The Misunderstood Moccasin

by Shaun Kane


Photo courtesy of Virginia Wildlife Commission


Of all the snakes you'll find in the South, the water moccasin, or cottonmouth as he is also known, is probably the most popular species in rural legend.  I've been frequently hanging around in the marshes that surround Knotts Island and nearly everyone I come across has the need to remind me that I am in danger of being brutally attacked by one of these guys.  In my desire to learn how to defend myself from such a fearsome animal, I decided to look into subject some more.  I found out that they like to keep to themselves in the marshes and that we don't need to fear them as much as simply respect them.

     The Eastern Cottonmouth's scientific name is Agkistrodon Piscivorous.  The important part of this is the piscivorous part- it means fish eater.  These snakes live near the water for a reason.  They reach an average length of 3 feet around here but specimens of 4 feet can be found occasionally.  By the time they are this big they usually have lost the more familiar markings and take on a dark olive or black color over all their body.  You won't find any of the "monsters" that you hear about- those guys are in the deepest darkest unexplored swamps of the Deep South.  The best time to find them is at night when they are prowling around in search of game.  They can be seen on the water in the mornings and in the late afternoon to sundown as they transit the canals and pools to and from their favorite hunting spots. Chances are you won't see many during the times you're in the marsh on recreation.   They bear their young live and then the little ones scatter so don't worry about the "nests of snakes" that some say await you in our waters.  They just don't exist.

     The most popular image of the cottonmouth is that of a giant aggressive predator that will rush a man and attack him for no other reason than trying to kill him for fishing or hunting in the snake's territory.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  There is a good chance that these images are those of the aggressive water snakes that inhabit the marsh. 

<Go to the Water Snakes page here.>

     The fact is, less people are bitten each year by cottonmouths than by copperheads and rattle snakes.  The best demonstration of the true nature of the cottonmouth came to me one night while watching a National Geographic program.  In this program, Whit Gibbons, a professor from the University of Georgia, conducted an experiment where he located and tormented quite a number of cottonmouths.  In each instance, it took quite a bit of provocation before the snakes would actually bite.  You can read more about it if you Google Whit and words pertaining to his studies.

<Here is one of his articles.>

     If you read it and still don't find the company of cottonmouths very appealing, that's understandable.  They are, after all, venomous reptiles and you shouldn't go out of your way to get close to them.  If you find that you have a better understanding of their nature, then you'll have a more relaxing experience on the waters around Knotts Island when you come to visit.  The residents of the island could find this very interesting as well.  Here are a few facts pulled from quite a number of web sites and articles I have found on the subject.

  • Each year about 2000 people are bitten by venomous snakes.  Of those, only about 5 or 6 actually die.

  • Of all the bites reported,  98% occurred on the extremities when people tried to handle or kill the snake.  In many of these cases, intoxication was a factor.  (New England Journal of Medicine)  So, don't get drunk and play with cottonmouths.

  • Cottonmouths have a very complex venom that takes a lot of time and energy to produce.  Most of the snakes that bite, fail to release substantial amounts of venom.  This is known as a dry bite and its a result of the snake's efforts to conserve this precious hunting tool.

  • First Aid in the event of snake bites has changed quite a bit over the years.  No one recommends the use of tourniquets anymore.  The basic instructions seem to be to keep calm, keep the bite clean, keep the bitten area lower than the heart, and keep heading to the hospital at a safe but steady rate of speed.  Look this subject up for more details.

     I hope the next time someone invites you onto the sounds, bays, and canals around Knotts Island for some outdoor activity, you'll put your fears aside and go enjoy yourself.  I've come across the cottonmouths and each encounter was uneventful.  If you run across one, just give it some room, it'll swim or crawl away.  If you don't want to run across one, be noisy and keep your eyes open.  It'll get out of your way or you'll see it first and get out of its way.  No matter what, though, don't try to kill it.  It sounds like that's a good way to provoke one into a messy situation for both of you.


  • Gibbons, J. Whitfield; Dorcas, Michael E. (2004).  North American Watersnakes: A Natural History.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

  • Gilpin, Daniel (2007). Snakes: A Concise Guide to Nature's Perfect Predators. London: Parragon Inc.

  • Barry S. Gold, M.D., Richard C. Dart, M.D., Ph.D., and Robert A. Barish, M.D.  Bites of Venomous Snakes.  New England Journal of Medicine 2002; 347:347-356; August 1, 2002; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra013477

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