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Northern Copperhead Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

Common Name:Northern Copperhead
Scientific Name:Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen
Life Span:12-20 years (in captivity)
Size:
Habitat:
Country of Origin:

Physical Description

northern copperhead

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Copperheads are thick-bodied snakes that have keeled scales. They come in 5 varieties, including the Northern copperheads. These are venomous snakes with unmarked and copper-colored heads. 

These snakes are reddish-brown with those chestnut-brown patterns all over their bodies. These patterns are crossbands that look like hourglasses with their wider parts on the sides of the snakes. The narrower portion of these hourglass patterns crosses the backs of these snakes through their tailbones. 

Juvenile copperheads tend to be greyish, unlike adults. They also have sulfur, yellow-tipped tails that will fade in the long run at the age of 3 to 4. The Northern copperheads have vertical pupils and one row of shiny scales on the bottom of their bodies right next to their anal plates. These features are also seen on other venomous snakes living in Virginia. 

The copperheads are pit vipers. Like other similar snakes out there, the copperheads of all varieties have pit organs that are sensitive to heat. These organs exist on all the sides of their heads, sitting between their eyes and nostrils. These pit organs are responsible for detecting those objects around these snakes that can be warmer than the atmosphere, enabling the Northern copperheads to find nocturnal mammalian animals. 

Since they are venomous snakes, the Northern copperheads have fangs. Through these fangs, the snakes produce a hemolytic type of venom. It’s a venom that causes the collapse of red blood cells. The Northern copperheads use this hemolytic venom to pacify their prey. 

Those fangs can be longer based on the sizes of these snakes. The longer the snakes, the longer their fangs. Even the hatchlings have completely functional fangs. Their fangs can already release and inject venom that is equally toxic with the venom produced by adults. 

What’s more amazing about the Northern copperheads is that they don’t need to worry even if they get their fangs damaged. That is because these snakes are capable of replacing their old fangs, which may happen for some time throughout their lives. Every Northern copperhead has a series of 5-7 replacement fangs situated in the gums at the back and above their current fangs. 

Although the copperheads are among the most involved snakes in the reported case of snake bites every year, their bites are seldom life-threatening. These incidents generally take place when a person accidentally steps on these snakes or touch them. Take note that copperheads can do camouflage, which is the usual reason for those accidental contacts with humans. When a person touches these snakes, they may either quickly strike or stay silent and attempt to slip away. 

Size

On average, adults are between 61 to 90 centimeters or 24 to 36 inches long. Juvenile copperheads might be 18 to 25 centimeters or 7 to 10 inches long. The Northern copperheads tend to be sexually dimorphic when it comes to size. The female snakes grow longer than males, but they have longer tails compared to females. 

Native Habitat

The copperheads are native to the United States. Many of them are found in the Florida panhandle. In the North, they can be seen in Massachusetts. In the West, they are in Nebraska. Out of the 5 subspecies of copperheads, the Northern copperheads have the widest range. They can be found in Alabama and northern Georgia, going to the north in Massachusetts, and west in Illinois. 

Copperheads are living in various habitats, ranging from semi-aquatic to terrestrial, including the rocky and greenish wetlands and hillsides. Also, they tend to occupy the vacant or rotting sawdust piles or wood and construction sites. At times, they live in suburban areas. 

When hunting, they often climb into the trees or low bushes. They also love basking and exploring the underwater. They can be good swimmers. 

Around 20 snakes are considered native to Washington, and copperheads are the only venomous snakes found in this region. Other venomous snakes that exist near Washington is the timber rattlesnake that lives in Maryland and West Virginia. Nonvenomous snakes like the black rat snake, northern water snake, garter snake, northern brown snake, and ringneck snake are typically misrecognized as copperheads. 

Food and Eating Habits

The copperheads are carnivores. Adults often feast on mice, but they can also eat lizards, small birds, small snakes, insects like cicadas, and amphibians. They are ambush hunters that subdue their prey with their venom. After that, the copperheads will begin to swallow completely their food. 

If they are trying to catch a bigger animal, they bite and release it right away to allow the venom to work. They will chase the prey and wait until the animal dies because of the venom. If they are catching a smaller animal, then copperheads keep on biting until the prey dies. 

Young copperheads often eat insects like the caterpillars. They use their tails, letting it move like a worm. They try to attract the prey, leading the animal closer to them and bite. When raised in captivity, the copperheads are okay with rats and mice as their main foods. 

