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Osage copperhead

Scientific name: Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster


CLASS: Reptilia
ORDER: Squamata
FAMILY: Viperidae

FEEDING TYPE: Carnivorous
STATISTICS: Length: 22 – 50 in; Weight: average 14 oz

DESCRIPTION:
The copperhead is a thick-bodied, medium-sized pit viper with a copper-colored head and a reddish-brown coppery body. It has broad bands along the body that can range in color from reddish brown to dark gray. The head of the snake is triangular shaped and has two heat-sensitive pits located between the eyes and the nostrils that enable it to locate its warm-blooded prey. It can be distinguished from other snakes by clear bands along the tail with no rattle.

RANGE:
Florida panhandle north to Massachusetts and west to Nebraska. In Kansas, the copperhead is found only in the eastern third of the state.

HABITAT:
Terrestrial, usually found at woodland edges in rocks or forest leaf litter. It can also be found in abandoned or rotting sawdust or slab piles.

ADAPTATIONS:
Juvenile copperheads have been known to use their yellow-tipped tails as a lure for prey. They hold their tails erect and wave the tip gently side to side in a way that imitates a grub or a worm. This attracts prey like frogs, lizards, and some rodents.

The copperhead changes its times of activity based on the seasons. In the spring and fall, it is diurnal, meaning it is active during the daytime. In the hot summer months, it becomes completely nocturnal, meaning it is active only at night.

The copperhead tolerates members of its own species as well as some other snakes like timber rattlesnakes and black rat snakes. It can often be found in communal winter dens with these other species. Females about to give birth will gather in groups of up to ten individuals that congregate in a hole or a crevice. This is most likely for the protection and security that the group provides the gravid (egg-laden) females. After birth, litters of copperheads will remain together for weeks at a time.

The copperhead relies heavily on camouflage to protect it from predators. It is slow to react and if a person approaches, it will stay completely still and blend in with the surroundings. When it is discovered and disturbed, the snake will usually flee to shelter. If it feels provoked, it will whirl around to face the attacker and, if further bothered, will strike. Occasionally, it will vibrate its tail to produce a whirring sound when it feels threatened. It is important to note that this snake has no rattles even though it sometimes exhibits this “rattling” behavior.

REPRODUCTION/GROWTH:
The copperhead, like most pit vipers, gives birth to live young. It is ovoviviparous, meaning the eggs remain in the female throughout development and young are hatched inside the female and then immediately birthed. Young are around seven to 10 inches long and weigh less than an ounce. The female can have one to 15 young in a clutch, with an average of five. The litter size increases with the size and age of the female. There is no record of parental care in copperheads, as the young are born fully developed and able to hunt, hide, and defend themselves.

Both males and females reach sexual maturity at four years of age. The male is attracted to the female by the pheromones she emits. These special scents are “signatures” that tell the male that the female is ready to breed and where she is. The female sometimes mates with more than one male. The male will nudge and coil around the female to persuade her to mate and she responds either passively (willing to mate) or aggressively (unwilling to mate).

There are two breeding seasons: from February to May and from August to October. The female breeds in the second breeding season and can store sperm until after she emerges from hibernation. The copperhead has a gestation period of anywhere between three and nine months, and its young are born in late summer through early fall.

PREY/PREDATOR:
Prey to large birds, mammals, larger snakes, man
Predator to rodents, insects, frogs, lizards, smaller snakes

WILD DIET:
Rodents, large insects, frogs, lizards, and smaller snakes

STATUS:
Common throughout their range although Massachusetts has listed it as endangered (1999).

SPECIAL NOTES:

  • While the copperhead is a venomous species, the venom is rarely fatal to humans. Lasting effects of an untreated bite may include loss of fine motor skills in the bite area and nerve damage. Humans have a myriad of symptoms including pain, swelling, weakness, nausea, and intestinal discomfort.
  • A copperhead’s venom causes hemorrhaging in its prey.
  • A musky smell of cucumbers is often emitted when a copperhead is touched.
  • Male copperheads engage in combat dances where their heads and bodies are raised off the ground resulting in an intertwining of their necks until one hurls the other to the ground. This dance is done to establishing dominance.


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  1. Collins, Joseph T. Amphibians & Reptiles in Kansas. 3rd ed. 1993.
  2. Fitch, Henry S. A Kansas Snake Community : Composition and Changes Over 50 Years. Boston: Krieger Company, 1999.
  3. Mattison, Chris. The Encyclopedia of Snakes. New York: Facts On File, Incorporated, 1995.
  4. Wilson, Don E., ed. Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife. Grand Rapids: Dorling Kindersley, Incorporated, 2005.

Published: April 2009

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