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Northern Copperheads are thick-bodied snakes with keeled scales. The northern copperhead has an unmarked, copper-colored head and reddish-brown, coppery body with chestnut brown crossbands. The bands are mostly hourglass-shaped, with the wider portions of the shape on either side of the snake’s body and the narrower part of the shape crossing the snake’s back over the tailbone. Young copperheads are grayer in color compared to adults and have a sulfur yellow-tipped tail, which fades over time and is lost by age 3 or 4.
The northern copperhead is a pit viper and, like others pit vipers, it has heat-sensitive pit organs on each side of its head between the eye and the nostril. These pits detect objects that are warmer than the environment and enable copperheads to locate nocturnal, mammalian prey.
Northern copperheads have fangs that release a hemolytic venom, a venom that causes the breakdown of red blood cells, used to subdue prey. The length of the snake’s fangs is related to its size — the longer the snake, the longer its fangs. Even newborn copperheads have fully functional fangs capable of injecting venom that is just as toxic as an adult’s venom. This snake’s fangs are replaced periodically throughout its life; each snake has a series of five to seven replacement fangs located in the gums behind and above its current fangs.
Though the snake is the cause of many snakebites annually, those bites are rarely fatal. They typically occur when someone accidentally touches or steps on a snake that is well camouflaged within its surroundings. When touched, the copperhead may quickly strike or remain quiet and try to slither away.
The average length of an adult copperhead is between 24 and 36 inches. Young copperheads are typically 7 to 10 inches long.
The life span of the copperhead is around 18 years.
The northern copperhead is a carnivore. Adults eat mostly mice but also small birds, lizards, small snakes, amphibians and insects. They are primarily ambush hunters, subduing their prey with venom and swallowing it whole. When attacking large prey, the copperhead bites and then releases immediately, allowing the venom to take effect and later tracking the prey. Smaller prey is usually held in the snake’s mouth until it dies. Young copperheads eat mostly insects, especially caterpillars, and use their yellow tipped tails to function as a worm-like lure to attract prey.
Distribution And Habitat
The northern copperhead will reside in a variety of areas including oak-hickory hillsides with rock crevices and slides, swamp borders, old slab piles from sawmill operations, and the abandoned foundations and wood structures of old buildings. They also show a preference for moist habitats. Northern copperheads are year-round residents, and the females has an 8-acre home range while the males have a 24-acre home range.
Their primary food is mice. They will also consume small birds, frogs, small snakes, and insects–particularly locusts and moth larvae. Depending on the time of year, these snakes will be active day or night. Feeding activities depend on the time of year; Copperheads are most active April through late October. They are diurnal in the spring and fall, and nocturnal in the summer.
Females carrying young are generally gregarious as opposed to barren females and males that maintain a solitary existence. Peak breeding activity occurs at two distinct times: late August-October and February-April. The females only breed once every other year, but males will mate with multiple partners. It is estimated that the gestation period lasts 105-110 days, with most young being born in August, through mid-September. Each litter is approximately 3-10 eggs, and the young are on their own after hatching from the membrane.
Copperheads are ovoviviparous (eggs develop in the body of the female and hatch within or immediately after being expelled). The female produces large, yolk-filled eggs which are retained within her reproductive tract for a considerable period of development. The developing embryo receives no nourishment from the female, only from the yolk. Just prior to parturition, or giving birth, the female will seek out a birthing den. The young are expelled from her body encased in a thin, membranous sac from which they will shortly emerge.
The length of a copperhead’s fangs is related to the length of the snake; the longer the snake, the longer the fangs.
When touched, copperheads sometimes emit a musk that smells like cucumbers.