Ah, yes: the cottonmouth — also commonly known as the water moccasin. This is the “big bad” everybody loves to fear. It’s the snake people confuse pretty much every watersnake with. It’s the snake that’s always painted as being aggressive, pissy, and downright evil.
Be afraid! Cottonmouth! MUST FEAR! MUST KILL! KILL, YES!
WABBIT SNAKE, KILL THE WABBIT SNAKE!
Well, you don’t really have to be all that frightened, Big Hominid. Contrary to popular opinion, about the last a cottonmouth wants to do is chase down and attack a lumbering human drunk with the power of his or her own boots. Well, that and see Titanic in 3D. Yeah, those are about the two things a cottonmouth wants to do the least. Attack you and see Titanic in 3D. It would much rather conserve its energy for hunting prey and making little baby cottonmouths than concern itself with the likes of you, Jack, Rose, and even that damn door Rose wouldn’t share with Jack. Even it it is in 3D.
Still, cottonmouths are venomous snakes and should always be treated with extreme caution. I don’t want to minimize that. These aren’t snakes you just giggle up to and pick up. They’re finely adapted animals that should be treated with utmost respect and caution. And one way to respect them is to at least understand what they are, what they do, and (just as importantly) what they don’t do.
Cottonmouths don’t deliberately chase people, though they can be stubborn in their course of direction. If a cottonmouth wants to get to water and you’re standing between the snake and the water, well… Get out of the way. The snake just wants to get to the water. Understand that.
Cottonmoutha don’t have venom just to attack people. It’s not designed for self defense. It exists to kill their prey. Cottonmouths would much rather preserve their cocktail venom for what it’s designed for: prey. They don’t want to waste it on a ridiculously dressed mammal.
Cottonmouths eat small reptiles, amphibians, the occasional bird, and small mammals. By “small mammals” I do not mean your daughter. I’m talking about rodents. You know, rodents. Those little bastions of disease you yourself probably spend a bit of time trying to get rid of? Rodents. If you don’t like rodents, then you should like cottonmouths. You’re natural allies. The cottonmouth wants to help you reduce the Legion of Rodents’ numbers. Help the cottonmouth help you and give them their space.
Cottonmouths aren’t “water snakes.” Yes, they’re usually found near water. That’s where their prey is. Makes sense, right? Animals come to water to drink; therefore, water is a good place to hang out, yo. If you see a snake in or near water (even if it’s “friggin’ huge”), that doesn’t mean it’s a cottonmouth. Turns out there are a good number of other species who also figure this out (check out any post on this blog with “Nerodia” in its title). Water = more food stuff.
Yes, you can also find cottonmouths well away from water. Think it through: if a water hole dries up, the cottonmouth is likely going to move on. Find better turf. Find better water. You’ll usually see them near water, but you can also see them well away from water. They’re not invisibly tethered to it, they just like it. They’re kind of like fifteen year old kids in that respect. If you want to go on a field trip to find a herd of wild fifteen year old kids, go to the local mall on a Friday night. That’s where they’re most comfortable, these herds of Homo sapiens bieberensis. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find these feral kids somewhere else like, say, a park — or maybe even a library. It may seem absurd, but kids are mobile and they turn up in the darnest of places! Cottonmouths can be like that too, occasionally.
Also: is darnest a word?
I’ve seen a decent number of cottonmouths at Grand Bay thus far. Most of them have been young adults or juveniles, but there have been some larger adults as well. The biggest one, unfortunately, was dead on a Grand Bay backroad. I found it freshly killed, run over by a vehicle, and still very soft. The only vehicle I saw that day (behind locked gates) was some kind of park services vehicle. So it goes. Score another one for ecological conservation.
The individual photographed here was a younger adult. Not a kid by any stretch of the imagination, but not a full-grown, robust cottonmouth either. It was basking just off the Grand Bay tower boardwalk trail, tucked atop a bed of aquatic grass.
I’d seen this particular individual a couple of times. It seemed to really like that little bed of grass. When I’d get too close, it would dip into the water, swim under the boardwalk, and head into the wetland. Later, it would return. Yeah, this snake had its routine down. Wash, rinse, repeat. Again and again.
So one day I brought my net.
Sure enough, as I approached the snake, it silently slipped into the water and began its trip under the boardwalk. I held out the net, leaned over the rail, gently scooped down, and pulled the snake up. An easy catch (though it would’ve been more comfortable if I’d had my snake stick with me). It was a bit tricky keeping the snake on the boardwalk long enough to get some photos –nothing too close, mind you– but it all worked out well enough. Anything closer would’ve truly been stupid, as I’m not trained to handle these snakes without my gear. Again: you must treat these snakes with all due diligence and caution. Don’t be a pinhead. Pinheads become statistics and then the snakes pay for it.
Now, how about the subspecies classification for these cottonmouths? (Ah, the theme for the semester…)
The world o’ books and range maps tend to imply that Valdosta and area are the territory of the Eastern cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus. Down south is the domain of the Florida cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti. The Florida cottonmouths are noted to range up the extreme southeast corner of Georgia (near the coast). The rest of south Georgia is intergrade territory — where the line between the Eastern and Florida subspecies is somewhat muted and dull. In other words: sort of a mix of both, say thankee sai.
I have seen some literature and research that states the Florida cottonmouth is dominant in this area. The individuals I’ve seen at Grand Bay certainly look, feel, and act like Florida cottonmouths to me — but then again, I don’t have any direct experience with positively identified NOT-Florida cottonmouths and I’m not sure subjective “looks, feels, and acts” evaluations are the best determiners when you’re dealing with two subspecies that look, feel, and act so much like one another. The two subspecies are very, very similar from what I know. But what do I know?
So, yet again I’m in a pickle on Dust Tracks. Should I identify this as the Florida cottonmouth? Or the Eastern cottonmouth? ANSWER: Both.
Yes, one way or the other, I’m pretty sure these are intergrades of the two. If I had to guess, I’d say that the Florida cottonmouth probably has more sway in these populations, but I’m also fairly sure these have got to be intergrades based on their locality. I’m seeking out some help from some locals who may know. I’ll update if and when more info comes to light!
In the meantime, let’s all dial down the fear and crank up the cautious respect. These are magnificent organisms beautifully adapted to carve out a living in this often harsh and difficult world. They’re just trying to scratch out a living, just like us. Only with less James Cameron in their lives.
NOTE: I’ll be off for a day or two. I’ve got some work-stuff I’ve got to get through. Then? More snakes, by god! More snakes!