Florida Cottonmouth Snake


09.22.2004 - Here's a Cottonmouth Snake (Agkistrodon piscivorus) that I caught in Orlando Florida.  The Cottonmouth gets its name from the color of the inside of its mouth, which is white, and which the snake often displays, with a wide open gaping, if threatened.  It does not have rattles to warn of its venomous bite.  It is a member of the pit-viper family, which mostly consists of rattlesnakes.  The Cottonmouth is a rare exception, and it's also unique because it is an aquatic snake.  It seems to prefer swampy areas the most, but also lives in and around most bodies of water.  This snake is not terribly common in the Orlando area, but it's also not terribly rare either, and people walking the water's edge or near swamps should be wary of them, as they tend to coil up and bask lazily.  I almost stepped on one once.  It's a very fat snake, and very buoyant in the water, where it swims with most of the body protruding above the surface and its head held at a 45 degree angle.  It eats mostly fish and frogs, gives birth to live young, and grows to a maximum of six feet, though it's rare to find one above five feet.

This snake has a very serious bite.  It's one of the few snakes that can actually deliver a fatal dose of venom to an adult person.  It's far more serious than the Copperhead, which is a northern aquatic viper.  The larger the snake, the greater the quantity of venom, and a large adult can administer up to 4 ml.  As with all pit vipers, it injects a cytotoxic (tissue dissolving) venom.  I used to think that these snakes delivered hemotoxic (blood cell dissolving) venom, but I read that it's cytotoxic.

The Cottonmouth in the above photo is about to shed, which is why the skin is somewhat cloudy and the eye looks blue.  The skin over the eye is cloudy as well.  But that doesn't mean that this snake can't find and strike me or any other warm-blooded animal - the pits near the nostrils allow this snake to detect heat, and strike at that.

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This snake has multiple names, including the Moccasin, Water Moccasin, or simply the Cottonmouth. This snake is medium-bodied, so it is the typical size of the imagined snake. The body colors range from olive greens, dark browns, and jet blacks. The most recognizable factor of the snake is that it has a ‘bandit's mask' typically, a dark line that runs through the eye, and bordered above and below by white. One of the most useful things to note about the Cottonmouth is the distinctive shapes of its face (if you can see it clearly, but don't go too close!). The Cottonmouth's head is spade-shaped and is a considerable difference in size from its neck. As well as this, it's classified as a pit viper, with the pits in its cheeks designed to be sensitive to infrared.

The reason we say not to get too close is that it's poisonous. It's a water snake, as it swims exceptionally well, and can be found around damper areas. The reason we mention that it can swim is that it is often mistaken for other water snakes which are non-poisonous. This makes it important to know the different distinctions between the snakes. First, non-venomous water snakes are less buoyant than the Cottonmouth. When the Cottonmouth feels threatened too, it will open its mouth wide, revealing it's white interior. The Cottonmouth also vibrates its tail when threatened, despite not having a rattle.

Because of their choice of habitat, the Cottonmouth eats a wide variety of different animals. They feed primarily on aquatic species, eating fish, amphibians, birds, eggs, rodents, other snakes, small turtles, and even baby alligators! They typically do not eat animals smaller than them, but if they feel harassed by something, they'll give their signature warnings. Only after that, if they still feel threatened, they can attempt to attack the threat. For this reason, it's uncommon to be attacked by a Cottonmouth, but it's always useful to be aware of their warnings and take heed of them.


These snakes live in damper areas because of their skill of swimming with surprising buoyancy. Because of this, they eat a lot of aquatic life and swim as well as they slither on land. If you live in areas of wetland, be careful of bushes if they are close to pond or lake areas. This is a potential area for snakes as well as on the direct shore of the body of water.

Biology and Behavior

The typical color of this snake is camouflage, between deep and olive greens, patches of brown, and jet-black colors. The strong spade-shape of the head makes it distinguishable, with the ‘bandit's' mask and strong eye coloring described before. The head, unlike other snake species, is bigger than the size of its neck, and its chin is a cream color. It grows to an average of 30 inches, with a maximum of 72 inches (but this is rare, due to being prey to other species).

The snake usually goes for anything smaller than it, but if it feels afraid, it won't hesitate to let the threat know, by opening its mouth wide, showing it's ‘cotton-mouth' white interior, and shaking its tail. More Information

The Cottonmouth species are important food sources for larger snakes like king snakes, the blue herons, and some largemouth bass. Misidentification of other snakes is the main reason for their deaths, but it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to trying to kill a venomous snake!

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