Cottonmouth devouring a northern water snake

Cotton mouth water moccasin

by Dale Grubaugh

Cottonmouth water moccasins are very aggressive.

They are extremely territorial — particularly so if they have young.

If you invade their territory when they have young, you will be attacked. But for the most part, cottonmouths are very reclusive.

Cottonmouths are the only water snake that will float on top of the water. That is one of their identifying marks as is their dark chocolate pattern. They get their name because the inside of their mouth looks like white, sticky cotton.

Cottonmouth water moccasins like to live in brush piles near secluded areas of lakes and rivers. They like it back off in the loneliest of coves.

Cottonmouths do not live in the water but their spend a lot of time in the water — and they have been known to attack boats.

If you get in the region of a mama who has young, she can attack boats. She's mean and nasty. I have had them get in the boat with me at night. At that point, you get out of the boat, you get the snake out of the boat, or you kill the snake.

That was on Table Rock Lake.

You could take the light and shine it and see little red eyes all around. Her babies were coming too. It was creepy. I don't go up in the little coves anymore.

They are the most aggressive, venomous snake that we have in the Ozarks.

A copperhead will try to sneak up and bite you during the right time of year but for the most part, they will flee.

But a mama water moccasin will hunt you down.

From Vance Randolph:

Poisonous snakes, when in the water, are said to lie on the surface with the entire body afloat, while nonpoisonous serpents swim with only the head exposed; many hillmen really believe that this is a reliable way to distinguish between the venomous cottonmouth moccasin and several species of harmless water snakes. Some noodlers or rock fishermen, accustomed to catch a big fish with their bare hands, say that moccasins never bite a man under water. Others believe that the snakes may bite, but are unable to inject poison into the wound while their heads are submerged.

Many persons believe that female snakes, particularly water moccasins, swallow their young at the approach of danger. One of my neighbors says that he suddenly came upon a large “bitch cottonmouth” with a number of young snakes playing about her; the moment the old moccasin saw him she opened her mouth wide, and the little ones instantly ran down her throat. A few moments later he killed the big snake, cut her open, and found fourteen little moccasins inside.

— page 255, Ozark Superstitions by Vance Randolph, Columbia University Press 1947

Plate 1. Above and below, a cottonmouth water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma) approximately 312 feet in length, swallows a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) following a flood on the War Eagle River. Both snakes were photographed in the mill wheel bed of War Eagle Mill on September 3, 2008, by Tammie Evans of Rogers, Arkansas.

Cottonmouth devouring a northern water snake

Plate 2.

Cottonmouth devouring a northern water snake

Plate 3.

Cottonmouth devouring a northern water snake

Plate 4.

Cottonmouth devouring a northern water snake

Plate 4.

This snake species, alongside the rattlesnake and copperhead, is one of the most well-known venomous animals of the Ozark hills. Although snakes in general have a bad rap, it has also become popular to portray the cottonmouth as benign, thus downplaying its danger.

Longtime residents of these hills tell a different story (see story by Dale Grubaugh at left). The Agistrodon piscivorus is defined as a semi-aquatic viper.

— Joshua Heston, editor

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