Geographical Range Midwestern United States
Habitat Rocky, forested hillsides; wetlands
Scientific Name Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster
Conservation Status Not listed by IUCN

Fold-away Fangs

Copperheads inject venom through long, hollow fangs that are moveable. When not in use, the fangs fold back against the roof of the mouth; when the mouth opens to strike, the fangs rapidly swing forward.

The Color of Copper

Copperheads are named for -- guess what? -- their copper-colored head. There are five subspecies of copperheads, including the Osage copperhead (the kind we have at the Saint Louis Zoo). The adults of all subspecies have a reddish-brown body with darker bands across the back.This coloring camouflages them when they're resting among dead leaves. Unlike the adults, young copperheads are grayer in color and have yellow-tipped tails. They'll gradually change color, until they look like adults by age three or four.

Heat-seeking Snakes

How do copperheads find their prey? By seeking the prey's heat! Being a type of pitviper, copperheads have special heat-sensitive pits located on each side of the head between the eye and nostril. These pits help them locate endothermic prey ("warm-blooded" animals that produce body heat).

So what do copperheads like to eat? The young snakes eat mostly insects. (Some scientists believe young copperheads lure their prey by wiggling their yellow-tipped tail.) Adults eat a wider variety of foods, including mice, lizards, frogs, smalls birds, and insects.

From Courtship to Snakelings

Osage copperheads can breed in both the spring and fall. Males sense the location of potential mates by "tasting" the females' scent on the air. When a male finds a possible match, he approaches her with sinuous body maneuvers. She responds with a series of tail movements. Their courtship dance may continue for an hour or more before mating takes place.

Unlike most snakes, copperheads bear live babies rather than laying eggs. Females give birth in late summer and early fall. The litter may contain as few as one or as many as 14 snakelings. Since their mom doesn't take care of them, these young ones have to quickly learn to fend for themselves -- or else!

A Year in the Life…

Copperheads are often found in each other's company. This is especially true in winter, when several snakes hole up in underground dens to avoid the cold. In the spring, the snakes emerge and become active -- feeding, mating, and basking in the sun. After a few weeks they migrate to summer feeding territories.

As the days heat up, copperheads become nocturnal (active during the cooler nighttime hours). In early fall, they migrate back to their winter den areas. They linger outside the den, sunning themselves for a few weeks until the temperatures drop and drive them underground again for the winter. Their wintertime activities remain a mystery.

Fun Facts

  • If you're going for a hike in Missouri, watch out for these snakes! Of all the venomous snake species in the state, you're most likely to encounter a copperhead.
  • Though copperhead bites are painful, they are rarely fatal to humans.
  • An individual copperhead will return to the same winter den year after year.

Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Family: Viperidae