky’s state parks. This time it was at Jenny Wiley State Park, which was nice, and the cabins were excellent. On the way home I stopped off at Natural Bridge State Park, thinking I would hike up to the top, which I remembered was a pretty easy walk. Yeah. I was probably about 10 then, and in much better shape and full of the boundless energy. I didn’t bring a water bottle, it was hot, and I parked about as far from the top as I possibly could.

Sheesh, I am out of shape. I wisely gave up before the steepest part and went back to look for something a family that I passed on the way up mentioned. A copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortrix) was just a few feet off the trail, and I had to get a picture. Crikey! I wandered back down the trail and heard a couple talking about the snake. The woman decided to walk down the trail, while the husband tried to provoke a reaction from the snake by poking it with a stick. Are some people intentionally stupid? Of course, he couldn’t get one of the most stand-your-ground venomous snakes to nudge, so after about 30 seconds he wandered off.

If he had tried to reach down to try to grab the snake, I would have shouted at him to stop, but up to this point he wasn’t anywhere near getting bit. Take this as a hint, don’t harass snakes. Even non poisonous ones can give you a bite that easily becomes infected. But don’t be horribly frightened of them, either. Just back off if they offer a threat display and if you don’t know what you are doing, don’t try to pick them up. Most poisonous snakes rarely bite unless you try to pick them up or attack them. People have even stepped on and near cottonmouths and other pit vipers (family viperidae, subfamily crotalinae) with no response, and they will run (slither) away in preference to striking. One of the fascinating things about the pit vipers is that they can give a dry bite or only inject enough venom to let you know they mean business. They don’t want to waste their venom.

Copperhead camouflage is so effective that they will just sit still rather than flee (not that they know it, its is probably an evolved instinctive behavior), so the first threat display from the well hidden copperhead is to give a dry bite, making them unusual for pit vipers. These little guys would really rather just be left alone. If you are working in an area known to have copperheads, be careful when cutting fallen logs or clearing brush. Many experienced woodsmen rev their chainsaws for several minutes before they start cutting a fallen tree to give any copperheads a chance to slither away.

But hey, enough safety with critters, pictures!



Without the flash, this little guy just about disappears. I completely missed him the first time I walked past. Their hourglass scale pattern is perfect camouflage against a background of dry leaves.

Copperhead camoflage

Copperhead camoflage

This species is named for its copper colored head.

Copper head

Copper head

I have to say, this is one of my better nature photographs. I’ll probably have the original printed and put it up in my office. The detail is incredible, as seen from the image of the head, which is full size, and the scales, which are half size. I am considering putting a few of my nature photos up for purchase. Let me know what you think.

OK, now a bit of the biology of these guys.

You can find copperheads throughout a very wide home range in the US, from Texas to Connecticut stretching into Chihuahua and Coahuila in north Mexico, and have a healthy stable population. They prefer deciduous forests and are not as closely tied to water as their close relatives the cottonmouth (also called water moccasin). This has to do with the amount of keratin in their skin, the same protein that makes up a fair amount of your outer layer of skin and all of your hair. Copperheads have more keratin in their skin than cottonmouths do, and so, they don’t dehydrate as quickly.

Copperheads are pit vipers, named for a heat sensing pit behind their nostrils, so not only do they have decent hearing and vision, they have heat vision, which while not so great during the day, is incredible at night. Night also happens to be when they are their most active, hunting for mice and other small critters.

Who couldn’t love that face! I really need to take a herpetology class and learn how to handle these guys! Somewhere, my wife is rolling her eyes.

Their venom is a mixture of proteins made by secretory glands similar to your own salivary glands. It is hemotoxic, meaning that they attack blood cells and vessels, causing lots of pain and potential tissue destruction in the area of the bite. Even so, many ER doctors will choose not to administer antivenin to copperhead bite victims as the risk of serious allergic reaction is almost as bad as the risk from one of the weaker venoms produced by pit vipers. For children and small pets, antivenin is the treatment of choice.

