ARE NOT AS BAD AS THEY SEEM
March 18, 2012
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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