Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Osage Copperhead

In northwest Missouri there are three venomous snakes. The timber rattlesnake, which I've done a few previous posts about, the Massasauga rattlesnake which occurs in wetlands and marshes like Squaw Creek NWR and then there is the Copperhead. I've spent three years trying to find one of these snakes to photograph and was beginning to give up ever finding one. Each time I mentioned to someone that I was looking for them, I was given all sorts of different places that were guaranteed to have copperheads. I would visit each location with high hopes of seeing one of these elusive snakes and always with the same snake! Then all that changed this past Friday evening. Joey and I decided to hike at a place called Sunbridge Hills Conservation Area located in the Northend of St. Joseph. I knew this place was known for having a healthy population of copperheads, so once again I was hoping my luck would change and I would see one of these snakes.... While hiking the only thing we found was a Great Plains Toad and some snails. We made our way back to the car and left the parking lot, instead of turning right to head home, I turned left down a dead end road. It turned out to be a good decision, because right in the middle of the road was my very first copperhead. I stopped the car and got out to look; worried that the snake might be dead, but thankfully it was very much alive. It never moved, and I was able to get a few pictures of it. The only problem was, I had to take the pictures by the light of the headlights on the car. So they didn't turn out as well as I would have liked. I actually considered taking it home with me, but realized that was not going to go over well with Joey who would have to ride in the same car with a caged copperhead. I can only imagine how that conversation would have went. I finally used my snake stick to coax it off the road so it would not be hit by the next driver.

Osage Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster) are a magnificently colored snake with shiny coppery colored body and darker colored hourglass shaped bands on the entire length of their body. They get their common name from the adult coloration of the head which looks very much like a shiny new penny. As juvenile snakes they are more gray in color with a yellow tip on their tail. This yellow tip is believed to be a lure designed to attract potential prey like small amphibians which are attracted by the waving of the yellow tail. When they come to investigate, instead of finding food, they find themselves served up for dinner. Adults may reach lengths up to four feet, with 3 feet being more common. They are a thick bodied snake with a triangular shaped head.

The juvenile pictured here actually bit a man in St. Joseph yesterday. The man was visiting one of MDC's shooting ranges and when he reached down to the ground to pick up an empty shell casing, the snake bit him.  It blended in with the gravel and ground so well, the man did not even know the snake was there.The man managed to capture the snake and drove to the hospital. I commend the man for not killing the snake, which would have been the reaction of a lot of individuals. Bites to humans are very uncommon. Symptoms of bites include intense pain, tingling, throbbing, swelling, and severe nausea. A friend of mine describes the pain as feeling as if you're on fire and trying to put the flame out with a hammer. Bites can cause muscle damage. Seek immediate medical attention if bitten. Our office received the phone call to come to the hospital to retrieve the snake. Our wildlife biologist picked it up and placed it in two containers. My boss called me to ask me to photograph it. The picture above was taken inside the container. Then we drove to Sunbridge Hills and released it. I photographed it several times on the gravel and it is remarkable how much it blends in with the rocks. If you did not know it was there, you would have a hard time seeing it.

This snake appears to be a little over a year old, possibly born in the fall of 2009. It's tail is beginning to fade and its size is a bit bigger than a newborn. Its temperament was very docile, even while being moved around with the snake stick it never tried to strike at us. It was remarkably tolerant of our presence and all that we were doing to it in order for me to get some decent photos. The man who was bitten is doing fine, he has a swollen finger and a puncture wound to remind him of his experience. Fortunately for him it was a copperhead and not a rattlesnake that bit him. Our local herpetologist says that if you are going to be bitten by a venomous snake, then the copperhead is the right choice. No one has ever died from their bite in Missouri. It is a painful experience to be sure, but one you are likely to survive to talk about. 

Copperheads are pit vipers, meaning they have pits located on either side of their head between the eyes and the nostrils. This pit is a heat seeking sense, that allows the snake to pick up the heat given off by prey species like mice, rats and other warm blooded creatures. These snakes are efficient hunters, and having this extra sense only aids them further in being the expert predators they are. Juvenile copperheads eat mainly insects, tiny frogs and other small amphibians. Adults eat mice, insects, frogs, lizards and small birds.

