You can identify a Water Moccasin by its triangular head, thick body and a long tail. They are often large ranging from 2 to 4 feet long. They have jowls, and besides, it has dark stripes by each nostril and snouts. Its large triangular head is different from its thinner necks.
Size & Shape
Its color varies from dark brown to olive, their bellies are normally paler than their backs. Adult moccasins are different from young ones. Their patterns, which can be striking, fade, or are lost as they age. They vibrate their tails and open their mouths wide. They can also make their bodies look bigger by flattening their bodies. The moccasin’s mouth looks white like cotton that’s why it is often called cottonmouth. When their wide, white mouths are open and gaping, they make hissing sounds.
Behavior & Bite
Its bite can be very dangerous or even deadly but according to some researchers, fatalities are very rare. They can damage muscles, tissues, or can cause other serious issues depending on the location of the bite. The water moccasin behavior is aggressive but in reality, they rarely bite humans but remember as it was mentioned earlier if they are threatened they will bite dangerously. “When a cottonmouth feels threatened, from outside it will coil its body and will open its mouth wide to expose the white coloration of the inside of its mouth. The white color can be a striking visible display, especially in aged adults, whose body colors are dark brown to almost black … Exposing the white of the mouth serves as a warning signal to potential predators.” Anyone having from a water-moccasin bite should seek medical attention immediately.
Identification features can change. The Florida water moccasin, the western water moccasin, and the eastern water moccasin can grow to size from 8 to 48 inches long, and with a record length of 74 1/2 inches. The snakes are thick and dark-colored, having a heavy body, with the neck smaller than the body and with the tail tip long and thin. While on the other hand, juvenile water moccasin is brightly colored having red and brown bands. The majority of the snake’s back can contain dark spots. Keeled scales cover their body, water moccasins do not appear shiny instead it appears dull having a non-reflective surface. The interesting feature moccasin has that its younger ones have yellow tails which they hold upright attracting prey within its range. With time its tail becomes black.
Range & Habitat
Moccasins or cottonmouths are present in three species. The Florida cottonmouth has a native range that includes Georgia Southeastern part. The western cottonmouth according to some research has the largest range in Texas especially the eastern location. According to a survey, water moccasins seem not to have crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. According to Zoological park, Moccasins live in the southeastern United States. They can be seen swimming in drainage, marshes, swamps, and ditches. Beside it they can be seen at the edges of streams, ponds, and lakes, they log themselves near water’s edge. They live in warm conditions and hibernate in stump holes during winter. The litters have bright color and they take off on their own as soon as they’re born. Parents do not care for them.
Foraging & Diet
Water Moccasin forages by searching, ambushing, and hunting their prey. They mostly feed on dead animals for their nourishment. When they encounter a prey, they bite it and then let it go. After awhile when the prey is subdued by its venom, the snake hunts it down. Cottonmouth snakes locate in or close to water, and that’s why they rely on fish. Besides fish, they eat toads, snails, small alligators, rodents, bird eggs, and birds. Besides, they even eat smaller snakes. Juvenile cottonmouth snakes attract prey by their charm i.e. they move their tail, and lure their potential prey closer. In a 2014 study by Himes, he found out that the snake also eats non-fish food. According to him, 32% of non-fish food source comes from frogs.
Life-Cycle & Reproduction
Water Moccasin snakes mate annually in warmer months. After that, the female partner goes through a four-month gestation period. When the period is over, it gives birth to up to 16 juvenile snakes. Neonates are 22 to 35 cm long and as venomous as a juvenile. The female body is responsible for hatching the eggs, which is called ovoviviparity. According to studies, a female snake can reproduce at three years of age, if their growth is rapid. Growth depends on the availability of food and favorability of weather conditions. Male snakes also compete with each other to mate with sexually attractive females. Juvenile snakes have colored tails. Sometimes, they use it to lure their prey. It has also been reported that female cottonmouths defend their newborn litters. If someone decides to get close to its litters, it will coil around them and even attack the person.
The venom of Water Moccasins contains a powerful cytotoxic venom that destroys tissue. It is worthy to note that fatalities are rare from a cottonmouth snake bite. However, when a cottonmouth bites a human, he can get scars and may require amputation. Unlike other rattlesnake species, the venom of Water Moccasins does not contain neurotoxic components. It also does not cause systematic reactions in victims. Moreover, a CroFab anti-venom can effectively treat bites. In a 1957 study, Wright and Wright reported that these snakes rarely bite, even if you step on them. From several other accounts, they concluded that cottonmouth snakes are not aggressive. Symptoms of its bites include swelling, ecchymosis, necrosis, and myokymia. Their venom contains strong proteolytic which can lead to a human’s tissue destruction.
