Courtesy photo Water moccasins, also called cottonmouths, are the world's only semi aquatic viper. These snakes are very strong swimmers and are generally found in slow moving water such as lakes, streams, swamps and marshes.
published: Sunday, August 26, 2012
Water moccasins have a bad bite, worse reputation
Upon their arrival, early settlers learned much from the natives that resided in Florida. Explorers traveled through rivers, swamps and streams and would often come upon wildlife that they knew nothing about. The Native Americans knew the land and often assisted the visitors on their quest.
One of the creatures the natives warned the settlers about was the water moccasin. It is said that the natives gave the water moccasin its original name because of its silent movement through the water and its "moccasin-colored" skin. To assist the newcomers, legend has it that they began to call these snakes' cottonmouths for easier identification because of the white cotton-like substance the creature exhibits when it is threatened.
The scientific name for the snake is Agkistrodon piscivorus and is broken down from the Greek words ancistro meaning hooked, odon meaning tooth, piscis meaning fish and voro means to eat. Therefore, the actual meaning of its name is hooked tooth fish eater, which is an accurate description of the creature.
The "hooked teeth" are actually the venom injecting fangs that are somewhat curved. As far as diet, the snake is an opportunistic feeder and will munch on fish, frogs and most any warm or cold blooded creature it can catch.
Water moccasins are the world's only semiaquatic viper. These snakes are very strong swimmers and are generally found in slow-moving water such as lakes, streams, swamps and marshes. However, they can and do enter the sea and have been known to colonize on islands off the coasts.
Often confused with brown water snakes, the moccasin has a triangular shaped broad head which is quite distinct from the neck. It has a blunt snout and elliptical "cat-eye" pupils and a dark facial line which extends through the eye.
Colors range from dark brown, grey and black. They are marked with dark cross bands that extend down the back. The bands will usually fade with age and the juveniles are much brighter in color and have a bright yellow tail. The underside of the creature is lighter, generally yellowish white.
The moccasin has a distinctive "cotton" textured covering on the inside of its mouth. When startled or threatened it will open its jaws exposing the "cotton mouth." These heavily bodied creatures grow to be 2 1/2 to 5 feet long.
Another way to tell the difference from the non-venomous water snakes and the cottonmouth is by their defense mechanisms. Moccasins will vibrate their tails against leaves, water or other objects when provoked or frightened, imitating the sound of the rattlesnake. Most water snakes will slither away and flee an area when approached. The moccasin will sometimes stand its ground and give warnings such as hissing, tail rattling, opening its mouth, flattening its body, emitting a "musky smell," and remaining in position until the threat is gone.
However, even though these snakes have a reputation as being nasty and bad-tempered, their aggressiveness has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, during laboratory testing, wild specimens were approached by humans and 23 of 45, or 51 percent, tried to escape; 28 of 36 or 78 percent, opted to use defensive tactics. Only when the snakes were picked up by a mechanical hand, did they choose to bite.
Mating rituals for these creatures take place in the spring. The male will fight other males for the right to mate with a female. The young are born live. The female gives birth to at least 16, which are born with venom intact. These tiny serpents are designed to take care of themselves the moment they arrive in the wild.
Water moccasins are active day and night. Like all reptiles, they are cold-blooded and like to warm up on sunny days. They can be seen coiled up or stretched out on land during hot summer days. Otherwise, they are usually swimming or crawling in or near the water.
Although their reputation is based on mostly myth, water moccasins do have a very serious bite. Their venom is more toxic than most snakes and will destroy tissue and blood cells. The venom is hemotoxic and it works by preventing the body's blood supply from coagulating, which may cause severe blood loss in the victim.
The bite is extremely painful and medical treatment is required as soon as possible. Antivenoms are available at most hospitals and death from snakebites in this day and age is very rare.
Most bites from venomous snakes turn out to be "dry bites," which is when the snake bites but doesn't inject any venom. Snakes don't want to waste their venom, which they rely on for capturing prey. However, all snake bites should be taken seriously and medical attention should be sought.
According to research from the University of Florida, "The chances of dying from a venomous snakebite in the United States is nearly zero, because we have available, high-quality medical care in the U.S. Fewer than one in 37,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year (7-8,000 bites per year), and only one in 50 million people will die from snakebite (5-6 fatalities per year). Did you know that you are nine times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite?"
Corine Burgess is and Environmental Specialist for the Highlands County Parks and Natural Resources Department.
snakes (by: ty - 10/17/2012)
misidentified snake (by: Jack Ewel - 8/27/2012)
The photo accompanying the article on water moccasins (cottonmouth moccasins) shows a brown watersnake, a non-poisonous species.
Incorrect photo (by: knowbetter - 8/27/2012)
That is not a water moccassin in the photo but a nonvenomous brown water snake.
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