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How To Identify A Copperhead Snake – The Important Features You Need To Spot

Many people have a primal fear of snakes but this phobia comes mainly from a misunderstanding of this much-maligned creature. There are many species of snakes in North America but there are only around sixteen poisonous species in the US.

Copperheads can be found on trails and campsites as well as near to people’s homes. For these reasons, it is important to know how to identify a copperhead so that you know what to do if you ever come face to face with one.

Introducing The Copperhead

Trans-Pecos Copperhead Snake (Agkistrodon contortrix pictigaster)

Trans-Pecos Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix pictigaster)

The copperhead is a poisonous pit viper, endemic to the eastern states of the US. Pit vipers are a group of snakes that are found throughout much of the world and are so named for a pair of pits located between the eyes and nostrils which give them the ability to “see” infrared heat.

Copperheads are masters of camouflage and are very hard to spot. They are not aggressive but when they are disturbed they tend to freeze rather than flee and as they are so difficult to see when they are immobile, they can bite people who unsuspectingly tread on them or walk near them.

This means they are responsible for the highest number of bites in the US – but despite this, they have only been implicated in a handful of deaths over the last hundred years as their venom is one of the least potent of the poisonous snakes found in North America.

How To Identify A Copperhead Snake

Southern Copperhead Snake (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix)

Southern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix)

It is important not only for hikers and campers to learn to identify the copperhead snake correctly, but, as it is such a common snake, also for anyone who lives within the natural range of the copperhead. This will allow you to deal with it properly if you find one or if you are ever bitten.

There are at least five subspecies of copperheads and their appearance varies but there are some features that all subspecies of copperheads share and which should give you a clear indication of whether it is a copperhead you are faced with.

1. Shape Of Head And Body

Copperhead Snake On White Background

The first and most obvious feature of copperhead snakes is that they are a stout-bodied snake with a tapering tail. If the snake you are looking at is slender, then it’s probably not a copperhead.

Copperhead Snake Hiding Among Tree Branches and Logs

A Copperhead Snake

A Cottonmouth Snake Head

A Cottonmouth Snake

The next thing to look at is the shape of the head. Copperheads have a broad, flat head with a distinct neck and a snout that is less blunt than that of a cottonmouth. The snout slopes backwards and the head extends over the mouth.

The shape of the head alone is not enough to distinguish a copperhead from some other similar-looking snakes as other species have evolved to mimic the flat head of the vipers as a defense mechanism.


2. Coloring

Osage Copperhead Snake In The Wilderness

The camouflage patterns of the copperhead allow it to conceal itself unseen among dead leaves. The most common colors are browns and ruddy oranges which facilitate this but they can display anything from a pale tan to a pinkish hue and even brownish-green patterning.

The base color is lighter and is overlaid with a number of irregular crossbands in a kind of “hourglass” shape. They are narrowest on top of the snake near the backbone and they don’t join. The head of this snake is usually of a copper hue, which gives it its name.

Female Osage Copperhead And Its Babies

Female Osage Copperhead And Its Babies

Also, note that while juveniles are born with the same coloring as adults, they also have a yellow-colored tip to their tail which is used to lure prey and fades as they grow older.


3. Shape Of Pupil

Copperhead Snake Resting Around Some Rocks

Copperheads have a slit pupil. Several other harmless snakes are commonly misidentified as copperheads but have round pupils. However, it is not recommended to approach any snake closely enough to see its pupil as a means of identification, for obvious reasons.


4. Scale Configuration Below The Anal Plate

Copperhead Scales Below The Anal Plate

Harmless Snake With Double Row Of Scales
Via Infinitespider.com

Again, this is not the most practical way to identify a live copperhead in the wild but an inspection of the bottom of the snake can also reveal its species. If you look at the scales below the anal plate, a copperhead will have a single row of scales whereas other, harmless snakes will have a double row.

Snakes Commonly Misidentified As Copperheads

Northern Copperhead Snake (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen)

Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen)

There are a number of snakes commonly misidentified as copperheads but actually belong to other harmless species. Here are some of the most common ones and how to distinguish them from the copperhead.

1. Watersnake

A Young Northern Watersnake

Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon)

This snake has evolved to mimic a poisonous viper but is in fact non-venomous. It can flatten its head to resemble a viper when threatened, the body is a similar shape and it has similar markings, but there are some tell-tale signs to look for that will tell you it is not a poisonous copperhead.

Firstly, the hourglass markings are the opposite of those on the copperhead, being thickest on the top along the backbone and narrowest along the sides. The markings also have dark borders which are not present on the copperhead.

Another clue to look for is the underside of the head. The watersnake often has markings there that you will not find on a copperhead. The pupils are also round.


