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.
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
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.
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,
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
<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
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.
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