Cottonmouth snakes are vulnerable and prone to be attacked. There are many animals and birds which feed on these snakes, whenever they encounter them. The predators which preyed upon Agkistrodon piscivorus are turtles, American alligators, falcons, eagles, horned owls, loggerhead shrikes, red-shouldered hawks, and large wading birds like cranes, egrets, and herons. It is interesting to note that ophiophagous snakes also treat them as their prey. In a 1947 study by Neill, he reported that water moccasin snakes defended themselves against captive kingsnakes through body-bridging. When cottonmouth snakes encounter an attacker, they defend themselves by moving their upper body. Their defense mechanism against predators is to raise their upper body and create a loop. The raised loop is lateral, with the belly facing the attacker.
Just like other reptiles, snakes also hibernate during winter seasons. In states like Virginia where the weather is cold, cottonmouth snakes hibernate for several months. Although hibernation increases the mortality rate of snakes, it is still necessary to hibernate in cold areas. Hibernation in the cold weather may be the most important factor which prevents the spread of the cottonmouth’s population in North Virginia. To protect themselves in winter, these snakes migrate from their rivers and swamps to find a suitable place for their hibernation. Wooded hillsides are their preferred place of hibernation because they hibernate in stump holes. The cottonmouths lie coiled close to their hibernacula. Some argue that corridors between upland and wetland must exist so that snakes can find places for hibernation. In states like Florida & Texas where the temperature is not so cold, Water Moccasin snakes may not hibernate at all.
Water Moccasins vs Water Snakes
Most people confuse Water Moccasins with Water Snakes because of their similar appearance. However, both of these species are quite different. The first difference is in their habitat. Water Snakes are present in almost every county of Georgia and South Carolina, whereas Water Moccasins can only be found in the southern regions of the states. Water Snakes prefer large, open reservoirs, whereas Water Moccasins prefer swamps and backwaters. Another difference is in their basking behavior.
Water Snakes are agile climbers and they bask on limbs of trees overhanging the water. On the other hand, Water Moccasins bask on land or logs near the water surface. They only climb low limbs. Their swimming behavior is also different. Water Snakes swim below the water surface, whereas Water Moccasin heads are elevated above the water and their bodies are nearly on the water surface. Some of the physical differences between these species are in their head shape, pattern, and underside of tail.
Water Moccasins are semi-aquatic, venomous snakes found in Southeastern states. They rely heavily on fish as a food source. These snakes hibernate in the winter season. They are not aggressive. Their venom is toxic, but it rarely kills a person. Water Moccasin is a very different species from a Water-Snake.
I recently had a startling encounter with a water snake that left me questioning my knowledge of local wildlife. As I was walking along the riverbank, I spotted what I thought was a venomous cottonmouth, also known as a moccasin. My heart raced as I quickly backed away, only to later realize that I had mistaken the harmless water snake for a dangerous predator.
This experience made me realize just how easy it is to misidentify snakes, especially for those of us who are not experts in herpetology. With so many different species of snakes, each with their own unique markings and behaviors, it can be difficult to distinguish between them.
Water snakes have round pupils, while venomous snakes have cat-like pupils. Another way to distinguish water snakes from venomous snakes is by their head shape. Water snakes have a more slender and elongated head, while venomous snakes have a triangular-shaped head.
- Northern Water Snake: These non-venomous snakes are often confused with water moccasins due to their similar habitat and coloration. They have dark bands on a lighter background, which can appear similar to a water moccasin at first glance. However, their bands are more distinct, and their heads are narrower and less triangular than those of water moccasins.
- Banded Water Snake: This non-venomous snake has dark bands on a lighter background, similar to the northern water snake. Their bodies are more robust than the northern water snake, and they also have narrower, less triangular heads than water moccasins.
- Eastern Hognose Snake: Although the coloration and patterning of eastern hognose snakes can vary widely, some individuals may have a dark brown or black appearance similar to a water moccasin. The key difference is the upturned snout, which is characteristic of hognose snakes.
- Brown Water Snake: This non-venomous snake is also semi-aquatic and can have dark coloration similar to a water moccasin. However, the brown water snake has a more slender body and a less triangular head.
- Copperhead: Copperheads are venomous snakes that can sometimes be confused with water moccasins due to their similar size and shape. However, copperheads have a distinctive hourglass-shaped pattern on their bodies, which is different from the bands found on water moccasins.
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