North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Copperhead

Scientific Name:  Agkistrodon contortrix
Classification:  Nongame (VENOMOUS)
Abundance:  Statewide

Species Profile

          
Photo: Jeff Hall

     

The copperhead is familiar, at least by name, to most North Carolinians. Deriving its common name from its coppery brown head, the copperhead also is known by such local names as “pilot,” “chunkhead,” “poplar leaf” and “highland moccasin.” The copperhead is a rather heavy-bodied snake with an average adult length between 2 and 3 feet. It has a light brown, coppery or tan (sometimes grayish or pinkish tan) background color, with strongly contrasting chestnut brown crossbands shaped like an hourglass or dumbbell—narrow in the center of the back and wide along the sides. Individual patterns vary—sometimes the bands may break up along the center, and some specimens have small dark spots between the bands—but nearly all individuals have at least some complete, hourglass-shaped crossbands. The head is somewhat triangular, quite distinct from the neck, and tan or copper in color, with a thin, dark line running from the eye to the rear of the jaw. The pupils are vertical and elliptical, and there is a heat sensory pit between the eye and nostril. The top of the head does not have a pattern. The belly is usually whitish or yellowish white, sometimes mottled or stippled with brown or gray, with a series of dark brown or black spots or smudges along the sides. The dorsal scales are keeled, and the scales beneath the tail are usually undivided, except at the tip. The body is relatively stout and slightly triangular in cross section. Hinged, recurved, hollow fangs are present in the front of the upper jaw.

Copperheads mate in the spring and fall. Females give birth to 3 to 14 (up to 20) live young during the late summer or early fall.

The copperhead is classified as a nongame species and has no open season. It is unlawful for any person to take, or have in possession, any nongame mammal or bird unless that person has a collection license or is collecting fewer than 5 reptiles or fewer than 25 amphibians that are not endangered, threatened, or special concerned species.

The copperhead is venomous. The copperhead is the most common and widespread venomous snake in North Carolina. In many areas, including most of the larger urban regions, it is the only venomous snake. Copperheads account for probably over 90 percent of venomous snakebites in North Carolina. A bite is painful and should be treated as serious, but it is not considered life threatening. Many bites occur when a hand or foot is carelessly placed on or very close to one of these wonderfully camouflaged snakes, but a large percentage occur while persons are attempting to capture, kill or handle copperheads. The great majority of bites can be prevented by exercising common sense: copperheads should be left alone.

Many people fear snakes and worry for the safety of people and pets when snakes are present. In reality, snakes are shy creatures that pose little to no threat to us when left alone. Snakes are an important part of our environment, keeping populations of pests such as rodents, slugs, and insects in check. Plus, snakes are a food resource to other animals such as foxes, raccoons, bears, eagles, hawks, and owls. 

When someone encounters a snake, usually the person and the snake are both caught off guard. The best plan is to leave the snake alone and give it plenty of space. In most cases, given time, the snake will move out of the area on its own. Like all reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded, meaning that their internal temperatures follow that of the ambient temperatures where they are found. On a cool day, a  snake encountered basking may not yet have the energy to move away from you, so it may require more time and warmer temperatures before it can retreat. 

The Wildlife Commission does NOT send people out to trap and remove snakes. The best plan for citizens of North Carolina is to learn about snakes and alter habits to minimize negative interactions, and in the process, learn to coexist with snakes.

Snakes can be difficult to monitor and survey, as most of them possess great camouflaged patterns and remain hidden within certain habitats.  One way biologists monitor corn snakes is through the use of artificial cover materials such as plywood boards, roofing tin, concrete blocks, and other materials. Plywood tends to be better at attracting smaller snake species, while larger snakes are more often found under tin.  Snakes will seek out these artificial shelters for thermoregulation and as a result, this method is particularly successful during spring and fall.