Copperheads are widely distributed across the eastern half of North America. Their range extends from western Massachusetts and Connecticut and southeastern New York west through the southern two thirds of Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, to Missouri, and eastern Kansas, and south to Georgia and the panhandle of Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, eastern and central Texas, and extreme portions of Coahuila and eastern Chihuahua in Mexico (Gloyd and Conant, 1990).
Throughout its considerable range, there have been five described subspecies of copperheads. Two subspecies occur in north central Texas. The southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix) is known to occur from South Carolina, across Central Georgia, southern Alabama, all of Mississippi and Louisiana through Arkansas to eastern Oklahoma and eastern Texas (Bartlett and Tennant, 2000).
The southern copperhead is easily distinguished from other subspecies by having a ground color of light buff tan to pinkish beige with narrow brown crossbars. The tip of the tail is pinkish or greenish yellow. This subspecies also is known to attain the greatest length among copperheads. A record size adult specimen was measured at 52 inches in total length.
Another type of copperhead that metroplex residents are likely to encounter is the broad banded copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus). Broad banded copperheads are distributed from extreme south-central Kansas, southward through central Oklahoma and central Texas. This subspecies is recognized by its deep reddish brown cross bands that are about as wide dorsally as they are laterally. The tip of the tail is grayish-green or turquoise.
Diet and Behavior
Young copperheads possess brightly colored yellowish tail tips. The tail tips are held close within striking range and wriggled like a bright caterpillar. This behavior is termed "caudal luring" and is known to attract small frogs and lizards (Neil, 1960). Copperheads commonly sit and wait for an opportunity to ambush their prey. However, these snakes are not completely sedentary and will forage for prey items as well.
The copperheads' diet includes small mammals, birds, small snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, and nymphal or newly metamorphosed cicadas. Sometimes the predator becomes the prey – the copperhead has been consumed by kingsnakes, milk snakes, racers, and cottonmouths as well as hawks and such mammalian predators as opossums (Gloyd and Conant, 1990).
Copperheads are chiefly active during the spring, early summer and fall. During the hot and dry months of the summer, copperheads become almost entirely crepuscular or nocturnal. In the fall they become gregarious and may crawl some distance to a communal hibernaculum, which is sometimes shared with other snakes such as timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), racers (Coluber constrictor), and ratsnakes (Elaphe obsoleta). Copperheads usually return to the same area each winter (Fitch, 1960). In the spring, when male copperheads leave their winter hibernaculum they begin searching for a mate. This challenging task occasionally brings males into competition for the same female. When such an encounter occurs, male copperheads will engage in ritualized combat for mating rights. Both combatants face one another and raise the anterior half of their bodies off the ground and intertwine themselves. The victor is the contestant who topples his opponent first. This "quality control" function of natural selection helps to ensure a favorable genetic bill of health for siring offspring. Mating ensues after successful courtship when the male begins to rub his chin in a jerking motion across the female's back while flicking his tongue. If receptive, the female will remain motionless and raise her tail and open her cloaca for the male. If she is uninterested, she'll prevent copulation by swinging her tail side to side thus deterring her suitor's advances and leave the area. Gestation has been reported to take from 105 to 150 days with four to eight young comprise the typical brood.
The copperhead still continues to be commonly found throughout much of its range. Depending upon subspecies and distribution, copperheads may inhabit a variety of environs including rocky desert outcroppings, deciduous and coniferous woodlands, and riparian woodlands near permanent or semipermanent bodies of water.
Copperheads are also occasionally found in close association with humans. How this is accomplished may be partially explained by their cryptic coloration and stealthy behavior. Fortunately, human mortality rates from the bite of this snake are low (0.01%) (Campbell and Lamar, 1989). Symptoms from its bite may include pain and swelling, weakness, giddiness, breathing difficulty, hemorrhage, either an increased or weakened pulse, occasionally shock and hypertension, nausea, vomiting, gangrene, unconsciousness, ecchymosis, edema, and intestinal discomfort (Ernst, 1992). Bites are usually the result of the snake being handled or accidentally stepped on.
Southern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix)
Southern copperheads have a basal coloration of light buff tan to pinkish beige with narrow brown crossbars. This subspecies of copperhead occupies the easternmost portion of the Dallas Fort Worth area.
Two Adult Southern Copperheads. Both specimens from Anderson County, Texas
Photographs by Carl J. Franklin
Broad Banded Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus)
Most of the Dallas Fort Worth area is inhabited by the Broad banded copperhead. Broad banded copperheads are recognizable from the deep reddish brown cross bands that are about as wide dorsally as they are laterally. The tip of the tail is grayish green to turquoise. Broad banded copperheads are one of the most beautiful of the snakes in north central Texas.
Texas: Hood County Immature specimen, note greenish tail. Texas: Wise County
Photograph by Carl J. Franklin Photograph by Carl J. Franklin
Female specimen. Texas: Llano County. The specimen in this photograph lived in captivity for 30 years.
Photograph by Carl J. Franklin