Recognized Subspecies in VA: None
Size: 28 - 44 inches
Status: Least Concern
The Eastern Copperhead is our most common pit viper in Virginia, though they are secretive and less likely to be seen than several other species that look similar. Copperheads have a bad reputation, but their venom is usually only life threatening if the subject does not receive medical attention. Though the average person should not fear dying from a Copperhead bite, several people who have been bitten say it is the most painful experience of their life. This has given us the common statement of, “A Copperhead won’t kill you, but it will make you wish it had.” This is because the venom destroys nerve endings, so in theory it would be similar to holding a lit match to the ending for a prolonged period of time. There is a common myth that babies are more dangerous than adults. While it is true, adults are much more likely to give a dry-bite (venomless bite) and a baby will likely give you a full dose of its venom, the juvenile’s venom glands are much smaller than their adult counterparts. Think of the baby’s venom glands as a shot glass, and the adult’s as a coffee mug. If one spills half of a coffee mug, that is still a bit more than if one spills a whole shot glass. If you are bit, this is what I recommend you do:
1: Stay calm, remember unless you are allergic or immunocompromised, the venom is not life treating.
2: Try to take a picture of the snake with your cell phone. I only say this because doctors are not snake experts, and though most herpers can ID a Copperhead bite based on teeth arrangement, most local hospitals may not have that capability. In fact, I had someone tell me when they brought the decapitated snake into the hospital with them, the doctor in the hospital could not ID it without the head… Luckily, her case was a juvenile Eastern Ratsnake, but this brings me to my final point for photographing the snake. Killing the snake does you no good, and often means you have to retrieve a tool to do it with, and then the snake has fled, and you have nothing to show. If you have your cell phone, you can usually get a photo good enough to ID within 10 seconds. Just avoid getting bit a second time.
3: Seek medical attention immediately. I know a local guy who was going to take some Motrin and “tough it out”… Until he began having an allergic reaction 30 minutes later. More people are allergic to snake venom than shellfish. I am betting you do not know if you are allergic to snake venom though.
4: DO NOT fool around with an ice pack, a tourniquet, sucking the venom out, or anything else along those lines. Ice packs stop swelling… and that is it. A tourniquet stops blood flow, so yes it will keep the venom in your hand or leg, but if you do it right, your arm or leg will have to be amputated, which is more damaging than the actual venom. As far as sucking the venom out, your blood is constantly flowing from your heart and back. When you suck blood out of a bite, you are sucking clean, oncoming blood from the abrasion, while the venom is still flowing out to your heart.
The Copperhead predates on a wide variety of animals, such as rodents, lizards, fish, cicadas, and mayflies. They catch their prey by sitting perfectly still, and in place for often several days. This species often feeds on just a few meals a month, but can go much longer without eating. Copperheads can do this, because of their ability to use as little energy as possible. This feeding technique also aids in survival. Copperheads have amazing camouflage, and are often never seen unless they move. The snake does not want a confrontation, even though it is venomous. Venom takes time to develop, so using it on a predator just means the snake will have to wait longer to eat. Not to mention, when Copperheads and humans have confrontations, the snake is almost always on the losing end of the battle. These incidents often happen in late summer, when the females are looking for a safe place to birth her neonates (live born reptiles) and venture to the safety of debris, wood piles, and sheds that happen to be near our homes.
Yes, Copperheads technically have vertical pupils, yet these pupils can dilate and appear round. Copperheads have heat-pits on their face as well, but no one should get that close to try to ID these snakes. Copperheads have triangular heads, but some nonvenomous snakes can splay their heads to appear triangular. Luckily, these are not needed to identify a Copperhead. First, look at the bands. Copperheads have bands that are shaped like hourglasses from above, and Hershey Kisses from the side. They also have short tails with dark tips, except for neonates that have yellow tail tips, and there is a transition in juveniles. These snakes often have orangey heads (hence the name “Copperhead”). If you find a shed, and you cannot make out the pattern, check the underside of the tail. Only pit vipers have wide, single scale rows past the vent, while our other Virginia snakes have two scale rows post vent.
Similar Species: The most similar species is the Northern Cottonmouth, which is only found in the southern coastal plains and has a darker head, more “pixelated” pattern, and a mask over the eyes. Northern Watersnakes are often killed in confusion, but this species will either appear to have no pattern, or blotches with bands that narrow towards the belly, instead of widening. I see people often mistake juvenile Central Ratsnakes though they have saddles (not bands), and Dekay’s Brownsnakes that have two rows of spots down their backs.
Maps and External Sources
Herping Virginia encourages all naturalists to practice ethical, safe, and sustainable herping. The use of proper herping methods and techniques is beneficial to both wildlife and herpers. Visit the links below for more information.