If you live in the southeastern United States, you may have heard that both cottonmouths and copperheads live in your area. But what are these snakes, exactly? Are they the same thing, or two different species of snake? And should you be worried about encountering them? In this article, we’ll compare the cottonmouth vs. the copperhead, comparing their similarities and differences and discussing which one is more poisonous.
What You'll Learn Today
What is a Cottonmouth?
A cottonmouth is a type of venomous pit viper snake that lives primarily in the southeastern United States. It can be found from eastern Texas and southern Missouri south and east toward the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts.
Cottonmouths are semi-aquatic snakes; they thrive both on land and in water. For this reason, they often live in swamps and marshes, near bodies of water, and in other wetlands.
These snakes are typically brown, gray, or olive-green in color with non distinct or muted darker patterns; they may have a light-colored band wrapping around the middle of the body. Their bodies are thick and muscular but become significantly more narrow at the tail.
They are medium-sized snakes, as they can grow anywhere between 2 and 4 feet long. The inside of their mouth is white, and they have the classic triangular-shaped head which pit vipers are known for.
Cottonmouths are most active at night, and they will eat just about anything that crosses their path. Some of their most common food choices include small mammals, fish, reptiles including other snakes, and amphibians.
Cottonmouths mate in the spring and fall of each year. The females give birth to broods of live young, usually between 10 and 20 snakes per brood.
What is a Copperhead?
A copperhead is another type of venomous pit viper. Like the cottonmouth, it is commonly found throughout the southeastern United States; though its distribution is a little wider: from central Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, northward through southern Illinois, and all along the east coast from Massachusetts to Georgia.
Copperheads live on land; they prefer areas with lots of vines, shrubs, and other forms of plant overgrowth, though they can also be found in populated suburban areas. They frequently live in forest and woodland habitats, mountains, canyons, and grasslands.
These snakes typically have highly distinctive markings; they tend to be tan with darker brown hourglass-shaped bands, and their heads are typically more reddish in color (hence the name “copperhead”). They have thick, muscular bodies that become more narrow toward the tail.
Copperheads are medium-sized snakes that typically grow to about 3 feet long, though some grow up to 4 feet long. Their copper-colored head gives way to a reddish-colored mouth, and the head is triangular like most other pit vipers.
Copperheads are most active at night during the hot summer months, but they are more active during daylight hours during the spring and fall. They eat mostly land-based prey such as small birds, rodents, lizards, and some small snakes.
Like cottonmouths, copperheads mate during the spring and fall and give birth to live young.
Cottonmouth Vs. Copperhead: Similarities and Differences
Check out this video to get a great visual comparison of cottonmouths and copperheads.
Now that we’ve seen what they both look like, let’s take a closer look at some of the specific similarities and differences between these two snakes.
- Both pit vipers: Both cottonmouths and copperheads are venomous pit vipers, meaning they have pits behind their nostrils to sense the body heat of their prey. They both have the classic slit pupils, triangular heads, fangs, and toxic venom of pit vipers.
- Overall appearance: Cottonmouths and copperheads have some physical similarities, most notably their overall muscular body shapes and narrow tails. They are also similar in color and pattern, though cottonmouths tend to be a bit darker than copperheads and copperheads tend to have a more distinctive pattern.
- Size: Both copperheads and cottonmouths can grow up to 4 feet long, though in many cases, cottonmouths grow larger than copperheads.
- Behavior: Copperheads and cottonmouths share one major behavior–they will both play dead. Cottonmouths tend to do this in the water, while copperheads tend to do it on land.
- Give birth to live young: Both types of snakes give birth to live young as opposed to laying eggs. They both typically have between 10 and 20 babies in each brood.
- Scientific name: Cottonmouths and copperheads are cousins, but they belong to different genera. The cottonmouth’s scientific name is Agkistrodon piscivorus, while the copperhead’s scientific name is Agkistrodon contortrix.
- Habitat: Cottonmouths prefer wetter habitats than copperheads. Whereas cottonmouths can be found in swamps, marshes, coastal areas, and even water-filled roadside ditches, copperheads are more likely to be found in woodlands, mountains, grasslands, and suburban areas.
- Diet: Though both copperheads and cottonmouths eat a variety of prey animals, copperheads have a more restricted diet than cottonmouths. Cottonmouths will eat nearly anything they can find, both on land and in water, while copperheads mostly eat land animals.
- Coloring and patterns: As noted above, copperheads tend to be lighter in color and have a more recognizable pattern than cottonmouths. Cottonmouths are usually darker in color, and some may appear to have no patterns or markings at all.
- Aggression: Cottonmouths are known for being far more aggressive than copperheads. Copperheads tend to be more shy and will try to escape when in danger, while cottonmouths are more likely to turn and fight against whatever is threatening them.
Cottonmouth Vs. Copperhead: Which is More Poisonous?
As pit vipers, both copperheads and cottonmouths are poisonous. That said, copperhead bites rarely cause death while cottonmouth bites frequently do.
Cottonmouths are large, aggressive, and their venom destroys red blood cells. If a cottonmouth bite is left untreated, it will gradually destroy the blood in the bite victim, eventually leading to shock and death.
Copperhead bites mostly cause localized tissue damage that rarely spreads throughout the body. If left untreated, copperhead bites may kill children, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems, but they rarely kill healthy adults.
That said, they are still dangerous, as the localized tissue damage may be enough to require amputation.
Regardless of the type of bite you sustain, it’s extremely important to seek medical treatment right away. The sooner you are treated for a venomous snake bite, the greater your chance of making a full recovery without suffering any complications.
If you are unsure which type of snake bit you, you may want to try and get a picture of the snake if possible. Don’t waste your time though, or put yourself at risk of getting bit again; there’s no use spending a lot of time trying to track down the snake that bit you when you should be getting to the hospital.
Being able to identify a snake on your own (without having to take a picture) is an important skill to have. It saves time and helps you get appropriate treatment faster, since copperhead and cottonmouth bites are treated differently.
Copperheads and cottonmouths are both venomous pit vipers that are often confused because of their similar appearance and coloring. That said, if you know what to look for, you should be able to tell these two snakes apart by things such as their skin patterns, native habitat, and level of aggressiveness.