Copperhead stories have painful bite

We all have snake stories. They are akin to fish stories - the further away in time they get from the actual occurrence, the bigger they grow. I've got a few of my own.

My latest happened a few weeks ago. Leaving the house, I noticed the burn barrel had tipped over (not currently on fire). I got out of the car and picked it up. Waiting for me was a gigantic copperhead and a few of his friends. During my shock, the largest copperhead struck. I dropped the barrel back on top of the whole gang. We came back later to get them, but they had disappeared. Which part of this is pure fish story, I'm not telling.

I bet you couldn't throw a stone without hitting someone that has a copperhead story. This is not surprising, as they are the most common venomous snake in our area.

Copperhead basics

Three species of copperheads live in Texas; the Southern copperhead, which we have in Milam; the Broadbanded copperhead in central and west Texas, and the Trans-Pecos copperhead, which lives near springs in the southern Trans-Pecos. Copperheads live in heads wooded or shrubby areas with lots of vines and vegetation. They have adapted to living around humans, which is the main reason people are bitten more regularly by them than by any other venomous snake.

An adult copperhead can be a little over three feet long. They have yellow eyes and dark, hourglass-shaped cross bands on their bodies. Young copperheads have yellow or green tips on their tails. Copperheads use their heat-sensing "pits" between their eyes and nostrils to sense prey. This is where the name "pit viper" is derived.

Copperheads eat baby rabbits, rats, mice, birds, snakes, lizards, baby turtles, frogs, toads, and insects, especially grasshoppers and cicadas. They are active in the day during spring and fall and become nocturnal during the hot summer. They normally eat one meal every three weeks.

Strike immediately

Copperheads rely upon camoufl age for hunting and safety. When they sense danger copperheads will freeze in place and wait for the threat to pass. However, if approached or stepped on, copperheads strike immediately. This is their warning to enemies. If close enough, they may bite, but not inject venom, or very little venom.

The bite is painful. Symptoms include intense pain, tingling, throbbing, swelling, and severe nausea. Damage can occur to muscle and bone tissue, especially to the hands and feet. Even with all that, their bite is very rarely deadly. Interestingly, research on the Southern copperhead's venom has revealed a protein that may halt the growth of cancer cells and stop tumors from moving to the rest of the body.

You may have heard baby copperheads are more venomous than adults; however potency is the same. Babies may inject more venom with their bite, as they haven't learned to control the amount that goes into the bite. Adults won't waste their venom biting humans, as it is used to subdue prey. Defense is secondary.

Copperheads breed in spring and late summer, but not every year. Whereas most pit vipers lay their eggs, the female copperhead gives birth to live young. Once born, the babies are on their own. Mama does not stick around. Copperheads live 6 to 8 years on average.

Texas has 115 species of snake—the highest number in all of the United States. Fifteen percent of them are venomous. They are the coral snakes, copperheads, cottonmouths (water moccasins), and rattlesnakes.

Some books about Texas snakes: "A Field Guide to Texas Snakes," by Alan Tennant and "Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History," by John E. Werler.

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2009-07-16 digital edition

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