Identification: Perhaps the most often misidentified snake in Indiana, this is Indiana's most common venomous snake. However, you are still more likely to encounter a similar-looking, harmless snake than this species, in Indiana. Copperheads are light gray as juveniles with rich brown bands and a yellow-tipped tail that fades with age. Though some snakes become brown with dark mahogany bands as adults, others retain the light gray juvenile coloration. In nearly all individuals, the shape and pattern of the bands is diagnostic: dark brown hourglasses when viewed from the top, or Hershey kisses when viewed from the side. That is to say, that unlike every other blotched/banded snake in Indiana, the dark bands in copperheads are thinnest on the top and become larger blotches on the side (Most banded snakes in Indiana have blotches that are large on the back and become thin or disappear on the sides). Though the coppery-orange head for which it is named is present on many individuals, it is not always present or obvious.
Similar Species: The unique hourglass-shaped bands on this species are usually the best way to differentiate it from similar, harmless snakes. Northern watersnakes and eastern milksnakes are the most similar snakes, in terms of coloration and patterning, to copperheads in Indiana. Both of these snakes are distinctively blotched and have smaller, narrower heads than copperheads.
All four of Indiana's venomous snakes have thick bodies, broad chunky heads, elliptical pupils, heat sensitive pits between the eyes and nostrils, and undivided post-anal ventral scales (under the tail). However, most of these characteristics require close examination, elliptical pupils can dilate and become round, and many non-venomous snakes (especially hog-nosed snakes) will broaden and flatten their heads in self defense. Therefore, it is always best to treat any snake that you cannot positively identify as potentially venomous. Venomous snakes are best left alone as most snake bites occur when someone attempts to handle or kill the snake. Snakes are not aggressive and do not hunt, attack, or chase people when left unmolested.
Distribution: Copperheads are most abundant in the unglaciated hills of south-central Indiana and frequent rocky outcrops, ridgetop forest openings, and hollow logs. This species only extends into central and northern Indiana along a narrow system of hills and ravines associated with the Wabash River watersheds; predominantly along Sugar Creek in Parke County (where the snakes are apparently now rare). Outside of this small region, copperheads do not occur in the northern half of the state. They are also relatively rare in southeastern and southwestern Indiana, inhabiting only scattered rocky ravine systems. Despite popular belief, copperheads do not have a proclivity for inhabiting water bodies. Much to the contrary, they are most often denizens of high, dry, rocky ridges that only occasionally wander to the water's edge to hunt amphibians or disperse.