Copperheads – Bad or Good?

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This is an up close photo of a Southern Copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortix).  I took this picture in the Congaree National Park in South Carolina.  I am a lover of wildlife, but do tend to keep my distance from snakes (especially the venomous ones), but I did get closer to this one than I usually like.  Copperheads are in the Viperidae (viper) family and in the Cortalinae (pith viper) subfamily.  These snakes live throughout the southeastern US and can be seen as far northeast as New York and New Jersey.  An interesting fact is that the type locality (area where this organism was first identified) is “Carolina” and has been proposed to be restricted to “Charleston, South Carolina” by the naturalist Schmidt in 1953 (which is where I am writing this post from and close to where this picture was taken).  This snake can be seen in a variety of habitats within its range.  It is mostly seen in forested habitats usually inland from water, and is a common visitor to backyards.  They are ambush predators that eat mostly small rodents, frogs, and large insects (will actually seek out large insects and even climb trees to catch emerging cicadas).  They breed in late summer, but not every year.  They are ovoviviparous, which means they incubate their eggs inside their body and give birth to live young.  They hibernate in dens and crevasses during the winter months.  Their conservation status is of “Least Concern” due to their large range and presumed large population size.

Copperheads are “venomous” (not “poisonous” which is how most people describe them) so it is a good idea to stay away from them.  Having said that, their venom is the lowest toxicity of all pith vipers (slightly lower than their cousin the Cottonmouth that they share a habitat with).  Their bites are relatively non-fatal and they will usually only bite when touched or stepped on.  Their bites are typically not treated due to the risk of a fatal allergic reaction to the anti-venom.  It is also very common for adult Copperheads to give a warning bite, or dry bite, that has very little to no venom and is meant to scare away predators.  Like most snakes, Copperheads want to stay away from humans, but because of their very effective camouflage they have adapted a behavior of “freezing.”  Because of this behavior they are commonly not seen and stepped on, which is how bites can happen.  Most bites happen when people try to handle or kill them, which is why it is better to just leave them alone and keep your distance.

Copperhead venom is now being studied for their anti-cancer capabilities.  Their venom has a protein called “contortrostatin” that has been found to halt the growth of cancer cells, and also has been found to stop the migration of tumors to other sites.  Although much more research is needed before it becomes a common treatment plan, it has shown a lot of promise in treatment of ovarian and breast cancers in rats.

Copperheads are looked at as very dangerous creatures and I have often heard the term “the only good snake is a dead snake.”  In reality they are very misunderstood creatures.  Humans kill a many more snakes (venomous or harmless) each year than snakes kill, or even bite, humans.  In reality, these snake can potentially do a lot more good for the human race than harm.  So next time you see one of the great creatures, do not try an kill it.  Marvel at it’s wonder, just be sure to do so at a distance!!!

More info on these awesomely misunderstood creatures click here

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