Other common names
Copperhead, Southern Copperhead, Highland Moccasin, Chunk Head
The average adult eastern copperhead is 22-36 inches long (56-91 cm) in total length. This snake is stout-bodied with a distinctive hourglass pattern of broad light brown and dark brown crossbands. The coloration of juveniles is similar to adults, except that the tail tip of newborn copperheads is bright sulfur yellow. See below for a more detailed description of this species.
Range in Florida
In Florida, copperheads occur only in the Panhandle, primarily in the western tip and along the Apalachicola River and its tributaries. The herpetology collection at the Florida Museum contains verified records from Calhoun, Escambia, Gadsden, Jackson, Liberty, Okaloosa, and Santa Rosa counties. The range may extend to other nearby areas, but there are no confirmed records from other Florida counties.
Assessment of risk to people and pets
VENOMOUS. Copperhead bites are extremely painful but rarely life-threatening for healthy adults and for most large or medium-sized pets. Bites can be dangerous to children, older individuals in poor health, and small pets. As with all venomous snakebites, the victim should seek immediate medical care from a physician or a hospital experienced in treating snakebites. Copperheads are not aggressive and avoid direct contact with people and pets. Most bites occur when the snakes are intentionally molested or accidentally stepped on.
Comparison with other species
If you find a snake of this description in Florida outside the Apalachicola River Valley or the extreme western end of the Panhandle, chances are that you have instead found a young cottonmouth or a non-venomous watersnake. Within the range of the copperhead in Florida, there are three snake species that can look similar.
Southern watersnake (Nerodia fasciata fasciata) The banding pattern is highly variable, but juveniles typically have alternating dark and light brown crossbands the entire length of the body that are darker, narrower, and much more numerous than those on the copperhead. The darker bands may be bordered by black. A dark stripe runs from the eyes to the corner of the mouth, and the pupils are round. The sides of the face have dark vertical lines near the mouth, whereas the copperhead has no such lines. Large adults are typically uniformly dark brown or black with only an obscure pattern visible in some.
Florida cottonmouth (Agkistrodon conanti) The dark crossbands on the body of juvenile cottonmouths have numerous dark spots and speckles, whereas the dark crossbands on copperheads have no dark spots or at most only one. Adult Florida cottonmouths are typically uniformly dark with very little discernable pattern. The eye of the copperhead is not obscured by the dark facial band typical of the cottonmouth.
Midland watersnake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis) The alternating dark and light brown crossbands are darker, narrower, and much more numerous than those on the copperhead. The banding pattern transitions to alternating blotches about halfway down the body. The pupils are round. The sides of the face have dark vertical lines near the mouth, whereas the copperhead has no such lines on the face. Large adults are typically uniformly dark brown or black with only an obscure pattern visible in some.
The average adult Eastern copperhead is 22-36 inches long (56-91 cm), with a record length of 53 inches (135 cm). It is a stout-bodied pitviper with broad light brown to gray crossbands, alternating with dark brown to reddish-brown crossbands. Constrictions of the pattern along the backbone give the dark bands a distinctive hourglass shape. The dark bands on the sides of the body usually have light centers and occasionally one dark spot. Copperheads sometimes have an overall pinkish tint. The dorsal scales of the body are keeled (each scale has a prominent raised ridge). The top of the head between the eyes is covered with large plate-like scales. The pupil is vertically elliptical (cat-like). There is a deep facial pit organ located between the nostril and the eye. The coloration of juveniles is similar to adults, except that the tail tip of newborn copperheads is bright sulfur yellow in color. The tongue is typically orange-red with white tines (tips).
The eastern copperhead’s preferred habitats in Florida are upland pine and hardwood forests with abundant leaf litter and in forests adjacent to low, wet areas boarding swamps, stream beds, river bottoms, and damp ravines. Large logs and piles of debris and rocks are often used as shelters. This species is occasionally found in suburban neighborhoods where development encroaches into favorable habitats.
For defense, the Eastern copperhead relies heavily on superb camouflage and nocturnal habits to avoid detection. When frightened, these snakes often remain motionless and expand their ribs so their bodies appear flattened against the ground. If further provoked, these snakes may release foul-smelling musk from glands within the base of the tail and quickly vibrate the tip of the tail to produce a buzzing sound. However, they are not rattlesnakes. Striking is only used in defense as a last resort. Contrary to folklore, neither these snakes nor their musk smell like cucumbers.
Adult copperheads feed primarily on vertebrate prey, especially small mammals. Juveniles feed more heavily on insects, frogs, salamanders, and small reptiles. Juvenile copperheads have a bright sulfur-yellow tail tip, which they raise and wiggle like a caterpillar to lure prey within striking range. This yellow color fades and the caudal luring behavior typically ceases after about a year, which is likely when their diet begins to shift more toward small mammals.
Females typically give birth to around 4-8 live young between July and October. Competing males engage in combat dances when trailing females during the breeding season.
Head shape is not a reliable way to identify copperheads. Copperheads do typically have a head that is triangular and distinct from the neck, whereas most non-venomous snakes in Florida have smaller and narrower heads. However, many non-venomous snakes will commonly flatten and expand their heads to appear wider and triangular as a defensive behavior. Whether this behavior is due to mimicry is not clear, but it does make head shape unreliable for identification purposes.
Calhoun, Escambia, Gadsden, Jackson, Liberty, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa
If you have a new or interesting observation for this species, please email the herpetology staff at the Florida Museum.
Ernst, C.H. and E.M. Ernst. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC. 668 pp.
Fitch, H.S. 1960. Autecology of the Copperhead. University of Kansas Publications, Museum of Natural History 13(4):85-288.
Krysko, K.L., K.M. Enge, and P.E. Moler. 2019. Amphibians and Reptiles of Florida. University of Florida Press, Gainesville, Florida. 706 pp.
Powell, R., R. Conant, and J.T. Collins. 2016. Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Fourth edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, Boston and New York. xiv + 494 pp.
Share your observations
You can help scientists better understand the biology and distribution of this species by sharing your observations. Send photos or videos of interesting observations, along with associated information, by emailing the herpetology staff at the Florida Museum for documentation in the Museum’s Herpetology Master Database. You can also post your observations on iNaturalist.
Additional helpful information
Do you have snakes around your house? Learn how to safely co-exist with snakes.
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