How to Safely Feed a Northern Copperhead?

When feeding a northern copperhead, take note that the snake you’re going to feed is venomous. Although its venom is not that deadly, still it is best to keep yourself safe from those fangs. 

The snake may bite you by accident as you feed it. Therefore, you should avoid feeding this snake by hand. Instead, feed the snake by using tongs. Try to stay calm when you do. Just take it easy, but surely with caution. 

Social Structure

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The copperheads are sociable. They may hibernate in the communal dens together with some other copperheads and even other types of snakes like the black rat snakes and timber rattlesnakes. They go back to the same location when it’s time for them to hibernate. It happens every year.

Likewise, these snakes can be seen in groups near the basking, courting, denning, mating, drinking, and eating sites. The male snakes are aggressive during autumn and spring seasons. These are the times they mate. They’ll try to overpower one another. They may even pin their bodies to one another on the ground. 

This behavior shows up in most cases when females are in front of them. Although this is not the case at all times. These interactions may involve raising their bodies, swaying sideways, hooking their necks, and intertwining their bodies. 

Lifestyle

The coloration of Northern copperheads helps them in performing camouflage as it resembles the fallen leaves and the other debris on the forest floor. Though they are shy and rarely expose themselves to people, the native Northern copperheads have the “honor” of biting more people compared to any other venomous snakes in the US. 

However, there were reported cases of deaths associated with a very painful bite. Still, these snakes must be taken with sincerity and utmost care. When they encounter people, they normally remain quiet and move away. On the other hand, if you do something that scared them, then these snakes will shake their tails and strike out in self-defense. 

The Northern copperheads do not have a rattle, but their tails may vibrate and produce a sound, so people often mistakenly identify these snakes to be rattlesnakes. Also, these snakes are gregarious. In winter, they hide and spend those months in sleeping. Like other snakes, the Northern copperheads are diurnal in the fall and spring, but they become nocturnal throughout the summer. Sometimes, people see these snakes at night on the wet road pavements. 

Development and Reproduction

These snakes become sexually mature at the age of 4, in which they are around 2 feet long. The breeding season is from April to May, and the fall mating period may take place in September. During the mating season, the males search for the sexually active female snakes by using their tongue that can help them detect the pheromones floating within the air. When they spotted the females, the male Northern copperheads will start moving their heads or rub their chins on the soil. After courtship, the males and females will align their bodies together. 

The courtship between male and female Northern copperheads can last for one hour or even longer if the females are unresponsive. With sufficient stimulation, the female snakes will lift and arch their tails and lower the scales around their cloaca. The males will then arch their bodies and tails to every one of their hemipenes and mate with females. The mating time may last from 3 ½ to 8 ½ hours. 

During the breeding season, the males will release a pheromone which makes their mating partners unappealing to other male snakes. The female snakes may become a little interested in breeding after a long and successful 1st time to mate. Females may breed with two or more males. 

These snakes can also give the so-called “virgin” birth through the process known as parthenogenesis. It is a type of asexual reproduction in which the unfertilized eggs may reach maturity. This capability is more common in the invertebrates. 

The female snakes can store sperm in their systems, too. However, the length of the period the sperms remain viable seems to vary based on where they are stored. The sperms stay alive for a limited time when stored within the cloaca, unlike when they are stored within the upper tip of oviducts or the vascular tissues specializing as the seminal receptacles. The females who breed during autumn can store sperms until they emerge from the hibernating state. 

The copperheads have the gestation time of 3 to 9 months and produce big yolk-filled eggs. They will store the eggs within their reproductive tracts for development. During this period, the embryo survives mainly on nutrients available in the yolk. Some mated female Northern copperheads do not eat as the embryos will take up more space within their body cavities. 

Copperheads of all forms are ovoviviparous. This means the eggs develop in their bodies and may hatch inside or right away after the eggs come out of their mothers. Female Northern copperheads often produce 2 to 10 hatchlings. The bigger the females are, the more eggs they can produce. The mother snakes will expel the hatchings in the membranous sac that weighs less than an ounce, which is equal to 28 grams. This sac measures around 18 to 25 centimeters or 7 to 10 inches long at birth. The females will leave their hatchlings right away after giving birth. The hatchlings will feed themselves and look for a safe habitat on their own. Their mothers won’t look after them. 

