Copperheads: “Tis da season!”
June 6, 2012
I know that it is quite disturbing to many people to hear about snake-bite envenomation and this year seems to be on its way to having a high number of reported bites. One current statement seemed to indicate that there have been about 400 venomous snake bites in Georgia this year. While this may appear to be a very high number, one thing that needs to stated is that snakes became active in January this year when in most years snake activity may not begin until March or even April. On one trip to South Georgia in February, John Jensen and I found an eastern Diamondback rattlesnake that had not only emerged from its hole but it had already shed indicating that it had been up for quite some time and had most likely even fed……which certainly is not to be expected in a more typical weather circumstance in February.
Most bites in Georgia are the result of close contact with copperheads. Copperheads may be found in most areas of the state including the urban and city areas of Atlanta. Most bites happen when people simply do not see the snake and they place their hand on the snake while gardening or by stepping on a snake in the night hours…..often by people going bare-foot or just wearing flip-flops, sandals or bedroom slippers. Of course any snake, when stepped upon is going to defend itself as being stepped on can certainly provide a mortal injury to a snake whose backbone is very susceptible by pressure applied to it from above. The snakes are not malicious in their intent; rather they are hurt and thus strike out in defense of themselves.
Due to the snake bite report, many people are overly concerned thinking that there are venomous snakes lurking everywhere. This is certainly not the case as there are far more non-venomous species in any given habitat in Georgia than there are venomous species. In the Atlanta area, there are a couple of non-venomous species that really get hammered by people thinking they are venomous. These include brown snakes, midland water snakes and hognose snakes. The brown snake is a tiny brown snake and most people think they are simply baby copperheads. Even baby copperheads are larger than brown snakes and the copperhead has a lovely pattern and usually has a fairly yellow tail tip. The tail is a caudal lure used to attract small lizards and frogs upon which the copperhead eats. Red phase midland water snakes are thought of as copperheads and brown phase midland water snakes are thought to be cottonmouths and this is even true in places where cottonmouths are not to be found. Hognose snakes, due to their behavior when frightened, often lead to their demise. The hognose snake is the “king” of actors in the snake world. When threatened, they spread a hood, flatten out their jaws, hiss very loudly and if all of this fails, they roll over and lay dead. They rarely get to the playing dead part of their act as people usually terminate the snakes life before its gets to its finally. Amazingly, I have never known a hognose snake to bite and they are really one of Georgia’s most endearing and least threatening of all of our snake species.
In regards to copperheads, it is best to just be aware that in hot weather, these snakes crawl at night. It is much too hot for them to be very active during the day but they may just be coiled up in the shade of a bush, under brush piles or just coiled up in a cool shady spot. The copperhead is extremely cryptic in its coloration and its camouflage serves it extremely well. They are very difficult to spot, even to the trained eye in looking for snakes. After dark, they tend to move looking for water and or food and it is during these times when they are most likely to be stepped upon by persons not carrying a flashlight and certainly not watching where they are placing their feet. Taking the garbage out at night, walking your dog on the street or simply bar-b-q’ing barefoot in your yard can result in a copperhead bite. Also, please keep in mind that the numbers of people that are barefooted every night in copperhead habitat is staggering. Hundreds, if not thousands of people daily through the summer months go barefoot or just wear sandals at night. If copperheads were as abundant as many people would lead you to believe, there would be many thousands of bites every night and this just is not the case.
As with any suspected snake bite envenomation, medical evaluation and treatment is essential. Most copperhead bites are not going to be “life-threatening” but use common sense in getting the victim to a medical facility in a reasonable and safe fashion. Also, DO NOT drive like a maniac endangering the lives of other people on the road as with most bites, you have plenty of time before the bite may become serious. It is important to record the exact time of the bite so that attending physicians can judge the amount of swelling which allows for a determination in how to best deal with that individual bite circumstance. No two bites are alike and every bite has to be treated according to the gravity of the bite, the age and overall health of the victim as well as other factors such as alcohol consumption, any prescribed medications and so on……. These can only be assessed by a physician so seek medical help if and when a venomous snake bite occurs. I have worked with snakes for 40 years, including some of the world’s most highly venomous species. I have never experienced a snake going out of its way to challenge me, chase me or anything even remotely close to this behavior. I have experienced three venomous snake bites and thus my comments on snake bite envenomation come from firsthand experience. All of my bites have resulted in my own “stupidity” and I have never been bitten by a venomous snake in the wild. I have spent my life wading in swamps at night with cottonmouths and alligators, hunting sandhills for Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and have caught cobras, mambas and puff adders in Africa, large tiger snakes and pythons in Australia, fer-de-lance, coral snakes and massive anacondas in South America and rattlesnake all over the U.S. and the only venomous bites I have received were from captive snakes in my own collection. In general, if you leave snakes alone and you use common sense when you find a snake…….you will be absolutely fine and hopefully you let the snake continue on its way to do what snakes do. Of note, many people are bitten each year by snakes that they are intentionally trying to kill. Leaving snakes alone will greatly reduce your risk from being a snake bite victim.
I have provided a few images of copperheads. For a more in-depth overview of the venomous snakes of the Southeastern U.S., please visit the Wildlife Identification tab, drop down venomous snakes for a more complete set of images as well as text on this website.
These are new born copperheads. The mother, a very small female just over 20″ in length gave birth to 13 young.
Copperheads are live-bearers. Note the yellow-tails of the baby copperheads!
This adult copperhead image clearly shows the nostril at the end of the snout, the heat sensing pit (thermo receptor) just forward and a little lower than the eye and the elliptical pupil. Copperheads have a pinkish tongue with light tongue tips.