Missouri Copperheads

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Published on: May. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

a person dying from the bite of any venomous snake species native to Missouri. A person bitten by a copperhead should be taken to the emergency room of the nearest hospital to prevent infection and reduce pain, not because he or she is going to die.

The bite of a copperhead usually produces immediate, intense, burning pain. This may be followed by tingling or throbbing and nausea. In a few minutes there may be signs of swelling on the arm or leg. The most important thing is to immediately take the victim to a hospital emergency room. Various first-aid measures, such as applying a tourniquet or cutting and sucking out the venom or applying ice packs, are not recommended for copperhead bites.

In addition, according to emergency-room physicians, copperhead bites are seldom treated with antivenom, the medication that counteracts the affects of snake venom. This medication can cause a serious allergic reaction that can cause human death.

The majority of venomous snake bites can be prevented simply by not trying to capture or handle copperheads or other venomous snakes. Copperheads, by nature, are not aggressive. They do not go after people, do not search for people to bite and would rather stay motionless and undetected or try to avoid an intruder.

Are you sure it's a copperhead?

Too often, any snake with brown or red markings is thought to be a copperhead and is killed. There are five common harmless Missouri species often confused with and misidentified as copperheads:






Hatchling black rat snakes (top image) are found throughout Missouri. During late summer and early fall, young black rat snakes average 10 inches in length and are sometimes spotted in backyards, garages or basements. They have a narrow head and gray background color with black markings. Copperheads have a wide head and are pinkish-tan with brown, hourglass-shaped markings.

Hatchling and adult prairie kingsnakes range throughout Missouri. In the fall, hatchling prairie kingsnakes are often found near homes and outbuildings. They average 8 inches in length. Young prairie kingsnakes have a narrow head and a grayish-brown background color with reddish brown, round markings. Copperheads have a wide head and are pinkish-tan with brown, hourglass-shaped markings.

Adult prairie kingsnakes average 3 to 4 feet in length and have a narrow head. Their coloration is nothing like the copperhead, which has a stockier body and is pinkish-tan with brown markings in the shape of an hourglass or butterfly (pinched on top and wide on either side).

Eastern hognose snakes are found throughout Missouri. This species may have a wider head and a stockier body than most non-venomous snakes. Although their coloration is extremely variable, a hognose snake never has a pinkish-tan color with markings in the shape of an hourglass or butterfly. When threatened, hognose snakes can make a loud hissing noise; copperheads are not able to make extended hissing sounds.

The bullsnake was once common in our former tallgrass prairie counties and is Missouri's largest species of snake, reaching nearly 8 feet in length. Bullsnakes have narrower heads than copperheads, and their mixed colors of cream, yellow, tan, brown and black suits them for a life in prairie grasses. Copperheads, on the other hand, are pinkish-tan in color with brown markings in an hourglass or butterfly shape. When threatened, bullsnakes also can make a very loud hissing sound, which copperheads are incapable of making.

The red milk snake (bottom image) is Missouri's smallest kingsnake (21 to 28 inches in total length) and lives on rocky, open hillsides. It has prominent red markings.

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