Mating between copperheads can take place in the fall or spring. If mated in the fall the female will delay fertilization until the following spring. Once mated, the female will deliver her young in August or September. Unlike the majority of Missouri snakes, copperheads bear live young. They may have as few as one baby, to as many as 15. These newly born snakes are not protected or cared for by the mother in any way. They are armed with all the instincts they will need to be able to survive. They aren't without enemies however, hawks, owls, and other snakes will feed on these snakes, so they are vulnerable at this age. This is where their coloring helps in allowing them to blend in with their surroundings, making it more difficult for potential predators to see them.

When hiking in Missouri, the most common venomous snake you're likely to encounter will be this species. They occur in every county in Missouri. They often go unseen because of their camouflage, they so perfectly blend in with leaf litter that they virtually disappear in their surroundings. It is always best to be aware of where you are walking and keep an eye out for these snakes especially if you know you are in an area where these snakes are reported to occur. These snakes often occur in pairs and seem to prefer to stay in close proximity to each other. They also use the same hibernation site each winter. These hibernation locations may contain numerous species of snakes, venomous and non-venomous alike. They will begin appearing with the first warm days in the spring. Often not moving very far from their winter location.

If you want to see a short video of a copperhead in the wild click this link from MDC.

I feel so incredibly lucky to have been privileged to see not one, but two copperheads in less than a week, especially after lamenting that I will NEVER see one. Goes to show that a person should NEVER say never!


  1. This snake has pretty markings. I thought copperheads were solid colors then I realized I was thinking of water moccasins. And I am not sure about them now.

  2. Copperheads are very beautiful as your photos show. When I worked at a summer camp in Jefferson County, MO, I saw them once or twice a week. The fear and loathing people have for this animal is way out of proportion to the actual danger.

  3. Emma I agree, their markings are lovely, in fact I think they are one of the prettiest snakes in Missouri. Cottonmouths also have markings, they are just more subtle. They are very dark colored snakes, and the markings tend to show up better when they are swimming.

    Anne totally agree, Copperheads are beautiful! Unfortunately the fear that people feel often overrides good sense. Education is key! Once we gain knowledge about something, it is harder to fear it. The copperhead is a decidedly mild mannered snake and would rather hide from a human than bite one. We have a local scout camp near here and they reportedly see them about as frequently as you did at the camp in Jeff City.

  4. If I never see a Copperhead I'll be a very happy Missourian. Last July, our older Afghan Hound apparently saw something moving through his play yard (10,000 square feet) during the night. Investigating, he got bit in the chin, and became very ill. The bite caused his red blood cell count to plummet and his thyroid production to fall as well. We nearly lost and and now, a year later, we are still dealing with the after affects. Our vet said it was a Copperhead bite although we never found the snake. It was probably passing through in the cool of the night looking for mice.

  5. finding venomous snakes is not for everyone that is for sure. I am really sorry to hear about your dog, I am sure that was a painful experience for him to go through, and a worrisome one for you. While these snakes are not necessarily deadly in their bite, they sure worth avoiding. My husband works with a woman whose dog has been bitten several times by these snakes. They unfortunately live in an area with a healthy population of them and her dog manages to tangle with them, and does not seem to learn his lessons very well. I hope your dogs after affects fade with more time.

  6. Great story. Not all incidents end quite as happily. We reported an episode of a snake bite recently when a young man mistakenly tried to catch a copper head which he thought was a Northern Water Snake he had watched in Bull creek for the previous three days.

    We reported this in the Springfield Plateau Master Naturalist blog at

    The notable part of the 2 minute video of the episode was how badly the snake wanted to avoid biting him. Holding it by the tail, it crawled over his bare ankles for 30 seconds before he grabbed the neck and got bitten twice on the hand.
    Like most venomous snakes, it didn't want to waste its venom on a large biped that it couldn't possibly eat. Biting was it's last resort.

