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Wildlife Wonders

Today is Northern Copperhead Day!

Snakes are reptiles with dry, scaly skin.  They are ectothermic (cold-blooded). That is why you will see them sunbathing on rocks.  Many people think that they are slimy, but if you ever get to touch one, which is really cool, you will see that is not true.  There are just 14 snakes in Connecticut and of those just two are considered poisonous – the northern copperhead and the timber rattlesnake.  Many people will try to convince you that there are water moccasins in CT, this is not true.  The water moccasin is a southern species.  The chances you will see a timber rattlesnake is relatively rare since they are on the endangered species list so if you do see one leave it alone and let the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division know.  The northern copperhead is poisonous and you do not want to get bitten by it, but I am pretty sure you really don’t want to get bitten by anything, but the venom is not very potent and rarely deadly.  Seek medical attention if it happens. Snakes are not aggressive they will not bite if they are not threatened or handled.  So please leave them alone and never kill them!  They are fascinating creatures.

The copperhead snake is called that because it has a copper-colored head.  That makes it easy!   The scientific name is Agkistrodon contortrix – Agkistodon is derived from a Greek word which means “fishhook” – referring to the recurved fangs, contortix is from a Latin word which means “twisted” or “intricate” in reference to the pattern on its back. There are five sub-species of copperhead, the northern copperhead has the largest range, and some call other kinds of snakes copperheads so it is important to look at the other characteristics.  The northern copperhead has a pinkish-tan dorsal (top) with a reddish-brown shaped hour-glass that sit like saddlebags along its back, with the thinner part in the center of the back and wider along the sides.  Their bodies are stocky in the center and become narrower toward the head, which is distinct from the body, and tail.   Some snakes have smooth scales and others keeled, copperheads have keeled scales with raised ridges in each scale. 

Venomous snakes, also known as pit vipers, have triangular or arrow shaped heads.  Their pupils are vertical like cats and the irises usually orange, tan or reddish brown.  Snakes don’t have eyelids, but instead a transparent scale called a “spectacle” that turns milky-white before they shed.  Pit vipers can see well at night. What helps them is a “pit” located between the eye and the nostril.  Their pits sense heat like night vision goggles.  The pits are thought to render images of the prey in the snakes brain. This could be an image of a rodent – like a mouse, reptile, amphibian or insect. They are carnivores.

Northern copperheads are “ovoviporous”, eggs incubate inside the mother’s body and the babies are born alive.  They can have anywhere from 2-18 live young.  Copperheads are born within a thin membrane that they quickly get out of.  The young are born with fangs and venom and measure 7-10 inches.  They grow to between 2-3 feet.  They are on their own once they are born.  (There is a lot more to be studied regarding the reproduction of snakes.  There is evidence of eggs being able to divide and grow on their own, asexually, a process known as parthenogenesis. This is not as uncommon as you may think. Several snake species, insects, some fish, amphibians and birds can reproduce this way.  The situations vary, but some females can also store the sperm and defer fertilization for months or even years – looks like the longest recorded is 8 years.)

Young copperheads have yellow-tipped tails that they wiggle and use as a lure to attract prey.  This bright yellow color fades generally by the time they are three years old.  The females are longer than the males, but the males have a proportionally longer tail. 

Snakes use their tongues to help smell their food.  The tongue carries odor particles from the outside to the mouth.  Located in the roof of the mouth is a smell sense organ, Jacobson’s organ, that helps the snake hunt and track prey.  They do not have external ears, but use vibration to assist.

In addition to teeth, beneath the nostrils the copperheads have two hollow fangs located on the maxilla (outer) bones.  These fangs are “foldable”.  When the jaw is lowered the bones and fangs rotate from a resting position to an erect position.  The venom glands lie behind the eyes and each is connected to the fang by a hollow duct.  The amount of venom injected can be controlled.  Why waste the venom if you don’t need to?  Copperhead venom breaks down the cells of the prey.  The American Museum of Natural History reported that a chemical in copperhead venom may be helpful in stopping cancerous tumors. 

The fangs evolved from teeth and are obviously very important to the snake.  The larger the snake, the larger the fangs and the fangs can be replaced periodically throughout the snakes life.   With smaller prey, after biting it the snake holds on until the venom does its job.  Larger prey are sometimes bitten, released and tracked down after it has died.  Depending on the size of their dinners, they may eat only 10-12 meals per year. 

The northern copperhead snake can live 18 years in the wild. The average is closer to 6-8 years.  They are active April – October, spending the winter in underground dens, often with other snakes, commonly returning to the same spot year after year.

Snakes are amazing!  The population of northern copperheads is more stable than timber rattlesnakes, but still declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as unnecessary killing.  Thanks to DEEP you are not allowed to possess venomous snakes.  You are prohibited from importing and possessing potentially dangerous animals, including venomous snakes, to help protect the health and safety of people and protect the animals.  For that matter, you cannot import or introduce into the state, possess or let loose, any live fish, wild bird, wild mammal, reptile, amphibian or invertebrate unless you have a permit!It is very important that you learn how to identify venomous and non-venomous snakes, that you understand how valuable they are to the entire ecosystem, that you leave them in their habitat and that you educate others about snakes so they too will see how fascinating and worth protecting they are!

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