Are copperheads on the rise, or is it a case of mistaken identity?
Some area residents are saying venomous copperhead snakes are being spotted more frequently this year than in the past. According to online sources, while bites rarely are fatal, they can be painful and result in tissue loss.
Dr. Joe Keiper, executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH), said that although the conditions locally are right for snakes and other reptiles to thrive, he isn’t convinced that copperheads in particular are more prevalent this year.
“In this area and across eastern North America, we’ve had so much rain and humidity. The copperhead is not an aquatic organism. It might live near ponds and streams, but it’s really a terrestrial thing. That being said, when you have very humid nights, like you get a rain on a hot day and you get the asphalt steaming at night ... reptiles and amphibians love that. They like to go and warm out on the asphalt. ... Frogs, salamanders, snakes, lizards — they’re all moving at that time,” Keiper said.
Nature often works in cycles, he said. One year, a certain species might be scarce, and the next year, it will be abundant.
However, he said, when it comes to reports of specific kinds of snakes, Keiper wonders if people are certain what they are looking at.
“The average person, I think, is going to misidentify snakes quite often,” he said. “We’ve gotten calls about copperheads in the past and have gone out and looked for them.” Generally, however, the snakes in question are harmless species, not copperheads.
Keiper has been living in southwest Virginia for three and a half years, he said. In that time, “I’ve flipped a lot of logs and I’ve flipped a lot of stones. I find snakes ... (but) I’ve never found a copperhead. I have yet to see a copperhead in Virginia. I’ve yet to see a rattlesnake in Virginia. I’ve seen all kinds of other things — black rat snake, king snake, eastern hognose, garter snake, brown snake, ringneck snake and others — but nope, I’ve never seen (copperheads or rattlesnakes),” he said.
The problem, Keiper said, is that other harmless snakes that are more common in this area can look superficially similar to the copperhead, leading to misidentification.
“The copperhead is a very beautiful creature,” he said. “It has this kind of distinctive, kind of blocky golden brown pattern. But some of the other snakes, like the milk snake and the hognose snake, some variants can look a lot like a copperhead, but they’re not.”
Brian Williams, program manager for the Dan River Basin Association, agreed with Keiper.
“Copperheads are constantly being misidentified,” Williams said. “In my personal opinion, there are no more copperheads now than there ever have been. In fact, there’s probably fewer” due to the large number that have been killed by people over the years.
Williams said he is frequently asked to identify snakes, usually ones that have been killed because they were believed to be copperheads. Although Williams has seen copperheads in this area, nine times out of ten, he said, the snakes are harmless species.
The copperhead and the timber rattlesnake are the only two venomous snakes occurring in this region, Keiper said. The rest are harmless.
As for rattlesnakes, Keiper said, he has heard that a former VMNH employee had a small population living on her southern Virginia property. The population was confirmed by a former museum curator, the late Dr. Richard Hoffman.
Keiper referred to rattlesnakes as “locally abundant” in Virginia. They are populous in the small areas where they are found, but they aren’t commonly found outside of those small areas, he added.
“There just aren’t enough out there to worry about them, as far as I’m concerned,” Keiper said.
Keiper’s advice to anyone worried about snakes is simple — just leave them alone.
“The number one time that people get bitten is when they try to kill them,” he said. “It’s relatively rare that someone gets bitten by accident.”
“If you just leave them alone, they won’t bother you,” he said.