Facts, Identification & Control
Earning its name from the whitish color of its mouth lining, the cottonmouth snake, or water moccasin as it is sometimes called, is considered to be the only semi-aquatic viper within the United States.
Behavior, Diet & Habits
Found primarily in the southeastern United States, the cottonmouth is a very accomplished swimmer and makes its home in and around slow moving and shallow bodies of water like swamps, creeks and ponds. Adult males, reaching a length of 3 to 4 feet, are equally comfortable moving on land and water and will travel great distances from the home water source to mate with the smaller female before returning to water.
Cottonmouths mate in the late spring or early summer. The female cottonmouth produces a litter of up to 16 young every 2- 3 years. These young snakes tend to be more colorful, with shades of brown, tan and copper, than the adult, which allows them to lie undetected in their native habitat. The juvenile snakes have a brightly-colored, yellowish tail to help attract prey. Adult cottonmouths are a dull brown or copper color with darker bands across their body, similar in coloration to their cousin the copperhead. Unlike the copperhead, the cottonmouth’s scales are keeled, meaning there is a pronounced ridge that runs through the center of each scale, giving the cottonmouth’s body a more rough appearance.
A member of the pit viper family, the cottonmouth snake uses a pit, a heat-sensing organ located between its eyes and nostrils, to detect prey. The cottonmouth is an opportunistic hunter and feeds on reptiles, amphibians, small rodents and other smaller snakes, even other cottonmouths, when available. When prey is located or if the cottonmouth is threatened, it coils and strikes with an open mouth, delivering a painful bite and injecting venom into the wound. The venom destroys the victim’s red blood cells and prevents the blood from clotting.
Not usually an aggressive snake, most cottonmouths bite when it is stepped on or harassed. A cottonmouth bite can be painful and requires medical attention, but rarely results in death.
The best way to prevent cottonmouth bites is to minimize contact with the snake. People who live in homes or structures near areas with shallow or slow moving water should reduce the availability of the cottonmouths’ food sources by keeping vegetation trimmed; maintaining landscaping and mulch beds; and storing firewood and debris away from the home or structure.