When threatened, cottonmouths open wide, displaying your gaping white mouths to potential predators.

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A west cottonmouth line coiled up and also displaying that white mouth.(Image credit: Rex Lisman via Getty Images)
Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus), additionally called water moccasins, are venomous snakes found in the southeastern unified States. They"re called cottonmouths because of the white coloration ~ above the within of your mouths, i m sorry they screen when threatened.

Cottonmouths space semiaquatic, so they"re comfortable both swimming in water (hence their other usual name of water moccasin) and also basking top top land. They are the just venomous snake in the U.S. That spends a most time in the water, Live Science previously reported. Other local names for cottonmouths encompass black moccasins, gapers, mangrove rattlers, snap jaws, stub-tail snakes, swamp lions, catch jaws, water mambas and also water pilots.

Cottonmouths room pit vipers, as are copperheads and rattlesnakes, follow to Sara Viernum, a herpetologist based in Portland, Oregon. "Like every pit vipers, have heat-sensing face pits in between their eyes and nostrils," Viernum said. These devoted pits room able come detect minute differences in temperature so the the snake can accurately to win the source of heat, i m sorry is regularly potential prey. Cottonmouths rarely bite humans, and usually only do so as soon as provoked.

How to identify a water moccasin

Cottonmouths are relatively large, varying from 2 come 4 feet long (61 come 122 centimeters), follow to the Savannah river Ecology Laboratory. They have thick, muscular bodies extended in keeled, or ridged, scales and also blocky top with huge jowls. Your pupils are vertical, similar to cat pupils, and they have actually dark stripes alongside each nostril. Your coloration different from dark brown or black to olive, banded brown or yellow.

Cottonmouths room often puzzled with nonvenomous water snake varieties from the genus Nerodia. Cottonmouths and Nerodia species have comparable coloring and patterns and are all usually discovered near water. Even though water snakes are nonvenomous, they can still bite and are frequently killed by humans out of fear that they are cottonmouths.

There space a few ways you deserve to tell a nonvenomous water snake from a awful water moccasin, or cottonmouth, follow to the university of Florida. Water snakes room slender contrasted with cottonmouths, which are thicker and also heavier. Water snakes likewise have longer, thinner tails, and their heads are a comparable width to your necks, conversely, a cottonmouth"s head is thick, blocky and noticeably wider than the snake"s neck. Water line pupils space round, not vertical and also cat-like prefer the pupils of cottonmouths. Water snakes also lack the facial pits that space characteristic of pit vipers, such together cottonmouths.

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Reptilia

Order: Squamata

Family: Viperidae

Genus & species: Agkistrodon piscivorus

Source: ITIS

When threatened, nonvenomous water snakes, such as northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) and southern water snakes (Nerodia fasciata), often try to appear bigger than they are by flattening your bodies and heads. This flattening renders them look an ext like cottonmouths. A water snake"s planarization head will certainly look an ext triangular in shape, but not blocky and also thick, choose a cottonmouth"s head. A water snake"s head will likewise still it is in a similar width come the neck, also when flattened. The university of Florida stated that trying to kill a snake substantially increases the risk of being bitten by one.

Juvenile cottonmouths have much more distinctive bands across their bodies and also are lighter brown compared with adult cottonmouths. Juveniles also have bright-yellow tail tips that they use as tempt to tempt prey. "They undulate the tail reminder slowly earlier and soon to lure prey, such as frogs, in ~ striking distance," Viernum said. The striking patterns current on the juveniles fades with age.

Young cottonmouth snakes have striking trends that fade through age. (Image credit: kristianbell via Getty Images)

Where execute cottonmouths live?

Cottonmouths are native to the U.S. And range from southeastern Virginia come Florida, west to main Texas and also north to southerly Illinois and Indiana, follow to the IUCN. They mostly live in aquatic and wetland habitats, consisting of swamps, marshes, drainage ditches, ponds, lakes and streams.

The Savannah river Ecology Laboratory noted that cottonmouths have the right to be checked out year-round during the day and at night, however they mostly hunt after ~ dark, especially in the summer. They have the right to be discovered basking in the sun during the job on rocks, logs and also stumps, follow to the Virginia department of Wildlife Resources.

