by Whit Gibbons

March 18, 2012

The snakes are back. Happens every spring. But whereas people like to hear that songbirds and sea turtles are once again on the scene and doing well from a conservation standpoint, not everyone welcomes the return of the snakes. Instead, people start telling harrowing tales about snakes, especially water moccasins, aka cottonmouths. This happens even in areas where cottonmouths do not live. Water moccasins purportedly fall out of trees into boats, crawl into boats, and are shot from boats. The tallest tale of all is the one in which they chase someone through a swamp.

Even a true story about an encounter with a water moccasin is likely to have one serious flaw: the snake usually wasn't a cottonmouth. Most often the snake was a harmless watersnake. Watersnakes may look mean and have diamond shaped heads, but they are nonvenomous creatures that cause people no harm.

Of the dozen or so species of U.S. watersnakes, at least one kind is found in 38 of the 50 states. Florida and Alabama have the most different kinds. Many watersnakes look like venomous cottonmouths. These harmless watersnakes, the impersonators, die by the hundreds each year because people think they are killing a venomous snake when they are not.

Considering the advent of more enlightened attitudes about our native wildlife, I think a bit of environmental education about watersnakes is in order. In the case of cottonmouth versus watersnake, people will benefit from knowing they have nothing to fear from a watersnake the snakes, of course, will also benefit. For that matter, you need not fear cottonmouths; if you keep your distance, they will not attack you. Your greatest danger is fear itself.

Banded watersnakes can inhabit almost any freshwater habitat in the eastern United States. They vary in subtle ways across regions, but usually they have reddish to brown crossbands across a brown, gray, or tan body. Banded watersnakes are often confused with venomous species. Countless of these harmless snakes have been killed by people who then boast of having rid the world of a copperhead or a cottonmouth even in regions of the country where the venomous species do not occur.

Calling a watersnake harmless needs qualification. Pick up any big watersnake 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 watersnake without first harassing the snake in some way. Stories of someone being bitten by a nonvenomous snake without having picked it up are highly suspect.

A pair of southern species, the brown watersnake to the east and the diamondback watersnake (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 watersnakes eat mostly catfish. The snake wraps its tail around a limb, dangling like a vine, and puts its head and body under water. Eventually it will come to the surface with a catfish in its mouth. Amazingly, these snakes can maneuver their mouths around huge, venomous catfish spines and swallow the fish whole.

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