Annually, almost 3,000 people in the U.S. are bitten by copperhead snakes, but luckily, only approximately 0.01 percent of those result in fatalities. Named for the rich brown coloring of its broad head and known for its hourglass-shaped, dark brown bands, copperheads are agile hunters who can even climb trees to catch their prey.
Mice and rats are normal parts of a copperhead’s diet -- the snakes play an important role in keeping rodent populations under control. Copperheads also eat insects, such as cicadas, lizards, and frogs. Whenever they go after larger prey, their venom does the work for them. Once bitten, the animal moves away, and the snake tracks it until it dies. For smaller animals, they hold the prey until it dies. Their hinged jaws allow them to eat their food whole and, on average, they only eat ten to 12 times a year.
During spring and fall, males fight each other for the right to mate with receptive females. After mating, egg incubation lasts between 180 days and nine months. The female will give birth to anywhere from two to 20 live baby snakes, because copperheads are ovoviviparous -- their eggs incubate internally. When mating in the fall, the female will store the sperm until after hibernation, at which point it will fertilize her eggs. Mothers don't raise their young, so from birth, the fangs of baby copperheads are loaded with venom just as potent as any adult.
Also known as a cottonmouth, the water moccasin is a relative of the copperhead and is the world's only semi-aquatic viper. Found near marshes or lakes, moccasins are strong swimmers but slow movers. Cottonmouth venom is cytotoxic, meaning it destroys tissue and can lead to limb amputation. Located in the southeastern U.S., these cousins average about 31 inches from head to tail and weigh a little over a pound.
Much like a bottle of tequila has a worm at the bottom, a bottle of Okinawan rice liquor has an even more dangerous inhabitant, an Okinawan habu viper. As one of the subspecies of the copperhead, the habu is a highly venomous native of the Ryukyu islands of Japan that can reach up to eight feet. The brown snake with yellow-edged greenish-brown blotches on its skin has a toxic bite and inflicts its venom on around 50 people annually.
The Siberian moccassin is another copperhead subspecies that lives in the region from east of the Urals to China. The halys pit viper is a small gray or reddish-brown snake dotted with spots or bars. The Himalayan viper is a slow-moving snake that comes out at night. Found in the Himalayan slopes around northeastern Pakistan, northern India, and Nepal, it hides under rocks, boulders, and fallen leaves. Its painful bite usually resolves itself in a few days without treatment.
Parthenogenesis occurs when embryos are formed without fertilization. Copperheads are capable of a special type of reproduction called facultative parthenogenesis, where the snake switches from sexual to asexual. This form of reproduction creates a diploid zygote, which contains two sets of chromosomes. This process seems to be a specific characteristic of pit vipers -- of which the copperhead is one -- but research shows the phenomenon may be more common.
Midway between the eyes and nostrils of the copperhead are thermoreceptors called pits. These sensors pick up heat signatures of warm-blooded prey and have a range of up to three feet. Nerve fibers within the pit, called trigeminal ganglia, to form a profile of the hunted animal. The pit helps snakes detect heat instead of relying on light to identify their prey. This enables them to detect prey day or night.
The black mocassin has the same body shape as a copperhead, but is dark brown or black with white or off-white banding. These snakes have a reputation for being aggressive and nervous but are generally shy unless threatened. Taylor's cantil has similar coloration and is found only in northeast Mexico. Across Mexico and, in the case of the black mocassin, Central America, these snakes are the most feared reptiles. Their bites cause swelling, edema, and kidney failure and can lead to necrosis, amputation, and death.
Copperheads are social reptiles that enjoy wooded and rocky areas that give them somewhere warm to bask when it's cooler. Having a warm space near a pond or stream gives them a chance to catch any prey that will need to take a drink. They create their dens on the sides of hills that get sunlight and warmth. These dens are shared space that usually include other species of snakes. Hibernation helps the snakes survive the colder months, and every year they return to the same location.
Following a few tips can help reduce the chance of being bit by a copperhead snake. Wear long pants and boots when working, avoid climbing wood and leaf piles because copperheads can camouflage, and reduce the snakes' access to residential yards by clearing tall grass. Even with all of these precautions, bites still happen. If you get bit by a copperhead, clean the area with soap and water first. Keep the bitten area at heart level and call poison control.
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