2. Hognose Snake

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake

Hognoses are also mimics which try to pass themselves off as vipers when scared. They can flatten their heads and have markings that can resemble a copperhead. However, on closer inspection, the markings are different and often have borders, the head is patterned and the pupil is round.


3. Corn Snake

Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttata)

Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttata)

Copperheads have a slit pupil. Several other harmless snakes are commonly misidentified as copperheads but have round pupils. However, it is not recommended to approach any snake closely enough to see its pupil as a means of identification, for obvious reasons.


4. Juvenile Eastern Ratsnake

A Juvenile Black Ratsnake Basks In The Sun

Juvenile Black Ratsnake

Early in life, the eastern ratsnake features a pattern of grey or brown markings on a grey background and is commonly mistaken for the copperhead. However, the markings do not reach all the way down the sides of the snake and so should be easy to tell apart from the copperhead.

What To Do If You Come Across A Copperhead

Osage Copperhead Snake (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster)

Osage Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster)

The most important thing to remember about copperhead snakes is that they are not aggressive. They will not attack you and will not try to bite you unless you provoke them or step on them accidentally.

If you see a copperhead on a trail or on a campsite, just give it a wide berth and don’t bother it and it will probably leave on its own. They don’t want to be around humans any more than humans want to be around them.

If you see a copperhead in your garden or on your property, you should not try to kill it. These snakes are excellent rat catchers and will keep vermin under control much more effectively than a cat. If you want to remove it from your property, you can call a professional.

Remember, most snake bites occur when people try to capture or kill snakes so if you leave them alone, you will most likely be safe.

What To Do If You Are Bitten By A Suspected Copperhead​

Broad-banded Copperhead Snake (Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus)

Broad-banded Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus)

If you are bitten by a snake, it is important to identify the species as this will help with the treatment you will need to receive. If you can, try to take a photograph of the snake which will help to identify it.

The first thing to remember in a snakebite scenario is not to panic. It is important to relax and get medical assistance for the person who has been bitten as soon as possible. The person affected should remain immobile and wait for help to arrive. Do not try to suck the venom from the wound.

If possible, apply a pressure immobilization bandage to the place where the person was bitten and keep them still and calm until help arrives. If the person moves around or is agitated, the heart rate will increase which will increase the rate at which the venom moves through the bloodstream.

The symptoms of a bite from a poisonous snake are intense pain, swelling, reddening or bruising of the wound, nausea, vomiting, lack of sensation around the eyes, quivering eyelids, increased heart rate, trouble breathing and problems with coagulation around the wound.

If someone who has been bitten by a snake shows any of these symptoms, you should seek medical help immediately. Even though copperhead venom is relatively mild, you should seek help in every case as the venom can continue to destroy tissue and may result in the eventual loss of a limb.​

Conclusion

Copperheads are shy and unaggressive snakes but which are nonetheless responsible for the highest numbers of bites in the US due to their excellent camouflage coupled with their tendency to freeze when in danger which means people can easily step on them without realizing.

There is no need to kill snakes on sight. If you know how to identify a copperhead snake and you give them the personal space they require, they will not attack you. Snakes are beautiful creatures and if you try to understand them and treat them properly, they shouldn’t give you any problems.​

Have you ever come across a copperhead on a trail or campsite or maybe at your house? Are you afraid of snakes or are you fascinated by them like me? Please feel free to leave me a comment as I’d love to hear your stories – and if you enjoyed my article, please don’t forget to share!

Julie McClain
 

Chief editor here at Outdoorzer. I'm an outdoor lover and ever since I was a little girl, I've worked hard to learn all I could from my Dad about Camping, Hiking, RVs and surviving in the woods.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 5 comments
Diane Jones - June 15, 2017

I found a snake in a bird’s nest this morning. I have a couple of pictures. Would you please identify it for me? I can send you an email with the pictures. I think it could be a water moccasin, but another person thought it was a copperhead.

Thanks!

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Sarah Ford - July 19, 2017

Hi, Julie. I am scared of snakes. Less so than I was as a kid,but still pretty scared. We just moved to North Carolina and have been warned about copperheads. I am seeking information so that I can keep my kids and myself safe. You have the most informative site so far. I really appreciate it.

Sarah

Reply
    Julie McClain - July 20, 2017

    Hi Sarah,
    We all have fear and I’m glad that you found the way to overcome it. Thank you for appreciating my site.
    Have a good day!

    Reply
Ericka - August 14, 2017

I found one yesterday, I have never seen them before but I was fascinated by it, I had to hold it. I did, and then tried to hold by the neck but it didn’t like it so I let go and it tried to bit me but I was holding it so it was easy to avoid the bite. I took pictures of it then let it go, it was at the TN river on the trail.

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