Watch Out for Copperheads
by Ro Wauer
Summertime, with its hot and humid conditions, produces just the right kind of environment that is favorable by copperheads. Anyone working outside, gardeners and others alike, should be especially watchful for these poisonous reptiles. Although the snake is most likely to occur in thickets, along streams, and in moist rocky places, the ground cover around homes in the country seems to be another favorite habitat.
Copperheads are responsible for the majority of all poisonous snakebites suffered by human beings throughout the southern states. Although this snake is relatively docile and normally will strike only when provoked, its habits can easily conflict with our own activities. However, human fatalities are rare, and serious problems seldom arise when a bite is properly treated. According to Alan Tennant in his book, Field Guide to Texas Snakes, "not a single death resulted from 308 copperhead bites over a 10-year period" in Texas. Tennant claims that copperhead poison is only half as destructive as that of a western diamondback rattlesnake.
During summer, copperheads normally spend their days hidden from view in heavy vegetation and are active only at night. During cooler weather they may be more active during the daylight hours. Prey species include a wide range of small mammals as well as lizards, frogs, and insects. Tennant points out that white-footed and harvest mice are probably their principal food species. Anoles and geckos are also readily available and are additional prey species commonly used.
Our local broad-banded copperhead, known to scientists as Agkistrodon contoris, is a rather stout snake that is rarely more than a yard long; the longest one recorded was 4 feet and 5 inches. Two additional copperheads occur in Texas: southern copperhead in the eastern portion of the state and Trans-Pecos copperhead in the Big Bend Country. Copperheads are easily identified by their rich coppery brown color and thirteen to twenty darker brown crossbands over the back. Their heads are also rather distinct. The head, where its recurved, movable fangs are located, is not only wider than the neck, a characteristic typical of all pit vipers, but also sports an elongated pinkish brown patch along and above each jaw, as well as vertically elliptical pupils.
A heat-sensor pit is located on each side of the head a little below and behind the snake's nostrils. This sensory organ acts as a heat receptor to detect prey and help the snake aim when striking at warm-blooded prey. Herpatologists Roger Conant and Joseph Collins, in their classic A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, warns that for freshly killed specimens, "Reflex action may last a long time, and supposedly dead pit vipers have been known to bite."
Mating occurs in early spring, soon after the snake emerges from hibernation. The female carries developing eggs inside her body all summer, and young are born (5-6 per litter) alive in late summer or early fall (August and September). However, the young copperheads, roughly 9 inches long, are born in sacs, the last relicts of egghood. In half an hour, already poisonous enough to kill small prey, they will break from their sheaths and strike out on their own.