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Growing up copperhead

On October 1, our Herpetology Team was excited to find that our female copperhead had given birth to 14 babies! Female copperheads typically have live-born litters of six to nine babies, but litters of 20 have been documented.

Our babies have had their first shed and have now been moved away from their mother to a behind-the-scenes care area of the Zoo, where they will be monitored and raised by the Herpetology Team.

Copperheads usually give birth in late summer to early fall, and the babies stick close to Mom for the first week or two after birth. After that, the babies shed their skin for the first time and then disperse to make their own way in the world.

Baby copperheads have bright sulfur-yellow tail tips. They use these as lures to attract prey animals like small lizards, frogs, and insects. This bright yellow tail helps to distinguish baby copperheads from all of the non-venomous snakes found in our area. Copperheads also have unique “bowtie” or “Hershey’s Kiss” shaped dark markings down their backs, which no other snake in our area has. As they grow, their diet will change to include more small mammals, like mice and voles. The tail tip also darkens as they age, eventually turning black, brown, or gray. Contrary to popular belief, baby copperheads are not more dangerous than adults! Copperheads reach sexual maturity at 3 to 5 years of age, with females usually slower to mature than males.

After birth, a baby copperhead may only eat a handful of times (in some cases not at all) before it slows down to go into its winter brumation cycle. In some parts of their range, copperheads spend their winters in underground “hibernacula” with other copperheads, and often other species of snakes like timber rattlesnakes and eastern rat snakes.

Like many of our native snake species, copperheads are important natural control measures for pest animals like mice and serve as prey for animals like hawks, non-venomous kingsnakes, indigo snakes, and opossums. Indigo snakes, kingsnakes, and opossums all have a kind of immunity to copperhead venom.

 Robert L. Hill
Curator of Herpetology

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