The typical response to envenomation from a copperhead will be 8 days of severe to moderate pain, 11 days of edema (fluid accumulating beneath the skin) on the extremity bitten, and the unlucky fellow will typically miss two weeks of work. Most bites in adults are on their arms and tend to come from people trying to pick the snake up, while in children, the bites occur on their lower legs. Men are bitten much more often than women, and by the actions of the couple I observed, you can probably guess why.

Interestingly, snake venom is poisonous to snakes, so a copperhead could kill another copperhead with its bite. Why then, can a snake eat something that it envenomated? Because the venom proteins are denatured and broken down in the snake’s stomach by acid.

Teach on.


12 comments on “Tuesday Toxics – Copperhead!

  1. Justin says:

    No thank you, i am not afraid of snakes but would rather not be near anything with venom.

  2. Lace says:

    I adore Copperheads. I’ve never encountered one in the wild, but we have plenty here in Indiana, even in the northern region of the state which is out of their technical range.

    For a while, I volunteered at the local state park cleaning and handling snakes on a daily basis, except for the Copperhead. I used to tell people “The Copperhead won’t kill you if you are bitten, but you’re going to have a pretty bad day.”

    It’s just as you said, they don’t attack you, they hide. You aren’t going to be bitten unless you get too close and the snake sees you as a threat, most bites from Copperheads actually happen when people attempt to chop them up with a rake or garden hoe.

    Here is some video footage I took of the Copperhead at TRSP eating a mouse while it was still alive, which is pretty rare. The head naturalist at TRSP has actually seen this fellow SPIT VENOM. He got worked up over his mouse being thrown in, and spit venom up into the air, some of it landed on her face and in her eye. She said she experienced some tingling effects, but that was about it.

    Anyhow, fascinating post, thanks!

    • Robert says:

      Incredible video! That guy is seriously into his lunch! And shooting venom out of his fangs even before he gets his food? Thats just nuts. I’m glad that it didn’t hurt the naturalist’s eyes.

      Where is TRSP? If its close enough, I might want to come up and see the little guy.

  3. Wow that’s pretty cool. I’m dying to take a picture of some wild snakes, but kinda hard to come by in NJ haha.

  4. whatchamacalit says:

    Great post on your copperhead encounter. I will pass it on as it is full of great info. I work in the woods and am always on the lookout for snakes. Mostly I see black rat snakes that quickly slither away. Recently, I tried to get some photos of a black snake and it coiled up, hissed AND made a rattling sound just like a rattle snake. What a surprise.

    • Robert says:

      Thanks. I’ve come across a couple of black rat snakes myself. One did exactly what you describe, it reared back, hissed and shook its tail to scare my dog away. It really didn’t have to bother, Luke was terrified of snakes and anything that resembled snakes, such as garden hoses. He just was doing his dog best to protect me from the scary snake.

      That kind of mimicry is called Batesian mimicry, where a non-venomous or non-poisonous animal mimics the warning signals (including coloring) of a more dangerous animal. Black rat snakes are known to do exactly this. Its even more effective in dry leaves.

  5. whatchamacalit says:

    I find the idea of Batesian Mimicry fascinating. I’m wondering how these kinds of behaviors occur. I often find people giving human traits to animals. For example, a baby copperhead doesn’t know or hasn’t learned that it should save it’s venom so it shoots it all out in one bite and therefore they are more poisonous?? I would think that most behavior of snakes is rather instinctual as they probably aren’t that smart? Any thoughts on this subject? How “smart” are snakes?

    • Robert says:

      Its probably, mostly coded into their genes, at least, that would be my guess. I don’t know anything about how smart or clever a snake is, but with octopuses and cuttlefish, two of the brightest invertebrates out there, they don’t get taught by mom and dad, but are born smart and learn as they go.

  6. whatchamacalit says:

    Oh and I forgot to mention, even though I work in the woods doing nature programs for kids I am still afraid of snakes. I don’t run screaming of course but I generally stay a safe distance and I would never try and pick one up. I can not imagine poking a copperhead. Did the guy not know how painful the bite can be?

    • Robert says:

      I’m not sure if the guy just wasn’t bright or if he was being curious without thinking ahead. Personally, I don’t know how painful the bite of a copperhead is, but I can guess about how painful it can be. I’m also not interested in finding out.

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