Copperheads are two species of venomous snake endemic to North America. They are common throughout the central and eastern parts of the United States.
But how they live might still be surprising despite their numbers. For example, you may wonder how they give birth.
Copperheads do not lay eggs, although they do produce them internally. The mother keeps the eggs inside her body and then gives birth to the live young once they hatch.
There Are 2 Species Of Copperhead Snakes
The name “copperhead” does not belong to a single snake. It’s a common (non-scientific) name that two subspecies of snake in the Agkistrodon genus share.
All copperhead snakes, whatever their species, are pit vipers. A pit viper has a heat-sensitive pit organ on either side of its head. This organ lies between the nostril and the eye.
The pit organs can detect the body heat of nearby animals. This allows the copperhead to locate and hunt mammalian prey, even at night.
Copperheads use hemolytic venom to subdue their prey. Even newborn copperhead snakes can inject this venom with their fully functional fangs.
Similar to sharks, copperheads can replace their fangs throughout their lifetime. A copperhead snake may replace its fangs between five and seven times.
1. Agkistrodon contortrix (Eastern Copperhead)
This species used to be separated into three distinct subspecies.
However, a study from 2015 combined these snakes into one species. There isn’t enough genetic distinction between them to consider them separate species. Instead, they are geographical variations of the same snake.
The eastern copperhead lives along the Atlantic Coast of North America. Their range covers from Connecticut to Florida through eastern Texas. It continues north to eastern Oklahoma and eastern Kansas.
The average eastern copperhead is between 24-35 inches (61-90 cm) long. They can grow to over four feet (almost one and a half meters), though.
Eastern copperheads have brown, gray, or tan skin. Cross-bands of color cover them in hourglass or dumbbell shapes.
2. Agkistrodon laticinctus (Broad-banded Copperhead)
This subspecies includes two previously separated subspecies.
This new group of broad-banded copperheads has light-brown skin. They get their name from cross-bands of color that lay on top. Unlike on the eastern copperhead, these bands don’t narrow in the middle of their body.
This makes them “broad” bands instead of hourglass-shaped. The bands of color can range from brown to red.
Broad-banded copperheads average between 22-30 inches (56-76 cm) in length. They can grow to a maximum of about three feet (just under one meter).
They range from western/central Texas through central Oklahoma and eastern Kansas.
Copperheads Are Ovoviviparous
Besides being venomous, all copperheads are ovoviviparous.
Viviparous and ovoviviparous animals give birth to live young instead of laying eggs. With viviparity, there is a placental connection between the embryo and the mother.
With ovoviviparity, there is no such connection. Instead, the mother produces an egg that provides nutrients.
But she never lays the egg outside her body. She keeps it inside until it hatches, and then births the now-live young.
Only a few snake species in the United States are live-bearing. These include boas, pit vipers, and some members of the Colubridae family.
Newborn copperheads (“neonates”) only stay with their mothers for a few days.
These neonates are ready to defend and hunt for themselves at birth. They have both fully grown fangs and venom at the ready.
What To Do If You See A Copperhead Nest
The copperhead’s territory stretches over a large part of the United States. It’s also the most common venomous snake in North Carolina. 90% of all venomous bites in the state are from copperheads.
Despite their dense population, copperheads can be difficult to notice. They often inhabit forests, where their skin is an effective camouflage.
They will nest anywhere that offers cover and access to sunlight. This can include old buildings and trash dumps.
If you do notice a nearby copperhead, the best thing to do is leave it alone. Like many snakes, copperheads are shy and won’t go out of their way to attack a human.
If you give it space, many times a copperhead will leave of its own volition. You may also be able to deter other snakes from nesting in a particular area in the future.
A copperhead may bite in self-defense if you accidentally put a hand or foot too close. However, the majority of bites happen because a person is handling a snake on purpose.
It’s not a good idea to capture, kill, or handle a copperhead on your own.
The upside is that copperhead venom isn’t as dangerous as others. You should treat a bite as a serious injury, but you will have time to seek treatment. Copperhead bites aren’t often life-threatening.
The recent changes in taxonomy can be confusing. Still, the basic facts about copperheads remain the same. They are all pit vipers with dangerous but not life-threatening venom. They are shy and they camouflage well in their environments.
Copperhead snakes are also all ovoviviparous. They all give birth to live young, but only after they’ve hatched from eggs inside their mothers. It’s not full viviparity like most mammals experience, but they don’t lay their eggs in the open like birds, either. Instead, copperheads fall in between the two.