Sleep Habits

In summer, the Northern copperheads are nocturnal. They stay diurnal from April until late October. The snakes will hibernate throughout the winter months, which is from November until April. 

However, they will emerge on the hot days as they want to bask and enjoy under the sun. Their overwintering locations are outcroppings and rock crevices that are either facing the west or south. The pregnant snakes may settle for those wintering locations that provide warmer microclimates. Seemingly, they migrate in the late spring to reach the summer feeding sites and reverse this relocation at the start of autumn. 

Life Span

The life span of the copperheads is up to 18 years in most cases. For the Northern copperheads, they may last for 12 to up to 20 years when raised in captivity. In the wild, the life span of these snakes can be shorter, mainly due to predation and loss of habitat. 

Predation

Most of the snakes can be prey and predators to other creatures. Hawks, eagles, raccoons, and coyotes are the most common predators of copperheads. Good thing, these snakes have some defensive mechanisms that drive their predators away. If they feel threatened, the copperheads will lie quietly or slowly slither away. At times, these snakes rattle their tails. They can also release a musky scent that smells oddly like cucumbers to drive the predators away. 

Conversation

The Northern copperheads aren’t enlisted as nationally endangered or threatened. Like other snakes living in Maryland, the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act protect the Northern copperheads. Therefore, no one can kill, possess, breed, or sell these snakes without acquiring the permit and other necessary documents from the Department of Natural Resources in Maryland. Also, Maryland requires everyone to get the Captive Reptile and Amphibian Permit to possess, breed, and sell native amphibians and reptiles within the state. 

Venom

Though they are venomous, the Northern copperheads are normally non-aggressive, and the bites are nearly not deadly. The venom from these snakes come with a lethal dose of about 100 mg. The potency is one of the lowest of all the pit vipers and a bit weaker than their close relative – the cottonmouth. 

The copperheads use a so-called “warning bite” if stepped on or when they are agitated. They inject a small amount of venom. Dry bites without venom are quite common with the copperheads, but the pit vipers of all forms can do a dry bite. 

The symptoms of bites made by copperheads involve intense pain, throbbing, tingling, severe nausea, and swelling. Damage can take place to bone and muscle tissues, particularly when the bite happens in the external extremities like hands or feet and other areas without a big muscle mass that will engross the venom.

The bites from venomous snakes like copperheads are a big issue that must be taken seriously. At the same time, emergency medical attention is necessary because allergic reactions and secondary infections are possible at all times. Antibiotics, pain management, and medical supervision in the case when complications occur is generally the required treatment process. 

Caging

You can keep a pair of the Northern copperheads can be maintained in a terrarium with 30-50 gallon capacity. The substrates for these snakes can be a mix of dry, fallen oak with a folded newspaper, maple leaves, thick piles of paper towels, cypress shavings, or aspen shavings, and pelleted newspapers. 

Hide Boxes

Also, the Northern copperheads require some hiding spots in the form of tiny hollow logs. You can also provide them with a hide box made of plastic. These hiding spots will keep these snakes feeling good and safe inside the enclosure.

Water Bowl

Your snake also needs a water bowl. It is sufficiently big for the snake as it will drink and soak its body in it whenever it likes to. Water should be kept clean and fresh. 

Lighting and Temperature

Daytime illumination must be provided. The temperature inside the enclosure must be between 76 and 83 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, you can lower the temperature to 60 up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, the enclosure for Northern copperheads should have a dedicated spot for basking, which should maintain a temperature between 92 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. You may add a heating bulb on top of the basking area to maintain the ideal temperature.

When kept as simple as pets, the Northern copperheads can be kept active and warm throughout those winter months. Unlike other snakes, the Northern copperheads may continue to eat regardless of the season. But they can also choose to skip a meal during this season. If you keep these snakes and breed them, then they will need a dormancy period of up to 90 days. 

Cleaning the Enclosure

The snake may soak and defecate in its water bowl and substrate. Routine spot cleaning and thorough cleaning of the enclosure is necessary. Again, don’t try doing it with your bare hands. Use a blockage that will separate the snake from your hands as you clean the enclosure. Spot cleaning should be done daily. 

Availability – Where to Get One?

