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Virginia Snakes – The Eastern Cottonmouth

There are three venomous snakes that can be found in Virginia, and I am starting off this series with my favorite one.  Some may dislike all snakes in general, but I appreciate them for their benefits to our ecosystem.  The Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus), in spite of its toxicity, is truly an amazing snake.

The Eastern Cottonmouth is the most aquatic species in the genus Agkistrodon (which includes Copperheads and Cantils).  They can usually be found around creeks, marshes, swamps, lakes or streams in the southeast portion of Virginia.  They are very good swimmers and have colonized some Atlantic and Gulf Coast barrier islands.  In these areas, they can usually be found basking on a log or a rock.  Though they are usually found around water, they have been found more than a mile away from water in pine and coastal forests.

The interior of a cottonmouth’s mouth is a shade of white.  This is how they got their name.  They will show their opened mouth as a warning to potential predators to stay away.  Adults average between 30 to 48 inches, but some have measured up to 74 inches long.  Their backs can be a mix or olive, black or brown and they have black crossbands that extend onto their belly.  Their belly is a light cream color.  Juvenile Eastern Cottonmouths (called neonates) have the same patterns, but are brighter in color.  Their banding is more distinct, and the tip of a neonate’s tail is yellow.

Cottonmouths are not as aggressive as their reputation may lead you to believe.  If they feel threatened, they will usually flee or coil up and open their mouths wide for you to see.  They will also begin to vibrate their tail quickly which produces a rattling sound against leaves and debris.  It may also release musk to help deter you.  This is a good time for you to leave these snakes alone as further aggravation could lead to a bite.  Remember, this body language is an attempt to scare you.

A cottonmouth bite can be quite dangerous and needs to be treated as quickly as possible with antivenom. The toxin will destroy body tissue and is very painful.  Luckily, its venom lacks neurotoxins which can be found in another native snake, the Timber Rattlesnake.  Neurotoxins will actually cause paralysis.

A cottonmouth will hunt in the water and on land.  Their usual diet consists of amphibians, fish, invertebrates, reptiles, and small mammals.  They will bite their prey and hold it in their mouth until their venom has accomplished its task.  Cottonmouths are definitely not at the top of the food chain.  They often fall prey to an assortment of predators which consist of snapping turtles, eagles, owls, shrikes and cranes.

The best thing to remember, when dealing with any wildlife, is to keep your distance.  Treat any snake as if it is venomous, and you will help yourself avoid any dangerous complications.  All wildlife must be treated with respect.  Something as small as a squirrel can inflict quite a bit of damage if threatened.

Published: 12/16/2009

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