Common Name: Northern Copperhead
Scientific Name: Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen
 Etymology:
  Genus: Agkistrodon is derived from the Greek word ancistron which means "fishhook". This is in reference to recurved fangs.
 Species: contortrix is from the Latin word contortus which means "twisted" or "intricate" in reference to the dorsal pattern.
Subspecies: mokasen is the Native American Algonquian word meaning "moccasin".
Vernacular Names: Dumb rattlesnake, red adder, red eye, red snake, white oak snake, deaf snake, beech-leaf snake, chuck head, copper adder, copper-bell, deaf adder, hazel head, popular leaf snake, thunder snake, harlequin snake.
Average Length: 24-36 in. (61-90 cm)
Virginia Record Length: 48 in. (121.9 cm)
Record length: 53 in. (134.6 cm)

 

Virginia Distrubution:

 

 

 

 

Description:

 Northern Copperheads have dark colored crossbands that are for the most part shaped like an hourglass. Usually some of the crossbands are broken and do not connect.

The northern copperhead is a pit-viper, as are all three of Virginia's venomous snake species (northern copperhead, eastern cottonmouth and timber rattlesnake). The "pit" in pit-viper refers to the heating sensing pit located between the eye and the nostrils on the snake's head. In addition to the heat sensing pit all three venomous snakes in Virginia have vertical pupils. All harmless snakes in Virginia have round pupils and lack the heat sensing pits. Another characteristic of all Virginia's venomous snakes is the single row of scales on the underside of the tail after the anal plate (vent).

While close inspection of a snake's face and/or it's anal plate is a definitive way to distinguish a venomous snake from a harmless species, it requires one to get dangerously close to a potentially dangerous animal. It is far better to learn the pattern and coloration of a few snakes so that a specimen may be identified from a safe distance.

Copperheads play a pivotal role in controlling rodent populations. Without copperheads and other rodent eating snakes there would be a drastic increase in crop/food damage and rodent spread diseases. While Copperheads are venomous they are very placid snakes that only bite if stepped on or otherwise threatened. If you see a copperhead, leave it alone and rest assured it will do its best to avoid you.

Confusing Species:

 

Northern Copperhead vs. Eastern Ratsnake (A.K.A. Blackrat Snake)

Probably the most common snake misidentified as a copperhead is the harmless juvenile eastern ratsnake (formerly called the blackrat snake). The eastern ratsnake starts life with a strong pattern of gray or brown blotches on a pale gray background. As the eastern ratsnake ages the pattern fades and the snake becomes black, often with just a hint of the juvenile pattern remaining.

Around late August to mid October depending on the temperatures, eastern rat snakes look for a nice warm place to wait out the upcoming winter. Frequently these snake will choose a house attic, crawlspace or basement. Luckily, copperheads don't usually seek winter refuge in human occupied dwellings.

Venomous Northern Copperhead
Harmless Eastern Ratsnake
Both the northern copperhead and eastern ratsnake are found state wide in Virginia.
The hourglass pattern on the copperhead's back starts on the side of the snake. The blotch pattern of the eastern ratsnake do not extend to the sides.

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Northern Copperhead vs. Northern Black Racer

Like the eastern ratsnake, black racers are also born with a blotched pattern. However, unlike the eastern rat snake that may retain the juvenile pattern for several years, the pattern of the black racer usually fades to a uniformed black within the first two years of life. Juvenile black racers usually do not seek winter refuge in human occupied dwellings. Black racers are usually one of the first snakes to become active when spring arrives.

Venomous Northern Copperhead
Harmless Northern Black Racer
Both the northern copperhead and northern black racer are found state wide in Virginia.

