How to Identify a Copperhead Snake

Copperhead snakes are fairly easy to identify. Regardless of that, they are known to have the highest track record of biting people in the U.S. They are creatures you want to avoid. Let’s talk about how to identify them so your odds of avoiding them are higher.

How to identify a copperhead snake. Copperhead snakes can be easily identified by their head and body shape, coloring, and pupil shape. They have stout bodies and broad, flat heads with a slightly sloping snout that is hard to distinguish from their heads. Copperheads are pale to brown in color and have hourglass shapes as a pattern on their skin. Copperhead pupils are slits.

Copperheads are the United State’s most frequent biting snakes. So to avoid these pit vipers you need to know how to identify them. I put quick answers above. Below I will give specific details and additional details on the confusion people have about these snakes.

Detailed Identification of Copperheads

Head Shape

There are quite a few details on the head of the copperhead that reveal that it is a copperhead. First, copperheads have a pair of pits in between their eyes and nostrils.

Copperheads are among the pit viper family of snakes. Pit vipers are a group of venomous snakes that hold snakes like the copperhead, rattlesnake, and the cottonmouth. These snakes are called pit vipers because each of them has these pits in between their eyes and nostrils. These pits are what these snakes use to sense the heat signatures of other creatures, giving the snakes something like an infrared vision.

Since a copperhead is among this family of snake each of them will have these pits on their heads, and given that the other pit vipers are also venomous, it is best to avoid any snakes with these pits when possible.

To identify a copperhead from other pit vipers, you can look at the snout of the snake. Most snakes have well-defined snouts. This allows for an easy distinction between the head of the creature and the rest of the body.

A copperhead’s snout is not well distinguished from the rest of its head, and its head isn’t really that significantly different from its body. Luckily their necks are significantly slimmer than the rest of their body so the head is identifiable.

The snout of a copperhead slopes backwards and down to its mouth. In this manner, instead of a square snout, the snout is the angled difference between the tip of the snake’s head down to its mouth, leaving the snake to have a more angular head than a square one.

Body Shape

While most snakes are known for their slender agile bodies, the copperhead is a stout creature. So generally a copperhead will not appear to be a slender creature.

On top of this, copperheads average 2 to 3 feet in length with the longest copperhead reaching around 4.5 feet in length. So they are not that long of a snake either.

Finally, copperheads have well-defined tapering tails at the end of their bodies. Tapering tails are tails that are significantly smaller than the majority of the snake’s body.

Coloring

There are two main parts of a copperhead’s coloring that sets them apart from other snakes: Their actual color and the pattern of their scales.

Copperheads are, primarily, ambush predators. As such, they use camouflage to blend in with their environment. Unfortunately, this is the exact reason the people so often stumble into them.

To meet this camouflage requirement of theirs, the copperhead is generally within a range of tan to brown with some shades of green popped in there. These Earth tones are used to blend in with nature. You’ll see copperheads in tan, orange, light brown, brown, and green colors. They often obscure themselves with dead or fallen leaves.

The pattern of copperhead snakes are like hourglasses on their skin. The base color of a copperhead is a lighter color with the hourglass-like markings appearing as a darker color on that light background. The hourglass-like marks on their skin appear as wider on the sides of the snake and diminishing in width as the ascend to the backbone of the snake.

The hourglass figures will touch on top of the snake, but it isn’t always easy to see where the top of a coiled snake is. Finally, the head of a copperhead is often copper, or close to copper, in color giving the snake its name.

Copperheads have their color from birth so a baby copperhead will look essentially the same as a full grown one. The only exception to this is that copperhead babies have a yellow tip on the end of their tails which is used to lure prey to them. 

Pupil Shape

Snakes have a few choices in the shape of their pupil. Copperheads have vertical slits for pupils. There are several adaptations that come because of these pupils.

The first and most well-known reason for vertical pupils is for seeing in the dark. So creatures like cats and snakes can expand their pupil size to greater lengths from a slit eye than they can from a round eye. The result is an advanced ability to see in the dark. It is truly amazing how it works.

The second reason is to help with hunting. When a snake is trying to lay an ambush, they need to rely on their sight to set up some sophisticated traps. Unlike some snakes that can use other senses to determine where their prey is and then hunt them down.

An ambush predator needs to be able to see their surroundings to get the lay of the land as they set their trap. This has resulted in the need for slits as they can provide a pinpoint to look at something from a far distance that isn’t disrupted by the darkness of night.

Snakes Commonly Confused For Copperheads

Several snakes rely on the defense mechanism of mimicry. Mimicry is when a creature decides to look like a deadlier predator in order to scare off potential predators of their own. Because copperheads are venomous they are an easy target that other snakes can mimic and therefore scare off those looking to snack on them. This has resulted in a fair list of snakes that people mistakenly take for copperheads.

This fear of copperheads and many other venomous snakes results in the deaths of many innocent snakes each year. The snakes most commonly confused with the copperhead are the water snake, the hognose snake, the corn snake, and the juvenile eastern rat snake.

Water Snake

Water snakes are in the camp of snakes that use mimicry to appear as if they are venomous when they are not. This mimicry is such a staple of their defense that when they are threatened, they will flatten their heads to look like their pit viper friends. The water snake’s mimicry has caused the shape and body markings of a water snake to look very similar to those of copperheads.

There are a few ways that you can tell the difference between these snakes:

First, the water snake’s head when not threatened is blockier and less flat. This obviously doesn’t work when the snake is defensive but should you not provoke the snake and just happen to see it pass by, the heads of the water snake and copperhead will appear different.

