Most other snakes would die in some of Australia’s coldest, highest-rainfall locations, but copperheads have managed to survive. At least one species seems to have benefited from European settlement; this moisture-loving serpent now has a more ideal habitat thanks to the conversion of forest to open agricultural land.
In terms of shape and color, all species of copperheads are somewhat similar. Their build is somewhat strong and sturdy. The back and upper sides of Lowland and Highland Copperheads have semi-glossy, evenly blackish to grey brown scales, with some having an orange or brownish flush. Particularly on the neck and forebody, the lowermost rows of lateral scales are larger and typically have a paler color.
Other than a dark vertebral line (which is more noticeable in adolescents) and/or an inconspicuous neck band, there are no markings on any individual. Grey to cream in color is the belly. The head and neck are hardly distinguishable due to their relative narrowness. The front margin of the top labials is pale, giving them a distinctive “barred” appearance. The eyes are round-shaped, whitish in color with a brown to reddish-brown rim, and of average size.
The pigmentation of some individuals’ heads, especially the snout, which is coppery-brown, is sometimes referred to as “Copperhead” (most often observed in Lowland Copperheads).
Anal and subcaudal scales are solitary, ventrals 140–165, and midbody scales in 15 (occasionally 17) rows.
Where do Copperhead Snakes live?
Pygmy Copperhead: This species is virtually solely found in high-altitude forests in the Mount Lofty Ranges. On the other hand, Kangaroo Island offers a diverse range of habitats for it, such as open grasslands, closed woodlands, samphire flats, coastal dunes, and agricultural areas. It hides beneath flat stones, fallen wood, and densely matted plants like tussock grasses.
The Highland Copperhead is a species that lives in open forests and woodlands, frequently close to bodies of water, particularly tiny creeks and marshes with still water. Additionally, it lives in disturbed places like cleared spaces and grazing grounds. The snake takes refuge beneath fallen logs, in abandoned burrows, beneath big flat stones, and in densely matted plants like tussock grasses.
The Lowland Copperhead lives in forests, heathlands, and grasslands and let the scrub run. It is frequently found in environments that are close to water including lakes rivers creeks streams and marshes. This species can survive in highly disturbed environments including ones that have been farmed for more than a century. They can be found here near roadside verges canals drainage ditches soaks and dams.
The snakes take refuge in yabbie tunnels, muttonbird burrows, abandoned rabbit and rodent burrows, and clusters of dense vegetation like buttongrass, cutting grass, gorse, and juncus. They also take refuge under stones, logs, stumps, and roofing iron sheets. Overwintering Lowland Copperheads have been observed under huge boulders, logs, roofing iron, tractor tires, and hay bale piles, among other shallow shelters. Sites that overwinter are generally in close proximity to water.
Copperheads are found only in the comparatively chilly and shady regions of southeast Australia, which includes the Bass Strait Islands, Tasmania, and Kangaroo Island.
The Pygmy Copperhead, or Austrelaps labialis, is restricted to Kangaroo Island and the Mount Lofty Ranges to the east of Adelaide. Lowland regions of southeast Australia, southern Victoria, Tasmania, and the islands of Bass Strait (Flinders, King, Hunter, Preservation, and Great Dog Islands) are home to lowland copperheads (A. superbus).
What do Copperhead Snakes eat?
Feeding and diet
In the wild, ectothermic prey including insects, frogs, lizards (and their eggs), and other snakes are the main foods consumed by snakes. Occasionally, they will also consume warm-blooded animals like mammals and birds. The most frequently devoured prey item is by far skinks.
It has also been reported that copperheads are cannibalistic.
How do Copperhead Snakes mate and what is their lifecycle?
All three species are capable of bearing living offspring. Evidence suggests that wild females do not mate annually. Watch a video that Peter Roland captured in South Warrnambool, Victoria, in March 2021, showing copperheads mating.
When the breeding season begins, male copperheads fight each other. Males of Austrelaps appear to keep their heads apart and just entwine their bodies, in contrast to male battle in many other elapids where the males utilize their head and forebody to attempt and press down the head and forebody of their opponent.
Austrelaps labialis: Females reach maturity at a snout-vent length of at least 304mm, whereas males reach maturity at a minimum of 305mm. Male-to-male perceived combat has been documented in early to Kangaroo Island in the middle of fall. Mid-spring to late summer (November to March) is when gravid females are most common, and mid-summer is when wild captured snakes give birth. There are 2 to 10 litter sizes (average of 7). It’s fascinating to observe that the newborn pups (166–170 mm) are comparable in size to those from the much larger species of copperhead.
A ramsayi: The length of the nose-vent at maturity is around 446 mm for males in New South Wales and 588 mm in Victoria, and 463 mm for females in the same states. It is possible to find gravid females from early spring to early summer (October to January) and huge yolking follicle-bearing females in early spring. In eastern Victoria’s highlands, females emerging from Large follicles are present in winter quiescence in mid-spring (November). There are 15 litters on average .
A superbus: It has been noted that mating takes place in late summer though it is unclear if this observation was made in the wild or in captivity. In the southeast of mainland Australia maturity is reached at a snout vent length of at least 477 mm for males and 436 mm for females and in Tasmania it is attained at a length of roughly 527 mm for males and 617 mm for females. Females with oviducal young occur in early spring to mid-summer (October to February), while large ovarian follicle-bearing females are observed in early spring . By late February, females on King Island in Bass Strait have given birth. Between January and March, between 9 and 45 young are born; larger females give birth to larger litters.
It has been observed that Highland Copperheads break out of their winter hibernation in November and return to it in late April or early May. Autumn seemed to bring the snakes out much earlier in the day than spring and summer.
Lowland Copperheads: In two highland (650–750 m) and lowland (near sea level) locations in southern Victoria, researchers found that the lowland locality’s snakes broke out of winter quiescence earlier than the highland locality’s (August vs. September in one warm year and September vs. October in one cool year). On the other hand, the highland locality snakes arrived at their winter shelters earlier in the season than the lowland locality snakes (late April or early May vs March).
Other behaviours and adaptations
Although they usually live on the ground, copperheads will occasionally climb—for example, to take a sunbath. Although they may be active on warm evenings, they are primarily nocturnal.
Are Copperhead Snakes dangerous and are they endangered?
Danger to humans
Because of their tendency for secrecy, copperheads shy away from human interaction. A copperhead will typically not bite when trapped; instead, it will hiss loudly, flatten its body, and thrash or flip around. The snake will lash out and bite if it is provoked further. Adult members of any species carry venom that is highly neurotoxic, hemolytic, and cytotoxic; if medical attention is not received, a bite from one of these animals could be lethal.
Both domestic and wild cats pose a threat to the Pygmy Copperhead population in the Mount Lofty Ranges.
Ticks can parasitize copperheads; it has been claimed that a single Lowland copperhead can carry up to 60 ticks. Certain protozoans, cestodes (tape worms), nematodes (round worms), pentastomids (flukes or tongue worms), and trematodes (flukes) are examples of known endoparasites.