You may look for the Northern copperheads from a local pet store or breeder. You may also try searching for these snakes for sale on the web. Do your homework for this matter. 

Handling

The Northern copperheads and other copperhead snakes are not fond of being held. Handling them can be dangerous. They are good to display only. Don’t try to hold the snake and pet it. In the woods, they normally slither away, but they rarely strike humans when accidentally touched and stepped on.

How to Care for Northern Copperhead?

Taking care of a venomous snake can be too different from how you can take care of a non-venomous species. Venomous snakes like the Northern copperheads need special attention if you choose to keep them as pets. Though they are non-aggressive creatures and their bites are less likely to be so deadly; still, you must be extra careful when interacting with these snakes.

Interesting Facts about the Northern Copperhead Snake

  • These snakes love to hunt alone. They are so unique as they may prefer being with peers, but they mostly choose to hunt alone. 
  • Copperheads are ambush hunters. They silently kill their prey. 
  • These snakes hibernate in the communal dens. Sometimes, they hibernate together with other snakes. 
  • They go back to the same hibernating spot every year. Hibernation occurs every year, so they have to rest and sleep for a while. They are not fond of finding a new hibernating spot. Instead, they simply go back to where they were in the past hibernation season. 
  • Copperheads of all species are venomous. However, they do not bite in most cases. They often prefer running away when they encounter humans. In some cases, they strike quickly when humans accidentally touched or stepped on them. 
  • The hatchlings of copperheads are so creative. They are small, which means they are not as good as the adults in hunting. Moreover, they don’t have their parents on their side to help or even teach them to catch and kill either a small or big animal. 
  • They are proportional. The length of their fangs depends on how long their bodies are. The longer the snake is, the longer its fangs are. 
  • Female Northern copperheads can store sperms. These sperms may remain viable for months and reserve them for the next fertilization. Unfertilized eggs are just fine. 
  • The venom produced by the Northern copperheads can be so useful. Based on studies, the venom from these snakes holds a protein known as the contortrostatin, which stops the development of malignant cells in rats. While further research is currently in progress, the dangers of this venom are being tested and transformed.
  • Female Northern copperheads may fight with the males and reject anyone that backs down from the fight. In this way, the females will know which male is the one that deserves the chance to mate with them. 
  • Copperheads can be deadly even in their lifeless state. Even after killed for hours, their heads can bite and release the venom. It often happens when people try removing the dead snakes from the streets or just to have a closer look at them. 
  • They produce a fruity scent when protecting themselves from predators. Unlike other snakes that emit musky odors to discourage their predators, the copperheads emit a different kind of smell – something like the scent of cucumbers. 
  • Their appetite decreases as they age. Adult Northern copperheads might eat 10 to 12 times only every year. 

FAQs

Are copperhead hatchlings more venomous than the adult snakes? 

The hatchlings of the copperhead snakes are not more venomous than their parents. Besides, the young copperheads grow and develop the ability to increase their venom. 

What are the biggest predators of copperhead snakes?

Although they are venomous, still they serve as food to other animals. Bigger birds like hawks and eagles, carnivorous animals like raccoons, and coyotes are the most common predators of copperheads.

Are copperheads and cottonmouth snake the same?

While they are both semi-aquatic poisonous snakes having the same patterns and coloring, still they are two different species of snakes. The cottonmouth snakes are much more venomous than copperheads.

Do Northern copperheads swim?

The copperhead snakes of all forms are good swimmers. They have the habit of swimming and exploring the water. 

Are Northern copperheads aggressive?

The Northern copperheads tend to be not aggressive when encountered by humans, but they may bite when accidentally touched or stepped on. They become aggressive to fellow copperheads during the mating season. 

Do Northern copperheads like being handled?

The Northern copperheads can be kept as pets, but they are not okay with handling. Just leave them alone inside their enclosures. 

Do Northern copperheads have the camouflaging ability?

Yes, these snakes can use camouflage as defense and when searching for privacy. The color of their skin makes it easier for them to blend into the environment when being attacked by predators. 

How do Northern copperheads kill their prey?

These venom of the Northern copperheads is potent enough to kill a rat, small bird, or any other prey. They bite their prey and release them quickly, allowing the venom to circulate, taking the animal to death. 

Can I buy Northern copperheads?

Venomous snakes like the Northern copperheads are also offered for sale through the web. Look for credible pet stores when you shop around. 

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