Identification: Cottonmouth snakes are a venomous snake species native to
south eastern United States. They’re a semi large bodied pit viper in the
Agkistrodon family. A fairly large snake overall with reports of some
specimens reaching near 6’ in length, but the majority of adults are in the 3
1/2 to 4’ range.
As adults they have a much darker banded type pattern then the brighter
autumn colors of the neonates and
juveniles. They are the only native
venomous snake species that are semi
aquatic, spending the majority of
their lives either in or around water.
With that, they have keeled scales
which are indicative to all water snakes
and a feature that separates them
from their cousin the copperhead.
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. Although, there are several species of non venomous snakes i.e. hognose, water snakes etc that imitate the cottonmouth snake both in physical appearance and behavior but correctly identifying one in the wild isn’t too difficult with a little foresight into what to look for:
- triangular head
- elliptical pupils
- large pit (Loreal pit) between the eye and nostrils
- striping along broad side of head
Natural Range: The natural range is mainly limited to the
south eastern Unites States with populations from the deep south of Florida
to up along the east coast of North and South Carolina to as far west as
Western Kentucky and Southern Missouri.
(Posted above is an excellent example of a non-venomous hognose snake on the right imitating a cottonmouth which is on the left)
Sub species: There are three sub species of cottonmouth snakes which are
specific to different regions of their natural range. They are as follows:
- Western Cottonmouth which gets its name from the region it occupies from north central Texas all the way up to Western Kentucky and Southern Missouri for the western region. The Western having the largest range of all three sub species also covers areas as far east as
Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. It’s also worth mentioning that westerns are the smallest of the sub species.
- Eastern Cottonmouth covers the smallest region of all three sub species mainly Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina but there is some overlap with the western sub species in Georgia as we as the Florida sub species in northern Florida.
- Florida Cottonmouth is the largest of the sub species having heard of a few reports of animals in the area of six feet or better in length. I’ve even heard there’s a video floating around of an extremely large cottonmouth eating a domestic cat that was run over on the side of the road. As far as range goes they pretty much cover Florida and the Southern tips of South Carolina and Georgia.
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 reffed to as water
moccasins in some rural areas.
Mating and offspring: Cottonmouths start their courting and mating
activities in early spring. The males will battle it out with the winner going
on to mate with the females. These battles typically end with the larger
dominant males pulverizing the younger males leaving them sulking in a pool
of misery and self pity.
After successfully mating and the female becomes gravid
(pregnancy in snakes) she’ll seek out warmth basking in the sun for the
remainder of the gestation period which is usually in the area of 80 to 90
days. After which, the mother will give birth to a live litter of 10-15 little
Like pretty much all reptiles at birth the neonates are fully equipped with the
tools necessary to begin the journey of life. These neonates have nice bright
colors consisting of yellows, oranges, along with a brightly colored almost
florescent yellow tail. These colors are
perfect camouflage necessary to blend
in around the edges of the swamp and
forest floor. They use their brightly
colored tails as bait to lure in
unsuspecting insects, frogs, snakes,
small mammals etc.
Just to dis-spell a common myth these
babies are just as venomous as adults and must be treated
with equal respect.