Osage copperhead

Copperhead

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).

Copperhead

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.

Copperhead

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

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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23 Responses to Osage copperhead

  1. Kolby says:

    Beautiful snake! Am I seeing that it has a green tail in one of your pics?

    • Green… yellow… greenish yellow… it’s part of the juvenile coloration. I took a few photos of the whole snake showing the colored tail, but they didn’t turn out so well in my first attempts at deciding what f-stop to use with what flash power in such low light conditions (evident also on the photos I did post, which are a tad washed). I’ll get better.

  2. Marvin says:

    Copperheads are fairly common around our place, though I haven’t seen one yet this year.

  3. Heber says:

    Really nice pictures! Good info too. Although I do have a quibble.

    I think one could say that all snakes (including copperheads) are non-aggressive in that they don’t seek out humans to bite. However I recall reading a study in which snakes of various kinds were harassed with a booted foot and observed to see what the response was. Copperheads were much more likely to strike than rattlesnakes. The thinking is that the copperhead lacks the rattle to use as a warning and so uses an initial strike instead. So there are more copperhead bites in a year than rattlesnake bites. But of course copperheads are much less venomous so there are seldom serious consequences.

    I’m no expert on snakes, but that is my understanding. I’m certainly open to be corrected.

    • Hi Heber. That’s interesting, although it’s hard for me to believe than any venomous snake wouldn’t strike once actually stepped upon. Really though, it seems that “step-on” bites are not very common, and that the majority of bites are to the hands as a result of trying to capture or molest the snake. Why copperhead bites should be more common than the others may have to do with more frequent encounters, and perhaps also because its smaller size and lack of aggressive warning behaviors compared to Missouri’s other common venomous snake species (i.e., rattlesnakes and cottonmouths) deludes those who would try to handle them that they are tamer and not as much of a threat.

      Among Missouri’s venomous species, cottonmouths seem to be notoriously the most aggressive¹ – which is interesting because they are very closely related to copperheads (same genus), yet they have much greater size and lack the cryptic coloration of the latter. Lacking the crypsis of copperheads or the warning rattle of rattlesnakes, I guess they need to use more aggressive behavior to warn potential adversaries. I doubt I would have ended up standing within striking distance of the snake atop the cave had it been a rattlesnake or cottonmouth (although wrong habitat for the latter)!

      ¹ I don’t use the term “aggressive” to mean that the snake actually seeks confrontation, but rather that it displays obvious warning behaviors and a propensity to strike when it feels threatened.

  4. DougT says:

    Great photos. We have a massasauga on display here at the Nature Museum. As part of the research that we did for interpretation we found some really interesting statistics regarding venomous snakebites in the US. The most common location for the bite is the right hand. The typical victim is a male aged 16 to 25. No statistics were given about blood alcohol level in bite victims (but I have some suspicions). (I may be mangling some of the specifics of these stats- I’m doing it from memory. But the gist of them is correct).

    • Thanks Doug. It would certainly be interesting to know what the associated blood alcohol levels, but in my experience 16-25 year old males don’t need the help of alcohol to make incredibly stupid decisions :)

  5. MObugs41 says:

    Beautiful snake. Perhaps this is the year for snakes. You mentioned spotting two of these snakes in a short period of time this year. I’ve not seen any venomous snakes as of yet, but the non-venomous variety have been plentiful this year. Much more so than in previous years.

    • Hi Shelly, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I have also noticed many more snakes this year than I seem to remember. I haven’t been in the field any more than usual – I’ve been wondering if there really are more this year or if maybe I’m just getting less myopic with my beetles :)

  6. LOL A very funny story!

    I agree that not all species of snakes are equally aggressive. Here in Spain, the “culebra de agua” (Natrix maura) is surprisingly peaceful. You can catch it with the hand, never bites.

    • Thanks macro – yes, funny now, but when it happened I sure thought I was a gonner! It still amazes me that my leg could’ve gone completely numb like that with absolutely no actual venom – the brain is truly a mystery!

  7. cedrorum says:

    I’ve always thought that one of the reasons one doesn’t see as many copperheads in relation to other snakes is the fact that they clear out before you get to them. The couple that I’ve seen in my forays in the south have been doing just that when I have seen them, scattering. They don’t seem to be as fast as black racers, but still fast enough to move before you get to them. The one’s I have seen were in the early morning hours, probably thermoregulating before their fun filled day. It seems that almost everyone that I’ve talked to who were bit by copperheads were bit by surprise; they hadn’t seem the snake before it hit. Great pictures and glad to hear you didn’t actually get bit in the cave excursion.

    • Hi cedrorum – maybe that’s why I’ve seen so few of them. I’ve never seen one run, though – those that I have seen are always just sitting there, seemingly believing themselves invisible in the leaves.

  8. We really enjoyed this post, Ted. Especially as we’re just planning an expedition to attempt to photograph on of Wisconsin’s timber rattlesnakes. We’ve never seen a copperhead, though it’s on our list of ‘must sees’, as we think that they’re one of the most attractive of snakes. Next time we’re in the south, we’ll have to do a bit more searching about in the proper habitat. On the aggression side of things, we really wanted to thank you for dispelling the myth that snakes are ‘out to get us’. Up here, we’ve had some encounters with the Northern Water Snake, who might be called quite aggressive — however, whenever we find it, it’s swimming away as quickly as possible unless we’ve cornered it. The only time we’ve been bitten is when we’re harassing it (ie. trying to catch one). Then they’re all too ready to snap at you. But what would we do if we were a little snake and a giant hominid came trumbling along and then tried to grab us? =)

    Finally, thanks for sharing the story about your near-bite — that really brought the whole episode to life.

    • Thanks so much K&R. Good luck finding the timber rattler – I’ve run across a few here in Missouri but haven’t yet had the chance to photograph one. You should see the prairie rattlesnake I saw in the Black Hills last fall – there are a couple of photos in my post Rattled in the Black Hills. An incredibly handsome, fearsome beast!

      That first copperhead experience is the closest I’ve ever come to being bitten by any snake – I just generally try to leave them alone.

  9. Beau says:

    That’s a great story, and so humorous in retrospect. I love that first picture too. I’ve only been bitten by several non-venomous snakes. I remember swimming in the north arabian sea one time while lookouts watched for sea snakes… we would see a lot of them from above. Apparently they weren’t aggressive, but were extremely venomous. I was more worried about the accidental bite like your copperhead experience!

    • Oh man, sea snakes!? It would’ve been hard for me to go in the water – even with lookouts. That must have been an unbelievable experience – looked upon more fondly once you were safely out of the water I’m sure :)

  10. Kolby says:

    Props to you Ted for properly calling them “venomous snakes” and not “poisonous snakes.” It’s such a pet peeve of mine to see people call snakes “poisonous.”

  11. Layne says:

    Nice post and great story. If anyone is interested in finding Osage Copperheads, ride the bike trail in Weston, Mo.; they’re pretty thick. In the Spring and Fall around sunset are great times to find them soaking up the heat on the trail. I’m now slightly phobic of small patches of leaves.

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