Monday, November 28, 2011

Osage Copperhead

In northwest Missouri there are three venomous snakes. The timber rattlesnake, which I've done a few previous posts about, the Massasauga rattlesnake which occurs in wetlands and marshes like Squaw Creek NWR and then there is the Copperhead. I've spent three years trying to find one of these snakes to photograph and was beginning to give up ever finding one. Each time I mentioned to someone that I was looking for them, I was given all sorts of different places that were guaranteed to have copperheads. I would visit each location with high hopes of seeing one of these elusive snakes and always with the same snake! Then all that changed this past Friday evening. Joey and I decided to hike at a place called Sunbridge Hills Conservation Area located in the Northend of St. Joseph. I knew this place was known for having a healthy population of copperheads, so once again I was hoping my luck would change and I would see one of these snakes.... While hiking the only thing we found was a Great Plains Toad and some snails. We made our way back to the car and left the parking lot, instead of turning right to head home, I turned left down a dead end road. It turned out to be a good decision, because right in the middle of the road was my very first copperhead. I stopped the car and got out to look; worried that the snake might be dead, but thankfully it was very much alive. It never moved, and I was able to get a few pictures of it. The only problem was, I had to take the pictures by the light of the headlights on the car. So they didn't turn out as well as I would have liked. I actually considered taking it home with me, but realized that was not going to go over well with Joey who would have to ride in the same car with a caged copperhead. I can only imagine how that conversation would have went. I finally used my snake stick to coax it off the road so it would not be hit by the next driver.

Osage Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster) are a magnificently colored snake with shiny coppery colored body and darker colored hourglass shaped bands on the entire length of their body. They get their common name from the adult coloration of the head which looks very much like a shiny new penny. As juvenile snakes they are more gray in color with a yellow tip on their tail. This yellow tip is believed to be a lure designed to attract potential prey like small amphibians which are attracted by the waving of the yellow tail. When they come to investigate, instead of finding food, they find themselves served up for dinner. Adults may reach lengths up to four feet, with 3 feet being more common. They are a thick bodied snake with a triangular shaped head.

The juvenile pictured here actually bit a man in St. Joseph yesterday. The man was visiting one of MDC's shooting ranges and when he reached down to the ground to pick up an empty shell casing, the snake bit him.  It blended in with the gravel and ground so well, the man did not even know the snake was there.The man managed to capture the snake and drove to the hospital. I commend the man for not killing the snake, which would have been the reaction of a lot of individuals. Bites to humans are very uncommon. Symptoms of bites include intense pain, tingling, throbbing, swelling, and severe nausea. A friend of mine describes the pain as feeling as if you're on fire and trying to put the flame out with a hammer. Bites can cause muscle damage. Seek immediate medical attention if bitten. Our office received the phone call to come to the hospital to retrieve the snake. Our wildlife biologist picked it up and placed it in two containers. My boss called me to ask me to photograph it. The picture above was taken inside the container. Then we drove to Sunbridge Hills and released it. I photographed it several times on the gravel and it is remarkable how much it blends in with the rocks. If you did not know it was there, you would have a hard time seeing it.

This snake appears to be a little over a year old, possibly born in the fall of 2009. It's tail is beginning to fade and its size is a bit bigger than a newborn. Its temperament was very docile, even while being moved around with the snake stick it never tried to strike at us. It was remarkably tolerant of our presence and all that we were doing to it in order for me to get some decent photos. The man who was bitten is doing fine, he has a swollen finger and a puncture wound to remind him of his experience. Fortunately for him it was a copperhead and not a rattlesnake that bit him. Our local herpetologist says that if you are going to be bitten by a venomous snake, then the copperhead is the right choice. No one has ever died from their bite in Missouri. It is a painful experience to be sure, but one you are likely to survive to talk about. 

Copperheads are pit vipers, meaning they have pits located on either side of their head between the eyes and the nostrils. This pit is a heat seeking sense, that allows the snake to pick up the heat given off by prey species like mice, rats and other warm blooded creatures. These snakes are efficient hunters, and having this extra sense only aids them further in being the expert predators they are. Juvenile copperheads eat mainly insects, tiny frogs and other small amphibians. Adults eat mice, insects, frogs, lizards and small birds.

Mating between copperheads can take place in the fall or spring. If mated in the fall the female will delay fertilization until the following spring. Once mated, the female will deliver her young in August or September. Unlike the majority of Missouri snakes, copperheads bear live young. They may have as few as one baby, to as many as 15. These newly born snakes are not protected or cared for by the mother in any way. They are armed with all the instincts they will need to be able to survive. They aren't without enemies however, hawks, owls, and other snakes will feed on these snakes, so they are vulnerable at this age. This is where their coloring helps in allowing them to blend in with their surroundings, making it more difficult for potential predators to see them.

When hiking in Missouri, the most common venomous snake you're likely to encounter will be this species. They occur in every county in Missouri. They often go unseen because of their camouflage, they so perfectly blend in with leaf litter that they virtually disappear in their surroundings. It is always best to be aware of where you are walking and keep an eye out for these snakes especially if you know you are in an area where these snakes are reported to occur. These snakes often occur in pairs and seem to prefer to stay in close proximity to each other. They also use the same hibernation site each winter. These hibernation locations may contain numerous species of snakes, venomous and non-venomous alike. They will begin appearing with the first warm days in the spring. Often not moving very far from their winter location.

If you want to see a short video of a copperhead in the wild click this link from MDC.

I feel so incredibly lucky to have been privileged to see not one, but two copperheads in less than a week, especially after lamenting that I will NEVER see one. Goes to show that a person should NEVER say never!


  1. I love copperheads.They are such beautiful snakes and they are hated for a false reason! I am very sad that these snakes along with rattlesnakes are abused!

  2. Yes, even though we wish not to see a single copperhead snake a million times, fate is still the one who holds our destiny. Copperhead snakes are really dangerous, since this specie is responsible for approximately 37 percent of all venomous snake bites in the US in 2001 ( source: )

    I just hope that the innocent man who got bitten in St. Joseph gets well soon.:-)