Copperheads have probably generated more fear, questions and myths than any other species of Missouri snake.
Most people know copperheads are the most abundant species of venomous snake found in Missouri. As a result, many humans feel the best copperhead is a dead one. It’s doubtful their opinions would change if they knew 90 percent of a copperhead’s diet consists of mice and voles; two common rodents that can be nuisances for humans. So, while it’s fair to point out that this snake that’s high on people’s fright lists has some beneficial qualities, it’s equally fair to understand that knowing these benefits will probably not change anyone’s minds about copperheads.
Copperheads belong to a sub-family of snakes (Crotalinae) known as pit vipers, a group that includes cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. These snakes are named pit vipers because they have infrared-sensing facial pits. These small openings between the eye and nostril on each side of the head assist in locating warm-blooded prey.
Missouri is home to the eastern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). Copperheads have a base color of pinkish-tan to brown, which is overlaid with dark brown markings across their backs shaped like a bow-tie or hourglass (pinched in the middle and wide on either end). Preferred habitats include open forests, along creeks, rocky hillsides, abandoned farm buildings or lumber piles. Typically, adults will range from 24 inches to 36 inches in length. Like all of Missouri’s venomous snakes, copperheads give birth to live young. Young are born in late summer or early fall.
One copperhead myth is that they move in pairs. Copperheads compete with each other for food and space and would much rather have habitats to themselves. Another false copperhead claim is that a young copperhead’s bite is more dangerous than an adult’s. This isn’t true; a young copperhead’s venom has the same potency as an adult’s.
What is true about copperheads is that they have a venomous bite that should be respected by all humans. The primary use of a copperhead’s venom is as a hunting tool. A copperhead bites a small prey animal, inject its venom and release it. As it is dying, the animal creates an odor trail. The copperhead follows this odor trail and dines on its freshly killed prey.
Copperheads also use venom for self-defense and this is how humans get bit. A copperhead will not “hunt” a human, but it will strike if it feels cornered or threatened. Most copperhead bites occur when someone tries to catch a copperhead or steps unsuspectingly onto one.
A person bitten by a copperhead should seek immediate treatment at the nearest hospital emergency room. Prompt treatment will greatly reduce infection, muscular pain and other physical problems that result from venomous snake bites.
When you see a copperhead, back away and leave it alone. When walking in the countryside, it’s a good practice to first step on top of large logs or rocks instead of crossing over with a single step.
Missouri’s Wildlife Code allows humans to kill wildlife that are threatening their safety (see the Wildlife Code of Missouri for details) and this provision includes venomous snakes. However, often, the best solution to a copperhead problem around the home copperhead problem is to get rid of the habitat it’s seeking.
Information about copperheads can be found in the free Missouri Department of Conservation booklet “A Guide to Missouri’s Snakes,” which is available at many Department of Conservation offices. You can also learn about copperheads and other Missouri snakes at mdc.mo.gov.