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Northern Copperhead vs. Northern Watersnake

Juvenile and subadult northern watersnakes have a pattern that can vary greatly in color, from dark grayish to a reddish brown. The color of some individuals watersnakes can come close to that of some copperheads, however the pattern on the northern watersnake is always narrow on the sides and wide near the backbone. This is completely opposite of the pattern found on the copperhead (wide on the sides and narrow near the back bone). Some adult northern watersnakes retain a strong, distinct juvenile pattern while others become a uniformed brown. As the name implies, the northern watersnake is usually found in close proximity to water.

Venomous Northern Copperhead
Harmless Northern Water Snake
Both the northern copperhead and northern watersnake are found state wide in Virginia.

 

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Northern Copperhead vs. Eastern Milksnake

The pattern of the eastern milksnake is fairly consistent in Virginia, however the intensity of the colors can vary quite a bit. Usually the blotches across the back are outlined in black. Eastern milksnakes are found state wide, but are more abundant in the mountainous regions.

Venomous Northern Copperhead
Harmless Eastern Milksnake
Both the northern copperhead and eastern milksnake are found state wide in Virginia.

 

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Northern Copperhead vs. Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern hognose snakes are the great actors of the snake world. In an effort to ward off predators these snakes will puff-up, hiss loudly, spread their neck and strike with the mouth closed. If all else fails the hognose snake will roll over and play dead. Found state wide the pattern and coloration of these snake can vary greatly. Eastern hognose snakes prefer sandy soil and primarily feed on toads.

Venomous Northern Copperhead
Harmless Eastern Hognose Snake
Both the northern copperhead and eastern milksnake are found state wide in Virginia.

The pattern of the eastern hognose snake can vary greatly and thus isn't a reliable identifying characteristic.

The upturned snout of the hognose snake is unique among Virginia's snakes.

 

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Northern Copperhead vs. Corn Snake

The corn snake also known as the red ratsnake is usually more brightly colored and and has a more reddish hue than that of the copperhead. The pattern of the corn snake is a blotch that does not extend down the sides to the ground. Unlike the juvenile pattern of the eastern ratsnake that fades as the snake ages, the pattern of the corn snake remains distinct regardless of age.

Venomous Northern Copperhead
Harmless Corn Snake

 

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Northern Copperhead vs. Mole Kingsnake

Juvenile mole kingsnakes have a strong pattern that usually, but not always fades to a uniformed brown as the snake ages. Mole kingsnakes are seldom seen out in the open and are general found under surface cover (plywood, tin, flat rocks, etc..). Mole kingsnakes will sometime venture out in the open after a heavy rain.

Venomous Northern Copperhead
Harmless Mole Kingsnake

 

 

Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service: Species Booklet

Photos:

*Click on a thumbnail for a larger version.

Arlington County Arlington County neonates with yellow tail tips Fairfax County Page County Patrick County Prince William County
Head Features Pulaski Co. Douthat State Park Bedford County Washington County An atypically colored/patterned copperhead from Russell County

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copperhead Male Combat

all photos © Deborah Splendorio
Spotsylvania Co.

A description of copperhead male combat given by Joseph Ackroyd from his 1947 observation from Winchester, Frederick County:

"Possibly two-thirds of the anterior portions of the snakes' bodies were entwined vertically with the exception of a portion of the neck. The heads were opposite each other and were held horizontally, three or four inches apart. They seemed to gaze hypnotically at each other and there was a slight swaying movement between them. About one turn of coil was wound and unwound, first in a clockwise and then in a counterclockwise direction. At no time did the distance between the heads change during the rhythmic movements, and at no time did the snakes progress along the ground. It seemed as if the posterior ends were definitely "anchored."
On three distinct occasions one of the snakes broke the rhythm of the dance by darting its head rapidly at the other. The visibility was not good but I imagined the movement to be a caress, with contact made somewhere in the region of the chin of the other snake. What most amazed me was their utter disregard for me. I watched them from a distance of about three feet, engulfed them in the rays of the light for minutes, and yet the dance continued. From the time I first saw them until they were prodded with a stick and moved off into the underbrush, approximately twenty minutes elapsed."