Next, the water snake has the reverse hourglass effect in their pattern that copperheads have. This means that these marks are thicker at the top of the snake’s body and thinner at the sides.

Additionally, there are black outlines on these markings that don’t exist on copperheads. Other differences appear in the water snakes round pupils and extra markings under the head of the water snake that does not exist on the copperhead.

Hognose Snake

Similar to the water snake, the hognose snake attempts to appear like a viper through the flattening of its head. There are also similar markings on the side of the hognose snake.

However, upon closer inspection, there are several dot-like markings on the side of the snake that do not exist on a copperhead, and almost every marking on the snake’s body has dark border something that copperheads do not have. Additional clues that these snakes are different appear in the hognose snake’s patterned heads and round pupils.

Corn Snake

Corn snakes are often mistaken for copperheads just based off of their copper-like color. They have round pupils so that is a give away should you be close enough to tell the difference between slit pupils and round ones. It is important to note that using pupils as a means of identifying a snake is not suggested. You have to get close to a snake to see their pupils for obvious reasons this could be dangerous. Further evidence is shown in the patterns of corn snakes which don’t really have an hourglass look to them.

Juvenile Eastern Rat Snake

While young the eastern rat snake has several gray and brown colored markings that are similar looking to that of the copperheads. This problem diminishes as the snake grows. In particular, this is caused by the eastern rat snake’s patterns not extending down to the sides of the snake.

As the snake grows larger it becomes more and more evident that these snakes are not copperheads as their patterns are not hourglasses. Additionally, eastern rat snakes have round pupils.

There are a couple of other snakes that look similar to copperhead snakes. Read about them here, in an article we wrote.

What Should You do if You Are Bitten by a Copperhead

The first thing you want to do is step away from the snake. You want to remove yourself and anyone else around you from the harm of the snake. Next, you’ll want to try to identify the type of snake that you are dealing with.

For instance, you may have thought that it was a copperhead when it was not; either way, if you can identify the species of snake, you will be able to get better attention as the problem is identified. A great way to identify a snake is to take a photo of the snake and bring that to the medical professionals.

Next, remain calm and move toward the nearest medical help. The person that was bitten needs to remain calm as the faster their heart beats the faster their blood will flow. Extra blood flow will spread the venom throughout the body. You don’t want this to happen.

As such, try to move as little as possible while moving towards or calling for help. Keep the wound below your heart to slow down blood flow to that area, and if needed apply a pressure immobilizing bandage above the wound. This should further slow down blood flow.

Upon reaching a medical official, explain what happened, what symptoms you are feeling, and identify what type of snake it is if possible. Explain the snake in as much detail as you can will help the doctor know how to most effectively treat you.

DO NOT:

  • Apply a tourniquet to the wound, this will often hurt more than it will help as a tourniquet can lead to a loss of limb.
  • Apply ice to the wound. This will speed up blood flow to that area.
  • Try to suck the venom out with your mouth. This will hurt you a lot as that area is a wound and you will just spread the venom to your mouth. 
  • Cut the wound in an attempt to remove the venom. This has proven to not be beneficial and will only lead to harm. 

As an important note, while copperhead bites are common and they are venomous this doesn’t make them deadly. Copperhead bites are more dangerous for the possibility of a second bite than they are to actually kill a person.

These bites will hurt but no extreme measures need to be made to compensate for a copperhead bite. Remain calm and seek help and hopefully you don’t come out of the experience with any major injuries.

Where do Copperheads Live?

Copperhead snakes are generally found on the east coast of the United States. They are a North America based species and as such are found primarily within the United States. Copperheads have been found within:

  • Texas
  • Oklahoma
  • Kansas
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Florida and 16 other states

Their range is primarily constrained to these states as most of these states reside between the Mississippi River and the East coast of the US. Because Copperheads are camouflaged in earthen tones, they are likely to be found in the foliage of trees, or other plants.

So be careful when you are in wooded areas that are prone to having these snakes. They are masters of camoflage.

How do You Avoid Copperheads?

The simple answer to this is to never go to those places where a copperhead will be, but assuming this is not possible for you, the answer gets more complicated. Copperheads act different than most snakes in a couple of regards, the most dangerous being that instead of fleeing when they are scared they freeze up.

The result of this will be an unsuspecting human has stepped near a copperhead and the copperhead seemingly without warning will strike at the human.

In truth, there was a lot more that happened in that situation. The human scared the copperhead, the copperhead froze up, the human stayed around not noticing the camouflaged snake, and then the copperhead fearfully struck out at the human. Because of this nature and the nature of copperheads being both ambush predators and very well camouflaged for the environment, it becomes a matter of being aware and cautious of your environment.

So watch your step, that is really the best advice out there for avoiding these snakes.

Related Questions

How do you scare off copperheads?

Copperheads, like other snakes, have strong senses of smell, so the best way to scare them off is with strong smelling devices that don’t appeal to the snake. The list of home remedies to scare away snakes includes ammonia, vinegar, and mothballs. However, if you want a product to scare off copperheads, try snake defense, a great product for keeping your lawn snake free.

Why do copperheads smell bad?

Several snakes including copperheads have a skunk-like natural defense that allows them to release a musk into the air. This musk lets predators know just how bad the smell, and working off of the theory that a meal tastes like it smells, the copperhead looks unappealing. Copperheads release this odor when they feel threatened so if you have to deal with these snakes, so try not to intimidate them. 

What color is a copperhead’s tail?

While young, the tail of a copperhead is a vibrant yellow. They use this to attract prey to them. It is a form of hunting. As the copperhead grows it loses that vibrant tail and the tail takes the color of the rest of the snake which ranges from light tan to brown.

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