by Whit Gibbons

May 6, 2002

Sea turtles and most birds have a nice time of it from a conservation standpoint because everyone likes to know they are doing well environmentally. Snakes face a different situation. At this time of year people start telling tales about the hazards of snakes, especially water moccasins, aka cottonmouths, even in regions of the country where cottonmouths do not live. In some stories they fall out of trees into boats; sometimes they crawl into boats; and often they get shot from boats, along riverbanks or around lakes. And the wildest yarn of all is that they actually have chased someone.

In tales about water moccasins one of the most intriguing aspects is that the snakes being referred to are most often harmless water snakes. They may look mean and have diamond shaped heads, but they are non venomous creatures that cause no harm.

Of the more than one dozen different species of U.S. water snakes, at least one kind is found in 38 of the 50 states. Florida and Alabama have the most different kinds. Many water snakes look like venomous cottonmouths. As a result, the harmless water snakes, the impersonators, die by the hundreds each year because people, perhaps with good intentions, think they are killing a dangerous snake when they are not.

Considering the advent of more enlightened attitudes about our native wildlife, environmental education about water snakes would seem to be in order. In the case of cottonmouth versus water snake, people will benefit from knowing they have nothing to fear from a water snake the snakes, of course, will also benefit. For that matter, you have no need to fear cottonmouths; if you keep your distance, they will not attack you. With a water snake, your greatest danger is fear itself.

One group is the banded water snakes, which can inhabit almost any body of freshwater in the eastern United States. They vary in subtle ways across regions, but are generally similar in appearance: usually reddish to brown crossbands across a brown, gray, or tan body. Because of their color pattern, banded water snakes are often confused with venomous species. Countless banded water snakes have been killed, with someone returning as a hero, having supposedly rid the world of a copperhead or cottonmouth even in regions where the venomous species do not occur.

Calling a water snake harmless needs qualification. Pick up any big water snake improperly, and you'll get snakebit for sure, and probably bleed. But the rows of tiny teeth really do little more than scratch. And I doubt anyone has ever been bitten by a water snake, or any other non venomous species, without first picking up or otherwise harassing the snake. Stories of someone being bitten by a non venomous snake without picking it up are highly suspect.

A pair of southern species, the brown water snake to the east and the diamond back water snake (not the rattler) to the west, are common along big rivers and reservoirs. Both are ugly customers if picked up, biting at one end and spraying a foul smelling musk from the other. Unpleasant, yes; venomous, no. Brown water snakes eat mostly catfish. A snake will hang underwater with its tail wrapped around a limb, dangling like a vine. Eventually it will come to the surface with a catfish in its mouth. Amazingly, these snakes maneuver their mouths around huge, venomous catfish spines and swallow the fish whole.

Water snakes can be enormous. In some species, females get twice the size of males. A pregnant brown water snake can be more than five feet long and as big around as a softball. Water snakes do not lay eggs; the babies are liveborn in the early fall. Once born, the young are on their own in protecting themselves and obtaining food, which for brown water snakes means catching catfish.

Next time you see a snake near the water, take time to observe it. If you live in a southern state, it may indeed be a cottonmouth, but chances are it will be a harmless water snake. In either case, if you don't bother it, it won't bother you. And it is as important a part of our natural environment as a Carolina wren or a loggerhead sea turtle.

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