Snake Facts: The Australian Copperhead Snake

So named because of their brown-coloured head, Copperhead snakes are found across south-eastern Australia. Their venom is toxic to a host of different cells in the human body and must be treated with effective first aid and professional help. (Pictured: Highland copperhead)
So named because of their brown-coloured head, Copperhead snakes are found across south-eastern Australia. Their venom is toxic to a host of different cells in the human body and must be treated with effective first aid and professional help. (Pictured: Highland copperhead)

Unlike most Australian snake species, Copperheads can thrive in some of the country's coldest and wettest regions.

There are 3 known species of Copperheads:

  • The Pygmy copperhead
  • The Lowland copperhead
  • The Highland copperhead

Though Copperheads (like most snakes) are secretive and do not seek out humans, they are highly venomous snakes that can cause human fatalities.

This article will help you understand what Copperheads look like, where they tend to live, how to treat their bites, and how to avoid snake bites altogether.

We also cover snake bites in our general and childcare first aid courses. To find and enrol at a training location near you, please head to our website.

Appearance

All three species of Copperhead snakes have similar identifying characteristics:

  • Moderately robust and muscular body
  • Semi-glossy scales on their back and upper sides that are uniformly blackish to grey brown - some Lowland and Highland copperheads also have a brownish or orange flush
  • The lowermost scales on their sides are usually larger and paler than the rest of their scales
  • The scales on their belly can range from cream to grey
  • Their head is relatively narrow and indistinct from their neck
  • The scales bordering their upper lip are 'barred' with white on the anterior edge
  • As their name suggests, their head has a coppery-brown colouration

They do, however, differ in their total length:

  • Pygmy copperhead - 84 cm
  • Lowland copperhead - 145 cm
  • Highlands copperhead - 115 cm

Australian copperheads belong to the Elapidae family of snakes. As such, they are not closely related to the American copperhead, which belongs to the viper family.

The Pygmy copperhead
The Pygmy copperhead

Habitat and Distribution

All three species of Copperhead snakes are generally restricted to colder environments in south-eastern parts of Australia:

Pygmy copperhead

The Pygmy copperhead snake (Austrelaps labialis) is only found east of Adelaide in the Mount Lofty Ranges and on Kangaroo Island.

In the Mount Lofty Ranges, they generally only inhabit high altitude forest. On Kangaroo Island, however, they can be encountered in a wide range of habitats, including:

  • Coastal dunes
  • Open grassland
  • Agricultural areas

In these habitats, they tend to shelter in or under matted vegetation, flat stones, and fallen timber.

Lowland copperhead

The Lowlands copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) can be found in lowland areas of south-eastern South Australia, southern Victoria, Tasmania, and the islands of Bass Strait.

They are often encountered in close proximity to marshes, creeks, streams, and other water sources in grasslands, heathland, woodlands, and open scrub.

They can also thrive in heavily disturbed areas, where they occur near dams, canals, and along the verges of roads.

Lowland copperheads tend to shelter in or under:

  • Boulders
  • Logs
  • Dense vegetation
  • Sheets of roofing iron
  • Yabbie burrows, muttonbird burrows, and disused animal burrows

Highland copperhead

The Highland copperhead snake (Austrelaps ramsayi) can be found in the highlands of New South Wales and eastern Victoria.

Here, they occur in woodland and open forest, as well as disturbed areas that have been cleared for grazing and other agriculture.

Like their Lowland counterpart, Highland copperheads usually shelter near water sources in or under:

  • Fallen timber
  • Matted vegetation
  • Abandoned burrows

Behaviours

Copperhead snakes tend to feed on cold-blooded prey like insects, frogs, lizards, and other snakes.

They are mostly active during the day and on the ground, though they will occasionally climb to bask in sunlight.

Male Copperheads engage in combat upon the start of the breeding season, during which they intertwine their bodies.

The Lowland copperhead
The Lowland copperhead

Danger

Copperhead snakes are generally secretive and prefer to avoid humans.

If cornered, they will usually not bite in the first instance, but will instead hiss loudly, flatten their body, and thrash about.

Further provocation, however, could cause them to lash out and bite. Their venom is highly toxic to nerve cells, red blood cells, and other living cells, and so their bites should be treated as a medical emergency:

  1. In line with the DRSABCD action plan, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance and be prepared to perform CPR
  2. Reassure the casualty, keep them under constant observation, and make sure they remain as still as possible
  3. Apply the Pressure Immobilisation Technique
  4. Immobilise the limb and joints with a splint until the ambulance arrives - use a sling for a bite to the arm

Though Copperheads are considered dangerous snakes, it is important to remember - snakes will never go out of their way to attack you.

The best way to avoid a snake bite is to refrain from approaching, capturing, or killing any snakes at home or in the wild. If you need a snake relocated from your property, contact a professional snake catcher.

Final Thoughts

For hands-on experience with identifying, treating, and preventing bites from Australian copperheads and other snakes, enrol in one of our general or childcare first aid courses.

We have training locations in every state, capital city, and major town throughout Australia.

Head to our website to find and enrol at a training location near you today.

Recently published

Wheelchair CPR article headerCPR for Persons in Wheelchairs
Dust allergy article headerCoping with Dust Allergies
Concert article headerA Guide to Enjoyable Concert Experiences
Dog boredom article headerDog Boredom
Secondary Trauma article headerSecondary Trauma
Cat lying down looking boredSigns of Cat Boredom
Measles article headerMeasles – Symptoms, Treatment and Control
Panic Disorders article headerUnderstanding Panic Disorders
Good Mental Health in Children article headerMental Health in Children
CPR Face Shields article headerDisposable Face Shields