Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth) Snakes: Facts And Photos

The water moccasin, or cottonmouth, is a venomous pit viper snake species found in southeastern parts of the United States. There are three subspecies within this species.

These include Florida cottonmouth, which is found in Florida and parts of Georgia. There is also the western cottonmouth, which is found in the states surrounding, and including, Alabama and Texas. The western cottonmouth can be found as north as Indiana. The last subspecies is the eastern cottonmouth, which is found along the east coast of the United States up to the Carolinas.

While the three subspecies maintain populations within their respective areas, there is overlap between in Georgia and Alabama. Their large geographic range has allowed them to flourish as a species within the United States. This means that they are not a concern for conservation as the threat against them is currently minimal.

A Florida cottonmouth at Cincinnati Zoo. Credit: Wikipedia/Ltshears

This those not mean that they should be ignored as they still face threats from anthropogenic problems. They are persecuted and their habitats are drained, which takes a toll on the population. They are considered endangered in Indiana.

This means that we should try to learn and understand them as much as possible to ensure that we maintain their current stability.

Characteristics

The water moccasin is considered the largest species within the genus Agkistrodon. While females are generally smaller than males, adults range from 2ft to 4ft long in the wild. There are instances where larger individuals have been found.

They are known for their large jowls, owing to being venomous, and their larger heads, which stands in contrast to their thin necks. This is unlike some other snake species, which has no discernable necks.

Most of the individuals within the species are generally black or mostly black along with certain facial characteristics. They are known to have stripes on their nostrils and pale snouts.

Beyond black coloring, some individuals may be brown, tan, gray, or olive-ish. The coloring is not uniform as there may be crossbands of relatively lighter colors contrasting the darker colors.

A young cottonmouth. Note the distinct and light bands that are contrasted with the darker ones. This is common among juveniles within this species. Credit: Wikipedia

In juvenile cottonmouths, the contrast between lighter and darker coloring is more evident and pronounced. This pronounced contrast fades as they get older and some even disappear as the darker coloring takes over.

Behavior & Diet

When we think of a cottonmouth, we imagine something dangerous and a threat to our own wellbeing. Fortunately, that is a false conception of this species. Despite their reputation for being aggressive, these snakes rarely bite humans.

In their encounter with humans, some of the cottonmouths will simply flee from the situation while most of them will stand their ground into a defensive position. They will coil their bodies up and open their mouths wide to expose the white interior, which is meant to scare away predators. They will also hiss and vibrate their tails.

They will usually only bite if they are picked up or mishandled in some way.

They can be seen throughout the day, however, they are primarily night hunters as they rest during the day. This is especially true during the summer months. They hunt a variety of species that includes fish, mammals, birds, amphibians, and other snakes among many other dietary targets.

They are opportunistic feeders that prey on vulnerable targets, which are easy to hunt. They may also engage in cannibalistic behaviors and target other smaller cottonmouths.

They are venomous snakes, so cottonmouths deal with their prey by biting them. Their venom is a strong hemotoxin, which results in the break down of blood cells. Their bite also prevents the blood from coagulating or clotting, which prevents interruptions from blood flowing.

If on the rare occurrences, they bite a human, the bites are rarely fatal because they can be readily treated. However, the bites and venom can leave scars as well as tissue and muscle damage. In some instances, the bite might result in amputation if it is severe enough.

Despite notions of cottonmouths being aggressive towards humans, they rarely ever bite humans. Preferring, instead, to flee or maintain a defensive position

Habitats

As their name suggests, water moccasins prefer locations that are warm and wet. They are considered the most aquatic among the many species within the genus Agkistrodon. These habitats include things like swamps, marshes, streams, lakes, and ponds among others. The swamps are one area which are diminishing in some areas due to human expansion and development.

If they are not in the water, they are going to be around it. They need to bask in the sun a lot to maintain their body temperatures, which is lost quickly in water. This is one of the reasons that they are not found in cooler bodies of water. The geographical distribution is noted for being in warmer climates of the United States.

The Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida is home to cottonmouths because of its swamps. Credit: Wikipedia

While it is capable of being in and around salt waters, like those on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast, the water moccasins prefer freshwater sources instead. The species is also capable of living in areas that do not have an abundance of water. They have been found in forests in Texas and Florida, which do not have a lot of water resources compared to lakes or ponds.

Mating

Water moccasins mate in the spring. Males of the species engage in combat with each other as well as try to lure females away from other males in their effort to reproduce. Water moccasins incubate their eggs within the body of the mother because they are ovoviviparous. They generally carry around 10-20 eggs and give birth every 2-3 years.

After mating in the spring, the females will give birth 3-4 months later, at which point the young must fend for themselves.

Water moccasins are also capable of asexual reproduction via the process of parthenogenesis. They engage in facultative parthenogenesis, meaning they will do it if they see no other options.

In parthenogenesis, the eggs develop into embryos without the need for fertilization and carry only the genetic information of the mother.

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1 Comment

  • Fwiw, I went to high school in Norfolk, Va in the late 50’s, and there were still some water moccasins there at that time. One time, a friend and I were in his small boat in the upper Lafayette River checking a crab trap at low tide. The river at that tide was just a channel with mud flats in both sides. We saw a snake swimming and, being young and stupid, we chased and cornered it, not realizing its size or variety. When we cornered it, it turned, came right at us, and tried to come in over the side. We reflexively leaned to the other side and it fell back, long enough for us to start pounding it with an oar and a paddle. We killed it then killed it some more for good measure before putting it under the back seat of the boat and taking it back to show our friends. It was thick, nasty looking, pretty much all black and about 4 1/2 ft long.

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