Friend or Foe? Snakes (Yes, Even Copperheads) Are Important to Our Ecosystem.

Learning to co-exist with our slender, scaly neighbors is part of our shared responsibility to create thriving ecosystems and a healthier planet.

When you envision a healthy ecosystem, you might imagine a variety of native plants, insects, birds, and mammals. But where do snakes fit into the picture? If your first reaction is “they don’t!”, then you’re leaving out a vital ecological partner. These much-maligned animals may have bad reputation, but the reality is that human-inflicted habitat destruction is a much bigger threat to snakes than snakes are to us. Learning to co-exist with our slender, scaly neighbors is part of our shared responsibility to create thriving ecosystems and a healthier planet.

Luckily, having snakes around is not only great for the environment, but it’s also directly beneficial to humans. Some of a snake’s favorite foods are mice and rats, animals that can carry disease and damage property. Snakes also help keep the local tick population in check by eating the animals that harbor them.

But what about copperheads?

It’s true that in North Carolina, the most common venomous snake is the eastern copperhead. Native to North America, they’re named for their rich copper-brown hue and can be recognized by the hourglass pattern that covers their bodies. Juvenile copperheads have a sulphur-yellow tipped tail.

So how did they get such a bad rap?

Contrary to popular myth, most snakes are actually quite timid and would prefer to stay far away from people. But as human populations push further into natural areas, encounters with copperheads have become more common. These shy reptiles tend to freeze when frightened, but they will defend themselves by striking out if they feel threatened. Copperheads can release toxic venom when they bite, however about 25% of those are “dry” bites meaning no venom is injected.

Although it might make the news when a snake bites a person, the likelihood of being bitten by a copperhead is still incredibly low. In 2019, around 100 people in North Carolina were bitten by venomous snakes, yet none of those bites were fatal. In fact, only one human death from a copperhead bite has ever been recorded in the U.S. Furthermore, the CDC reports that in the U.S., 800,000 people are severely bitten by dogs each year, while only 7,000 are bitten by venomous snakes.

How can I avoid copperheads?

Copperheads prefer to spend hot summer days hiding in hollowed-out logs and rock piles and usually only come out at dawn and dusk. In the spring and fall, they can be found basking out in the open at wooded edges.

According to Landon Ward, M.S., herpetologist and Senior Lecturer in the Environmental Studies department at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, copperheads are looking for good sturdy places to hide.

“They’re not typically hanging out in leaf litter. They don’t burrow, and they like bigger objects to hide in. Logs or rock piles are more likely to attract them. I’ve never encountered copperheads in leaf litter,” Ward said.

They also have a hard time moving through tall grasses like those found in a Piedmont Prairie, so they tend to avoid those spaces.

And if you’re still concerned about leaving your leaves in your yard, Ward says there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself on the off chance that you do encounter a snake. “The biggest threat is that they blend in, so just by wearing shoes or gloves, you’re doing a lot to protect yourself if you accidentally frighten or hurt one.” Unfortunately, most snakebites occur when people try to handle the snake. If you see a snake, remember to let it be. If you absolutely must relocate it, consider hiring a professional to do the job.

Supporting thriving native habitats means creating spaces where every member of the food web is welcome. So, instead of being scared of snakes, try recognizing snakes for what they really are: a sign of a healthy, happy ecosystem.

Have questions about how to better support our local ecosystem? Send us an email, and we’ll get in touch as soon as we can.

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