While photographing Cicindela sexguttata last weekend, Chris and I encountered this young copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortrix). It was the second copperhead I had seen in as many days – unusual, since I can count on my two hands the number of copperheads I’ve encountered in my many years of tramping through Missouri’s woodlands. I did not even see my first copperhead (other than in the zoo) until early adulthood, one of many unfortunate consequences of my strictly urban childhood (more on that first encounter later).
Missouri copperheads don’t really have “copper heads” – the common name is derived from the northern subspecies that lives in the northeastern U.S. and down into Appalachia. Instead, most of Missouri’s copperheads have a pinkish tan head that matches the color of the body. Three of North America’s five copperhead subspecies live in Missouri, but it is the Osage copperhead (A. contortrix phaeogaster) that is most commonly encountered – the northern and southern subspecies being confined, respectively, to the extreme northern and southern portions of the state. Osage copperheads are distinguished by the light bordering around each of their dark markings.
This individual can be recognized as a juvenile not only by its small size (it was just over 1 foot long), but also by the greenish yellow tail with small, white markings edged in black. Juvenile copperheads need help capturing prey because of their small size and use their colorful tails for “caudal-luring” – that is, they use their tails to lure prey to within striking distance. When prey approaches, the coiled juvenile snake moves its tail near the center of the coil and wiggles the colored portion – perhaps it looks like a caterpillar to the lizard or frog. Copperheads lose their juvenile tail coloration at about 18 months to two years of age when they are large enough to capture prey without assistance.
Copperheads are famously non-aggressive – even though the majority of snake bites that occur in Missouri each year are from this snake (due to its abundance), nearly all are a result of human attempts to handle, capture, or (tragically) kill the snake. I suppose someone might accuse me of doing likewise, since I used a stick to pick this individual up from the leaf litter in which it was lying, brilliantly camoflauged, and lay it down on the trail for photographs. The snake did strike several times at the stick, but with my hand safely out of reach, and after it was in place it cooperated fully for these ever closer photographs. My first encounter with a copperhead, however, was not so uneventful. I was a budding entomologist fresh out of school and had just discovered the wonderful little herbaceous islands in the forest known as glades. On my way back to St. Louis from a meeting in Jefferson City, I stopped by Graham Cave State Park in Montgomery Co. – a park I had not yet explored. Of course, there’s a cave that one must see – in this case an unusual sandstone overhang cave (significant for its Native American artifacts dating back 10,000 years). On top of the broad, sandstone arch above the cave I noticed a little glade habitat and clambered up to take a peek. As I was standing atop the cave looking at the glade, I felt something hit my ankle. I looked down and saw a full-grown copperhead coiled right next to my foot and instinctively jumped up and away from the snake (and fortunately not over the edge of the cave top). Almost immediately, my leg started feeling tingly, and as I pulled up my pant leg, pushed down my sock, and began searching frantically for the wounds on my ankle my leg started going completely numb. I was 40 miles from the nearest hospital, alone, and had not the wisdom to know that no fatalities from the bite of any of Missouri’s venomous snakes have been recorded for many decades. Convinced I was going to die, I continued my frantic search for the wounds, but no amount of careful examination around the ankle revealed any broken skin (what I would have done had I actually found wounds I do not know). I got up and tried to walk, almost collapsing at first on the completely numb leg. Eventually I was able to walk some feeling back into the leg, and once the leg was feeling close to normal again I concluded that the numbness must have been a purely psychosomatic response to the perceived bite. I went back to the snake, still coiled up where I first encountered it, and admired it for awhile – with due respect!
An excellent article on Missouri copperheads, by Missouri Department of Conservation herpetologist Tom R. Johnson, appeared in the May 1999 issue of The Missouri Conservationist.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009