The cottonmouth, commonly referred to as a water moccasin, is a stout bodied snake that is alternately described as reclusive and aggressive. My personal experience with this pit viper is that it is highly territorial, and not likely to give ground when confronted. That said, the cottonmouth has never exactly been aggressive as far as what I have seen. It will stand it’s ground, gape open it’s mouth, and wait for you to leave. This is not exactly aggressive behavior as much as stubborn.
There are at least three subspecies of cottonmouth found in North America, and they are all fairly abundant within their ranges. There is the Eastern Cottomouth (Agkistrodan piscivorus piscivorus), the Florida cottonmouth (Agkistrodan piscivorus conanti) and the Western cottonmouth (Agkistrodan piscivorus leucostoma). They all are similar with coloration being the primary difference among them. This article will deal with the Eastern cottonmouth as this is the species of which I have the most knowledge of.
Is the Cottonmouth Dangerous?
Cottonmouths are venomous, and the venom is somewhat comparable to the bite of most large rattlesnakes. They are not quite as serious as those rattlesnakes, but they are more toxic than the copperhead. The bite of the cottonmouth can cause massive tissue loss at the site of the bite, and often will make you incredibly sick. Can it kill you? Absolutely it can if you do not get treatment for the bite. The vast majority of cottonmouth snake bites do not end in death, however. Bites should be considered serious and should always be treated as an emergency.
Where Are Cottonmouths Located?
Cottonmouth snakes are very common throughout the Southeast to include North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas. This list is far from all inclusive, but it is the “hot bed” of cottonmouth locations.
How Big Do Cottonmouths Get?
The cottonmouth can grow up to about 3-4 feet on average. They do not get extremely long, but they are known to get quite fat. Their bodies are very stout and the snake is quite powerful looking as a rule. Baby cottonmouths are usually about a foot.
Identification of the Cottonmouth
Cottonmouth snakes are usually identified by the white coloration that is clearly shown to anyone that happens to be close. The cottonmouth will generally curl into a strike position and gape open its jaws, thereby showing the reason they are called cottonmouths. The two large fangs that are hinged back when the snake closes its mouth are sometimes visible as well. If you are close enough to note the fangs, then you are way too close.
The head of the cottonmouth is noticeably larger than the neck, and they are generally triangular in shape. The head also houses pits which allow the snake to hunt effectively. These heat sensing pits are a primary feature of a pit viper such as the cottonmouth.
The cottonmouth also can be highly variant in color, depending on where it is located and the species. In general, cottonmouths are darker as they age, and markings begin to fade. The cottonmouth often has bands that are serrated at the edges. The ground color can be black, grey, brown, or even a olive color.
The cottonmouth has been known to do some odd things. They are not your everyday snake by any means. For example, when a cottonmouth goes into the water, they swim with the head up and over the body. Most other water snakes swim low in the water.
The classic urban myth about a water skier falling into a bed of cottonmouths is simply not true. Cottonmouths do not nest in the water, and they tend to run when in the water. Oddly, they do not seem as brave in the water as they are on land. On land, the cottonmouth is usually going to stand its ground.
Though the cottonmouth is widely feared, it should not be. The snake is a formidable reptile that deserves respect, not fear. As long as you give them a wide berth, the cottonmouth will never be a problem for anyone. They are beautiful and quite necessary in our ecosystems throughout the United States.