In certain parts of the country, especially the South, you could encounter both the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) and the cottonmouth (A. piscivorus), often referred to as the water moccasin. Both snakes are pit vipers, sporting heat-sensing pits in their faces that alert them to the presence of both predators and prey. Both are venomous, so your best bet is to avoid them entirely. If bitten by either snake, seek immediate medical attention.
Copperheads are the smaller of the two snakes species, growing to about 30 inches in length. Females are longer than males. These thick-bodied snakes have telltale copper heads, with red bodies and light brown crossbands. Immature copperheads have grayish bodies. Fang length corresponds with individual specimen length.
At maturity, water moccasins generally range between 30 and 48 inches long, although individual snakes might grow much larger. Males are longer than females. Color varies -- some are solid brown or black, while others have yellow or brown bodies with darker crossbands. Older snakes are darker than young ones.
Water moccasins live in various freshwater habitats but are most often found in river floodplains, drainage ditches, marshes, swamps and extremely vegetated wetlands. However, they do travel over land and so can be found quite a distance from water sources. Active at night, water moccasins enjoy basking in the sun in the daytime. Copperheads prefer land to water, although they can be found in wetlands. They live in woodlands, on mountains and around farms or abandoned buildings. This species is quite social and lives communally, so if you spot one copperhead, others are probably nearby.
The water moccasin has three subspecies: the Florida cottonmouth, the eastern cottonmouth and the western cottonmouth. These snakes range throughout the southeastern section of the country from east Texas to Florida and as far north as Virginia. Copperheads have five subspecies: the northern, northwestern, southern, broad-banded and Osage. Copperheads have a much wider range than cottonmouths, extending from northern Florida all the way to New England and as far west as Nebraska.
Copperhead bites usually don't kill people but can prove fatal to smaller mammals such as dogs. Unlike cottonmouths, copperheads strike out at once if they perceive a threat. That's why more people are bitten by copperheads than any other type of snake in the United States, according to the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. The bites are painful and cause permanent scarring. Water moccasins are less aggressive, usually attacking only if provoked. If they are bothered, they open their mouths wide as a warning -- showing the white interior that gives them their cottonmouth moniker. Although they bite much less frequently than copperheads, the strength of their venom makes death far more likely.
- North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension: How Dangerous Are Copperhead Snakes?
- National Zoo: Northern Copperhead
- Savannah River Ecology Laboratory: Cottonmouth / Water Moccasin (Agkistrodon Piscivorus)
- Georgia Division of Natural Resources: Is It a Water Moccasin?
- National Zoo: Cottonmouth
- University of Texas Arlington: Copperheads
- Center for Reptile and Amphibian Conservation and Management: Copperhead Agkistrodon Contortrix
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.