Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Cottonmouth

From December 27th, 2015, to January 4th, 2016, I took a solo road trip to South Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. I traveled 2060 miles total, and saw a great deal of amazing things. I'm slowly moving through photos, but I've decided to make my first post about one of the most exciting lifers I had over the trip: the Cottonmouth. The Cottonmouth, also commonly known as the Water Moccasin, is a much-maligned snake species. There's many myths and just plain misinformation surrounding this interesting species, and this post will hopefully bring some truth to the matter.

Cottonmouth threat display
On December 29th, I traveled from my campsite in Francis Marion National Forest to the nearby Hampton Plantation State Park, one of the many state parks in South Carolina. As you might have guessed from the name, Hampton Plantation SP is an old plantation. As with many old plantations in South Carolina, the Hampton Plantation specialized in rice. Rice is grown in shallow ponds, and so a series of such ponds were dug out by slaves here at the Hampton Plantation in the first half of the 1800's. Water from the nearby Hampton Creek was used to flood the ponds, and a series of levees throughout the flooded fields were used to control water levels. Rice is no longer grown at the Hampton Plantation, and these flooded fields have reverted to a swamp along the Hampton Creek. And with that reversion, various organisms that live in swamps have returned. One of these organisms is the venomous Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus, pictured above.

The range of the Cottonmouth.
The Cottonmouth is a snake of the southern Atlantic coastal plain and the lower Mississippi River basin. Now, one of the biggest snake-related myths that I hear throughout Ohio is that the Cottonmouth (AKA Water Moccasin) can be found in Ohio. This is completely untrue. The Cottonmouth can be found nowhere in Ohio. Regardless of what anyone might say, the Cottonmouth's range just doesn't extend into Ohio. There has been 1 record of a Cottonmouth in Ohio, but the story isn't what it seems at first glance. A Cottonmouth was once found on a shipping boat on the Ohio River while within the state borders. This ship had just come from southern Illinois where the Cottonmouth can be found, and one individual had stowed away on the ship to rest and was unknowingly transported to Ohio. However, since the snake naturally climbed onto the ship, the record technically counts.

Water Moccasin South Carolina
The Cottonmouth, as you might know, is a venomous snake. This brings me to a slight tangent: the snake is venomous, not poisonous. There is a difference between the two. If a creature injects a dangerous substance into you, then that creature is venomous. If a creature is poisonous, however, that means that a dangerous substance on or within a creature must be ingested for it to take effect. An easier way to put it is "If it bites you and you die, it is venomous; if you bite it and you die, it is poisonous." For example, a Cottonmouth is venomous while a Monarch is poisonous. Although highly uncommon, it is possible for an organism to be both venomous and poisonous at the same time though; for example, the Asian Tiger Snake, Rhabdophis tigrinus, is both at the same time (it has fangs which can inject a venom, but also secretes a poison it obtains from eating certain poisonous toads).

Anyway, the Cottonmouth is indeed dangerous, however they don't pose a threat to a cautious human aware of their surroundings. Although they are supposed to be highly aggressive (which is a myth), Cottonmouths, like all venomous snakes (and snakes in general), prefer to not attack anything they deem a threat. There's a few reasons for this. When a snake goes to bite you, it risks breaking a fang/tooth, which can lead to a much harder time obtaining food. Also, by biting any sort of animal, a snake opens itself up to being attack, and possibly killed, out of defense. When the ultimate goal of life is passing on your genetics as much as possible, dying is obviously something to avoid. In addition, when it comes to venomous snakes, venom is expensive to produce energy-wise. They use this venom to hunt, and therefore they want to conserve venom (and therefore energy) and use it only when needed. Needlessly wasting venom when it could just slither away is a silly choice for a snake to make.

Cottonmouth display

So, when would a snake bite then? Generally speaking, a snake will bite when it feels that its life is in immediate danger from you, and that the only way to escape this danger is to try and fight the threat off. It is important to note that the biting threshold varies not only from species to species, but also from individual to individual. Regardless, picking a snake up, poking it, stepping on it, attempting to move it, and other such actions usually push the snake past that threshold, and a snake will be very apt to bite from then on out. When it comes to the Cottonmouth, one study found that they would essentially only bite if they were picked up with a mechanical hand. If you give a snake space, and let it have obvious means of escape, then it will simply leave you alone. This includes Cottonmouths.

Cottonmouths also have another line of defense. The name "Cottonmouth" stems from their threat display; when confronted by a potential threat, they open their mouth to reveal a startling-white inner-covering. This white stands out in stark contrast to the browns and greens of the vegetation which you might see them among. It's meant to not only catch your attention, but to also suggest that it's a dangerous creature and not one to mess with. Essentially, the potential threat (in this case me) is supposed to think that this snake wouldn't obviously expose itself unless it had a good way to protect itself. It's the same principle as the brightly-colored Monarch, a poisonous butterfly.

Water Moccasin basking
I was a few feet away from him taking photos as he did his threat display. Eventually he realized that I didn't pose an immediate threat, and he slowly closed his mouth while still eyeing me closely.

Water Mocassin swimming
He then decided to explosively leave the scene and slither into the nearby water. The Cottonmouth, a semi-aquatic snake, is at home in nearly all types of freshwater habitats throughout much of the Southeast. They can be found most commonly in heavily-vegetated marshes, Bald Cypress Swamps, and river floodplains. The old rice fields where this individual was found, for example, lie in the South Santee River floodplain, close to the river itself. The Cottonmouth isn't completely aquatic, however, and can sometimes be found far from water in places like fields and other random places. They are an adept swimmer and prey mostly on fish and amphibians, but will also feed on birds, mammals, small turtles, and even small Alligators!

Northern Watersnake
A harmless Northern Watersnake, NOT a Cottonmouth!
Photo by Alayna Tokash.
As I mentioned earlier, there are no Cottonmouths in Ohio. And yet every year people swear up and down that they saw one somewhere in Ohio. So what are they talking about? The vast majority of the time, what they actually saw was a Northern Watersnake, Nerodia sipedon, pictured above. These harmless snakes are very common in Ohio, and they are superficially similar to the Cottonmouth in both appearance and behavior. As their name suggests, the Northern Watersnake is also semi-aquatic, but when people see a snake in the water they always seem to jump to the Cottonmouth. There are a few differences between the two species: Cottonmouths are much more bulky, have a triangular head, have heat-sensing pits near their eyes, and have vertical pupils in the shape of slits. On the other hand, Northern Watersnakes are slender, have a round head that isn't overly distinct from their body, have no pits, and have round pupils. Of course, telling the difference between the two isn't a problem in Ohio as we only have the Northern Watersnake. There are other Nerodia sp. water snakes down in the range of the Cottonmouth, but the general differences listed above hold true. And as with any animal, if you do not know for certain what an animal is, give it plenty of space and leave it alone. It is safer to wrongly assume something is very dangerous than to assume something very dangerous is harmless!

The Cottonmouth was a very exciting snake to see, and I'm incredibly happy I ran across one while on my trip. Although many people hate the Cottonmouth, they really pose no threat to the person who's aware of their surroundings and who gives these snakes their space. That's it for this post! Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately every year many non-venomous and harmless snakes like the northern water snake are killed out of fear and confusion with other venomous snakes.