The copperhead, a venomous pit viper and close relative of the cottonmouth, occurs throughout South Carolina.
This species is also known as the “highland moccasin” or “pilot.”
The copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) is the most commonly encountered venomous snake in the Lowcountry where it is associated with lowland habitats and adjacent upland areas. Unmaintained home sites, abandoned lots or barnyards with overgrown vegetation in combination with piles of woody debris are ideal habitats.
These conditions attract mice, a primary prey item, along with birds, other reptiles and amphibians which are also commonly consumed.
The first part of the scientific name, Agkistrodon, can be translated to “fishhook tooth” in reference to the curved fangs that hinge from the upper jaw. The second name, contortrix, means “twisted” in reference to the serpentine form and characteristic pattern.
Copperheads are moderately sized, heavy bodied snakes that bear live young in the late summer and fall.
Individuals reaching 52 inches in length have been documented historically, but specimens greater than 36 inches are uncommon.
Most individuals average 24-28 inches. Copperheads of the Lowcountry are light tan and have darker hourglass marks along the back with some pink coloration on lower side and belly.
The top of the head is copper colored, as the common name implies, and a light tan stripe extends from the nostril to the rear of the jaw. Young individuals have a paler pattern and a yellow tail tip.
Young copperheads and cottonmouths look very similar, but the bands of the cottonmouth are darker and there is a dark brown band extending from the nostril to the rear of head.
Copperheads are highly camouflaged snakes, especially when among the leaf litter of tree species such as American beech, tulip poplar and river birch.
Copperheads have been known to climb trees and remain perched on branches several feet from the ground.
Like other pit vipers, the copperhead has a facial pit on either side of the head between the eye and nostril which serves a sensory organ for locating prey.
Other characteristics would include a broad head, wider than the neck, and vertically elliptical pupils. Copperheads closely resemble the nonvenomous water snakes and hognose snakes which are also heavy bodied, have a wide head and hourglass-like bands along the back.
Unlike the water snakes and hognose snakes, copperheads will vibrate their tails when agitated.
Copperheads account for more snake bites in the U.S. than any other venomous species.
This is a result of their tendency to occur in residential areas, highly cryptic pattern, and propensity to strike with minimal provocation.
A large proportion of bites occur when snakes are being carelessly handled by snake enthusiasts. Others have been bitten after accidentally stepping on the snake while walking in copperhead-prone areas at night without sufficient lighting.
Bites on the hand or arm have occurred while picking up piles of yard debris or cleaning beneath shrubbery.
Although copperhead venom is less toxic than that of other native pit vipers, and fatal bites are rare, any bite by a venomous snake is serious and should be treated as such.
Actions such as removing home site debris piles can reduce the chance of a copperhead encounter. Appropriately lighting walking paths and using tools to move yard debris or clean under landscape plants can greatly reduce the risk of a copperhead bite.
Regardless of their reputation, or potential to cause harm, all native snake species have a crucial role in the function of Lowcountry ecosystems and this role should be respected.
In the United States, there are five recognized copperhead subspecies. The Southern copperhead subspecies occurs throughout the Lowcountry and ranges across a large portion of the Deep South and up the Mississippi River valley through Arkansas and southeastern Missouri.
The Northern, Osage, broad-banded, and Trans-Pecos compose the other four copperhead subspecies. Interestingly, except for a small region of the Florida panhandle, copperheads do not occur elsewhere in the Sunshine State or extreme southern Georgia.
Eran S. Kilpatrick, Ph.D. is an associate professor of biology at the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.