Bio Facts: Copperhead, Southern
Agkistrodon contortix contortix
Southern Delaware and adjacent Maryland to the Florida panhandle, west to southeast Missouri, southeast Oklahoma and east Texas; also found in hilly parts of the Carolina Piedmont
Low land near swamps and cypress-bordered streams
Maximum length of 52 inches, but adults usually average less than 34 inches. Colored with a dark hourglass shaped design on the body with a copper head. The broad head is tan to golden brown. Usually there are two small, dark, round spots in the center of the head between the eyes. Eye pupils are vertical. There is a heat sensitive pit on each side of the head below a line from the eye to the nostril.
A wild caught adult survived 23 years and 2 months in captivity.
Sexual maturity is reached about 3 years of age
In the wild, they eat mice, frogs, small snakes, insects, and small birds. In the Zoo, they are fed rats and mice.
Excellently camouflaged, Southern copperheads frequently lie motionless. It is commonly found under debris around old buildings and not uncommonly found around houses in the suburbs. Copperheads will often retreat if disturbed. If it stands its ground, it will vibrate its tail and strike with a wide-open mouth. Bites are seldom fatal to humans but the venom will kill prey. Copperheads are gregarious, especially in the fall when they join with other snake species in dens for hibernation.
Females are viviparous and “give birth” to 3 to 9 venomous young each approximately 9 inches long. Their appearance is similar to that of adult copperheads but with a yellow tip on the tail.
The camouflaged pattern helps it to blend into its native habitat. The copperhead has a rather distinctive musk that can be easily recognized. Its venom is dangerous, but is usually less severe than that of the cottonmouth.
The regularity with which people kill a snake first and ask questions later might lead you to believe that the world is overrun with venomous snakes. In fact, venomous snakes only make up about 10 percent of snake species worldwide.
A recent article in the Dallas Morning News told of research being done with the venom of the southern copperhead. Scientists are synthesizing a drug in the lab that, in mice, has been shown to stop the spread of breast cancer.
Some people believe that snakes have the ability to charm prey, especially birds, so they cannot flee. There is no evidence that snakes charm their prey. Small animals may become “frozen with fear” when confronted by snakes but they are not charmed. Birds may flutter about in front of a snake in an attempt to lure it away from their nests; occasionally a bird may actually be captured by the snake, giving the impression that it was charmed. The fact that snakes never blink may also have played a role in this myth’s origin.
Cherokee Indians called the copperhead wa-dige-aska’li, or “brown head.” Feared and hated, it was thought to be a descendant of a great mythical serpent. Its eyes, which were unusually bright, were said to be eyes of fire.
The copperhead played an important role in the Cherokee killing-of-the-sun myth. In this myth, the sun is angry at people because they always make faces when they try to look directly at her. She begins to send such hot rays that the people died by the hundreds. The Little Men sent two snakes to kill the sun – the spreading adder and the copperhead. Spreading Adder starts to spring at the sun but is blinded by the bright light and can only spit out yellow slime, as it still does today. The copperhead slinks away without doing anything.
Not listed, but all venomous snakes (and some non-venomous snakes) are feared and persecuted.
Jacksonville Zoo History:
Records indicate that this species first appeared in the Zoo’s animal collection in March 1957.