North America is the home for only one poisonous water snake, and that is the Agkistrodon piscivorus or what Southerners have long called the “cottonmouth moccasin.” Youngsters who live around the lakes and swamps in Florida and other areas of the deep South have long identified the water moccasin and the cottonmouth moccasin as two distinct snakes; the first one poisonous and the second one deadly poisonous. They are, in fact, the same snake.
The Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) is a venomous snake found in the southeastern United States. The species is North America’s only venomous aquatic snake, the only semi-aquatic pit viper species and is the largest snake of the genus Agkistrodon.
The species scientific name derives from the Greek words ancistro (hooked) and odon (tooth), and from the Latin piscis (fish) and voro (to eat), that translates basically into “hooked-tooth fish-eater”. The species common names include many variants like the water moccasin, black moccasin, swamp moccasin, gapper, or simply viper. These common names often refer to the snake’s characteristic threat display, where they will often stand their ground and exposing the white interior of the mouth and gape at the perceived threat.
Their common names like “cottonmouth” and “gapper” refer specifically to this unique behavior. Some other defensive moves also include flattening the body and emitting a very strong, pungent anal secretion.
Origin of name
The name “Cottonmouth” comes from the animal’s defensive behavior that it displays when it feels threatened. It coils up in a circle and opens its mouth nice and wide displaying an impressive set of retractable fangs as well as the classic cotton white mouth. Also, being that their native range is primary in the southern cotton growing region of the United States so the name cottonmouth was more fitting. They’re also referred to as water moccasins in some rural areas.
The 3 sub-species of cottonmouths are found in southeast Virginia, south through the Florida peninsula and west to Arkansas in eastern and southern Oklahoma, east and central Texas and west and south Georgia. Some populations of cottonmouths have also been observed on the offshore islands off both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
The adult cottonmouths often reach more than 31.5 inches in length, females are smaller than males. But occasionally, some specimens may reach 71 inches or more in length and weight 10 lbs., especially in the eastern parts of their range.
The cottonmouth has a broad triangular-shaped head much wider than its neck a typical look in vipers. Their coloration is highly variable and the patterns on adult cottonmouths often become somewhat obscured, resulting in an almost totally solid dark brown to blackish color. The snake’s underbelly is a paler shade and with yellow-brown blotches. Whereas the juvenile cottonmouths have a more brightly colored pattern with very distinctive markings. The body is a brown base color with red to brown bands with an hourglass shape, the tip of the tail is yellow and used to caudal luring.
Other keynote features of these snakes are their very broad and triangular shaped heads along with their elliptical pupils which differ from non-venomous water snakes that have an oval pupil.
The cottonmouth moccasin, a relative of the copperhead, is a pit viper. It is an easy-to-recognize snake with its triangular shaped head and elliptical “cat-eye” pupils. Its body is brown with olive and blackish markings. They have a lighter belly, but the stripes and markings go all the way across the belly. The top of its head is flat with a small number of larger scales. When its mouth opens you can see what appears to be a patch of white cotton in their throat, hence the name “cottonmouth.”
Their aggressiveness has been greatly exaggerated, they prefer to escape most of the time. But if it feels threatened, the cottonmouth engages in a very characteristic threat display into an S-shape with its head back and the mouth open to display the white interior often making a loud hiss and vibrate the tail.
Diet / Feeding
The cottonmouth is an ambush predator and the majority of its diet consists of fish and frogs, but also includes mammals, birds, other snakes, cicadas, caterpillars, land snails, small turtles and even small American alligators.
Venom / Bite
The cottonmouth has a powerful cytotoxic venom that destroys tissue and is considered more toxic than that of the Copperhead. The bite symptoms commonly include severe pain, swelling, ecchymosis, and even though deaths are rare, the cottonmouth bite could leave scars and on occasion lead to amputation.
Around 45,000 Americans suffer snake bites each year, according to FamilyPracticeNotebook.com. Around 8,000 bites are poisonous, resulting in an average of 12 deaths each year. If you have the misfortune to be bitten by a cottonmouth moccasin—or any snake for that matter—take it seriously. The cottonmouth moccasin’s venom is powerful and can kill you. If bitten, get to the nearest emergency medical facility as quickly as possible. Contrary to lore and legend, do not use a tourniquet and do not try to suck out the venom by mouth.
If you see any signs of snakes, call a professional pest control company sooner than later to handle it for you especially if it is a venomous one! To learn more, read our blog 6 Venomous Snakes in Georgia.
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