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What is a Moccasin Snake?

By Lumara Lee
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The moccasin snake is a pit viper in the same general family as the rattlesnake and the copperhead. A water moccasin is the only poisonous water snake in North America, and one of the most deadly. It is usually found near streams and ponds, and is considered semi-aquatic. The scientific name for the moccasin snake is agkistrodon piscivorus.

Moccasin snakes display the same dark coloration of other water snakes but have the vertical pupils typical of pit vipers, while nonvenomous water snakes have pupils that are round. Water moccasins have very broad bodies compared to other snakes, and the adults attain a length of anywhere from four to six feet (122 to 183 cm). A moccasin snake has a triangular head which it commonly holds at a 45-degree angle. Adult snakes often have a diamond or banded pattern in tan or greenish colors, and their coloration is drab compared to the young moccasins. A distinct pit can be seen between the eyes and nostrils of the snake.

The female moccasin snake is mature enough to bear young when she is about three years old. She does not lay eggs like nonpoisonous snakes do, and instead gives birth to anywhere from one to sixteen live snakelets that are between 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) long. The female will then bear young about every other year. Young moccasin snakes have brighter coloration than the adults, and resemble copperheads with yellowish or lime-green tails.

Moccasin snakes have a varied diet and will eat birds, lizards, mammals, alligators, and turtles. They also eat fish, frogs, and other snakes. The moccasin snake can be seen lying on rocks, logs, and tree limbs that hang over waterways, waiting silently for prey to appear. They also inhabit ditches, swamps, canals, and creeks. Moccasin snakes don’t announce that they are about to strike, unlike their cousin, the rattler.

Another name for the moccasin snake is cottonmouth because when the snake is startled or threatened, it raises its head and opens its mouth, displaying a snowy white interior. It is one of the most aggressive snakes, and instead of leaving a threatening situation will often head towards the person or animal and attack. The moccasin snake has curved, hollow fangs that swing forward and become filled with venom when the snake opens its mouth to strike. Unlike other snakes which strike and withdraw, the moccasin snake will latch onto its prey. If left untreated, its bite can be fatal.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a moccasin snake, and where can it be found?

A moccasin snake, commonly known as the water moccasin or cottonmouth, is a venomous snake found in the southeastern United States. It inhabits freshwater environments like swamps, marshes, and the edges of ponds and lakes. This semi-aquatic viper is known for its defensive behavior and potent venom.

How can you identify a water moccasin snake?

Water moccasins have a distinctive blocky head with a pronounced pit between the eye and nostril, a thick body, and a tail that tapers quickly to a point. They often display a dark, olive, or brownish coloration with crossbands. Juveniles have a brighter pattern with a yellow tail tip used to lure prey.

Is the moccasin snake aggressive towards humans?

While often perceived as aggressive, water moccasins typically avoid confrontation with humans. They may display a threat by opening their mouth to show the white interior, earning them the name "cottonmouth." Bites are rare and usually occur when the snake is provoked or accidentally stepped on.

What should you do if you encounter a moccasin snake in the wild?

If you encounter a moccasin snake, it's crucial to remain calm and slowly back away without making sudden movements. Give the snake plenty of space to retreat. Never attempt to handle or harass the snake, as this increases the risk of a bite. Alert others to its presence and avoid the area.

How venomous is the water moccasin, and what are the symptoms of its bite?

The water moccasin's venom is hemotoxic, destroying blood cells and causing tissue damage. Symptoms of a bite can include severe pain, swelling, bruising, and blistering at the bite site. Systemic effects may include nausea, difficulty breathing, and a drop in blood pressure. Immediate medical attention is crucial for any venomous snakebite.

What conservation status does the moccasin snake hold, and are they at risk?

The water moccasin is not currently listed as endangered or threatened. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it has a stable population and is classified as Least Concern. However, habitat destruction and pollution can impact local populations, so conservation efforts remain important for their continued stability.

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Discussion Comments

By Pippinwhite — On May 06, 2014
@Grivusangel -- In general, cottonmouths are not aggressive, unless you're standing between the snake and where it wants to go, which is usually in the water.

My town is on a river, and the golf course is on the backwater. Golfers talk about seeing snakes all the time. They see cottonmouths frequently. I've yet to hear of someone being bitten.

As a rule, if you leave a cottonmouth alone, it will leave you alone. Watch where you walk and don't be really stupid and try to pick up any snake in the wild. That's just ignorant.

By Grivusangel — On May 05, 2014
The primary people threatened by a cottonmouth are fishermen. A water moccasin is apt to hop into a boat with a fisherman, if the catch has been good! It can smell the fish.

The open mouth display is the "I'll bite" signal. And not all rattlesnakes rattle before they strike. Some will just nail you.

The best way to avoid cottonmouths is to avoid where they like to live. Deep, still, quiet streams of water are favorite dens. Mostly, wear heavy boots if you're in that kind of area, and watch where you step.

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