Water Moccasin

The powerboat slowed to allow Eric to swing wide and ski slowly up onto the shore. As the skis grabbed into the soft mud along the riverbank- the skier suddenly screamed in pain- "Snakes!" The tone of his voice was blood curdling. Eric's friends in the boat looked toward him in horror. It looked as if a wad of about twenty snakes were draping his upper body.

John, who was driving the craft, quickly turned the boat and rushed to help his friend. Eric was struggling to climb out of the water while also trying to remove the biting snakes. He kept slipping back into the river- his tightly latched skis were tripping him and impeding his exit from the soft mud.

John reached him, and along with the others in the boat- pulled Eric on board. Eric's lips were turning blue. "Cottonmouths," Eric said. "The skis dug up a nest of them."

Before his friends were able to get Eric to the hospital- he died from the venom of the multiple bites.

Versions of the above story are common throughout the Southeastern United States. However, there is a problem with the stories. The stories aren't true. Such is the legend of the water moccasin, aka Cottonmouth. This is an awesome snake that inspires such legends. (To read why the legend isn't true: see Rootsweb)

Water Moccasins tend to be more aggressive than other snakes when they are threatened. Some people have recounted stories of these snakes biting boats that ventured too near. However, in my three close encounters (5 feet or less) with these snakes- they have never acted threateningly or attempted to bite me. Of course, I was in a canoe and the snake was on a log- so I didn't feel threatened either. If I had been swimming and happened upon one- we both might have felt a bit more nervous.

The scientific name for the Water Moccasin is Agkistrodon piscivorus. The word agkistrodon is a combination of the Greek word ancistro, meaning "hook" and odon meaning "tooth". (Source) Piscivorus is a little easier to translate- it simply means "fish eater."

The snake's common name of Cottonmouth comes from the moccasin's behavior of opening its mouth wide and displaying the snowy white, or "cottony", lining of its mouth when it feels threatened. A friend and I have prodded one of these snakes before- nudging it with a boat paddle- trying to get it to display that white lining so that I could get a photograph- but the snake ignored my obnoxious behavior and slowly swam away.

The photo of the older, darker Cottonmouth was taken at Lake Mitchell in Chilton County, AL. The younger, copper colored Cottonmouth is the Florida species of the Water Moccasin. The photo of it was taken in the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia. My friend, Dr. Ron Van Houten, can be seen in the photo taking a picture of a young Cottonmouth (it is about 2' in front of him.) Ron is a respected Zoologist, aka professional. Evidently he has some type of peace treaty with the poisonous snakes- as they haven't bitten him yet.

Facts about the Cottonmouth

  • Cottonmouths are Pit Vipers- like the Copperhead and Rattlesnake
  • 10% of snakebites a year are inflicted by the Cottonmouth. (source)
  • Cottonmouths CAN bite underwater
  • Cottonmouths do not taste like cotton candy
  • A teacher in Texas took a Cottonmouth to the high school at which he taught- he had misidentified it, thinking that is was a non-poisonous species. Unfortunately, 2 students were bit by the snake and were hospitalized after their hands started to swell. (source)

    The Giraffe Head Tree said...

    Outstanding post, Daniel! An avid waterskiier forever, and one who has camped various shorelines I've never, ever seen cottonmouths in "nests." The ones we've seen were curious and brave, but never aggressive. Still...we gave them wide berth and treated them with respect. Thanks for the link to the truth as well. I've always loved your cottonmouth photo. It's outstanding - worthy of submitting to Outdoor Alabama!

    Anonymous said...

    How much you may have facts on 60-75% of the snake I lived off of lake jessup on st. Johns river. Walking up a path one spotted us we spotted him in a bit of a drainage ditch. He stood off his body only to charge us.. Fact if it hadn't been for our dog it would have bit one of us..to see our dog shake it and peel its skin off it's neck we took it and hung it on a stick showed dnr in Florida he said its a moccasin and we were lucky. There are cases of aggression maybe not in all cases but in some there is..just like any other animal. Nothing is amazing about a snake unless it's non poisoness or dead..we need rat snakes and such. Nice article brought back memories of living in volusia county fl.. Now I live near the Mississippi river. With a new snake dog waiting to see one..

    Anonymous said...

    This most certainly managed to get my attention. My dad had lived around water in the south since 1922 and even I have experienced numerous cottonmouth. During "Dog Days" nearly every summer we have experienced an irritable snake that for no reason wants to attack and the majority are cottonmouths. One of those encounters was in a canoe in the water when my dad came to my rescue. I read numerous things on the internet that I know some say is false, but I know from experience they are very true. My dad could smell and would warn us about a mad/irritated snake and his sense of smell NEVER failed us. Dog days is real for whatever affect it has on snakes I have no doubt they are more irritable and will attack for no reason. Snakes do bite under water, because I have a niece who was bit and we had to rush her to the hospital. It did not have the same affect as we had experienced on land and all the doctor said is we were lucky. I've read that sometimes a cottonmouth will not always use venom, but I do not know that for a fact. I don't know the answer, but I do know she made it and the snake didn't.

    Anthony Cole said...

    Just because you've never been attacked before doesn't mean its not possible. What a stupid thing to base an opinion on.