Agkistrodon contortrix pictigaster
Species: A. c. pictigaster
Conservation Status: Due to the copperheads wide range and adaptability it is classified as 'least concern' and receives no special protection.
Natural History: The Trans-Pecos copperhead is the farthest west ranging subspecies in the Agkistrodon complex. Named for the region of Texas west of the Pecos river, its range extends from west Texas into northeastern Mexico. Like all copperheads, pictigaster are naturally shy snakes, they seek shelter from predators and the mid day sun under fallen trees, rock formations, under leafy or thorny scrub or under man made debris. They emerge in the evenings and may continue to hunt through the night into the early hours of morning.
Copperheads feed on a variety of prey, including insects, amphibians, lizards, fledgling birds and small mammals. Copperheads are pit vipers and posses a highly sensitive loreal pit between the eye and nostril on both sides of the head. These specialized structures allow the snake to detect minute amounts of thermal radiation and can strike accurately at endothermic or warm prey even in complete darkness.
Like all members of the Viperidae family, copperheads are venomous. They posses a pair of hinged hypodermic fangs that are connected to two large modified salivary glands that produce and store the animals hemotoxic venom. The Trans-Pecos copperhead can be differentiated from other subspecies by the wide color bands on it's body, and the elaborately patterned underbelly makes it distinct from the closely related Broadband Copperhead (A. c. laticinctus). These diminutive predators typically top out at lengths of 22-36" with males typically measuring shorter and weighing less than adult females.
Care in Captivity: The most important factor in the captive management of venomous snakes is safety, both for yourself and others. Before keeping any venomous reptile you should gain experience and knowledge from another hobbyist willing to share. These animals demand your respect and professionalism, and the future of our hobby rides on the shoulders of every one of us. Venomous snakes are not legal to keep in many states or municipalities, it is important to KNOW YOUR LAWS. If you choose to keep venomous reptiles ensure you have the proper equipment to do so, secure locking escape proof enclosures are a must. Handling equipment such as hooks, grabbers, pin rods and forceps are also vital. All that being said, for the experienced hobbyist keeping copperheads can be a rewarding endeavor. These beautiful and inquisitive reptiles are hardy and personable. The Trans-Pecos copperhead hails from hot dry climates and I maintain them slightly warmer than any of the other subspecies I keep, the warm end of their tubs typically ranges between 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit with the cool end dropping to the high seventies. These shy snakes need good solid hide boxes and I offer one on each side of the habitat. Clean fresh water should always be available and you can utilize a variety of substrate, for adults I use aspen shavings.
I offer frozen thawed size appropriate mice once every 7-10 days for adult animals, more frequently for neonates. For younger animals who are hesitant to respond to frozen thawed, it is important to get the surface temperature of the prey item very warm. I also place several clean dry hardwood leaves in the habitat and find that SAFELY using a pair of large forceps to move the pre-killed prey item over and around the leaves often stimulates predatory behavior in neonates.
Captive Reproduction: Once you have plenty of experience working with these beautiful animals you may be tempted to try your hand at captive reproduction. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your animals thrive under your care and even procreate. With venomous snakes this creates a bit of an issue, what do you do with 4-8 baby copperheads? If you live in the subspecies natural range, re-introduction of captive produced animals to remote natural areas is an option. If you are a member of a herpetological club or society you may know other experienced members who will provide long term homes for your copperhead progeny. The important thing to keep in mind is, if you breed and produce these animals you must have a responsible plan for maintaining or distributing their offspring. Venomous snakes cannot be FedEx-ed to potential customers and hobbyists around the country like ball pythons and colubrid snakes. Often the only way to move these animals is through the complex and expensive method of airport to airport shipping.
I begin fasting my copperheads for 2-3 weeks during mid-November and begin slowly reducing the temperature by way of adjusting the thermostat that controls the heat in their habitat. By the end of November they are ready to move into the cool room with my brumating colubrid snakes. The temperature in my cool room is maintained at 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit and they are brought out of brumation in early January. Over a period of several days they are slowly returned to pre-brumation temperatures and I begin offering food. After a few meals are accepted I begin pairing them. Unlike my colubrids who are housed for brief periods of time together, after I have paired my copperheads they remain paired for 1-2 weeks at a time until I am confident reproduction has been successful. It can be a long wait for Agkistrodon neonates, some females may immediately ovulate after brumation, others may wait weeks or months. Typically I see offspring being born around July-September. Gestational periods can be brief (3 months) or long (9 months) depending on many variables. All north american pit vipers are ovoviviparous, giving birth to 1-9 fully formed neonates in a single event that can last hours.
Our Animals: We maintain a small breeding group of these beautiful pit vipers from West Texas locality. We don't always pair them every year and this leads to fluctuating availability. But it also helps us manage our population of Trans-Pecos while ensuring these animals end up with knowledgeable and experienced keepers who seek out this westernmost subspecies of the ubiquitous copperhead.