  7. Schoolcraft that is an unfortunate story. Happenings such as those is what give snakes a bad rap. If people would just leave them in peace not only would they not get bitten but there would be no cause for fear. Copperheads are a truly mild-mannered snake that go out of their way to avoid humans. Bites rarely occur and when they do it is often in situations like the one you described. Did the man kill the snake?

  8. I ran into a large Osage while weed whacking on our property near Cole Camp Creek a couple of years ago. He coiled up and struck at the weed whacker pretty aggressively. Luckily, I didn't damage him, and we agreed to never cross each other's paths again.

    Last weekend, I was watching the dog sniff around in front of the cabin. She found something that startled her, so I went to take a look. It was a juvenile Osage, about 9 inches long. He still had his green tail, so I suspect he was less than a year old. I poked at him with the toe of my shoe and he wasn't interested in me at all. If he's still around, Mom has ordered that he be relocated away from the cabin. There are some sunny spots down in the gully where he'll be much happier.

  9. I saw one today in Columbia, MO. The bottom of my shoe was about 2 feet away when I for no reason looked down and noticed him on a hike in the woods. These snakes blend in extremely well to their surroundings. Luckily the snake was motionless. I'm thankful I looked down. God bless.

  10. You said "No one has ever died from their bite in Missouri." While it is true that adults rarely die, copperheads have killed people in Missouri and one early death in Iowa (that I know of). MDC herpetologist Jeff Briggler knows of a 1965 death record from Kansas City ( I found a couple more searching a newspaper archive. One was 1895 death from a bite in St Louis County and a second from Holt County in 1897. If you really dig into old papers and other records I am pretty sure you would find a few more deaths

    1. MDC published a video called "Snake Tales" and the narrator states that "no one has ever been killed from their bite" It is difficult to know how accurate those past articles are. Often venomous bites were lumped into one category, so anything recorded as a venomous bite could have ranged from bees, to spiders and snakes. There was a lot of mis-identification that occurred too, and still does. NOW.....there are two recent deaths in Missouri. One occurred two or three years ago. A man was camping and bitten by a copperhead. He had pre-existing heart problems and did not seek medical help. From what I understand he suffered heart failure. So it is highly likely if he would have sought medical treatment, he would have survived. The second death occurred two years ago. A young man was camping with his family and picked up a copperhead to show his son. He was bitten twice on the hand. He suffered an allergic reaction to the venom and went into anaphylactic shock and died within minutes of being bitten. There seems to be some debate as to whether he knew what species of snake he was attempting to handle. Some resources claim he did not know and others claim he did. Either way it was an unfortunate event that did not have to happen. Deaths by copperheads are exceedingly rare, although not unheard of. We also had a death attributed to a cottonmouth this summer. A man was bitten on each knee and died later that night. Toxicology reports that came back later showed he had lethal doses of drugs in his systems, as well as alcohol. So again, we have to wonder, was it the snake or the drugs? I will check out the link to the article you provided above. I may give Jeff a call and see what he knows about deaths due to any venomous snakes in Missouri.

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    3. I read the article at the link you provided and it talks about the situation I mentioned above about the man who was camping, bitten and didn't seek help. It was unfortunate, but possibly preventable had he sought medical attention. Anyone being bitten by any venomous snake should always seek help. I read the portion of the article where Jeff mentions that there was a death due to a copperhead in KC. He also goes on to explain that records prior to the mid 60's were not accurate. It is absolutely impossible to know if that death record as accurate. The bite could have been from a timber rattlesnake and was misidentified by whomever was bitten. He may not of sought medical help in a timely manner as well and contributed to his own demise. There is just really know way of knowing. Fortunately we have come a long way in record keeping and most events are recorded with accuracy these days. At the time I wrote this blog post it was the accepted belief that no one had died from their bite, but as we know now that simply is not true, even though both deaths had extenuating circumstances involved.