There are three subspecies the cottonmouth recognized by the combined Taxonomic information System (ITIS). These room Florida cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti), found throughout Florida; western cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma), found in the species’ west range, including Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas; and also eastern cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus), discovered in its east range, including Georgia, south Carolina, north Carolina and also southeastern Virginia.

Identifying the different subspecies is difficult. Their markings vary considerably, and the subspecies can interbreed wherein their ranges overlap. Florida cottonmouths generally have the most significant bands and facial markings the the 3 subspecies, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

What do water moccasins eat?

A water moccasin eats a bullfrog. The snake"s diet consists of fish, little mammals, birds and amphibians; reptiles such together lizards, infant alligators and turtles; and other snakes, consisting of smaller water moccasins. (Image credit: Paul S. Wolf/Shutterstock.com)

Cottonmouths deserve to hunt food in water or top top land. They eat fish, little mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles — including other snakes and even smaller sized water moccasins, according to the college of Michigan"s animal Diversity internet (ADW). Cottonmouths kill with a single, poisonous bite, climate wrap approximately their prey until it stops moving prior to swallowing your food whole.

Cottonmouths girlfriend in spring, generally from April come May. Throughout the adjustment process, males slither around, waving your tails in an attempt to entice females away from various other male suitors. The males also fight each other when contending for females. Impregnated females have a gestation duration of 5 months, ~ above average. Cottonmouths room ovoviviparous, which means that eggs incubate inside the mother"s body. Females provide birth to live young every two to 3 years, in litters of about 10 come 20 offspring.

Baby cottonmouths room born brightly colored and go off on their very own as shortly as they"re born. Many baby cottonmouths don"t make it to adulthood because they are consumed by other animals, such together raccoons, cats, eagles and snapping turtles.

Experts don"t really know just how long cottonmouths deserve to live. Follow to Texas Parks and Wildlife room (TPWD), cottonmouths live less than 10 years in the wild. However, the snakes have the right to live much longer in captivity, and at least one captive cottonmouth has actually lived to more than 24 year old, follow to ADW.

Cottonmouths may hibernate over winter in the colder, northern parts of your range. They invest hibernation in burrows do by various other animals, consisting of crayfish and also tortoises, or under some other form of cover, such as rotting stumps, according to the IUCN.

Cottonmouth behavior

Cottonmouths have a reputation for being dangerous, however in reality, they hardly ever bite humans unless they are picked increase or stepped on. They may stand their ground against potential predators, including humans, by using protective behaviors.

"When a cottonmouth feels threatened, it will certainly coil that is body and also open that mouth vast to expose the white coloration the the within of the mouth," Viernum said. The speed of white contrasts through the snake"s dark human body colors to produce a frighten display. "Exposing the white of the mouth serves as a warning signal come potential predators."

Cottonmouths may additionally make us stink to deter predators through spraying a foul-smelling musk from glands in the basic of your tail, according to the Florida Museum of organic History. Cottonmouths can additionally shake their tails a little bit like a rattlesnake and can make a vibrating sound by law so, yet they don"t have an yes, really rattle, prefer rattlesnakes do.

A cottonmouth looking increase from the grass. (Image credit: Shelby l Earle/Shutterstock.com)

Cottonmouth bite

Although bites are rare, cottonmouth gift is potent and can be deadly to humans. Anyone who suffers a cottonmouth bite should seek clinical attention immediately. The Centers for an illness Control and also Prevention (CDC) stated that because that venomous bites, the sooner antivenom have the right to be administered, the sooner irreversible damages from the venom deserve to be stopped. After calling for emergency services, the CDC recommends the snakebite victims take a photo of the line from a safe street if possible, remain calm and apply very first aid while wait for emergency medical organization personnel to arrive.

Humans bitten by pit vipers, such as cottonmouths, will nearly always feel an instant burning pain wherein they"ve been bitten, and these bite wounds usually begin to swollen within 5 minutes, follow to TPWD. Skin discoloration approximately the wound is additionally common.

Cottonmouth gift is mostly composed of hemotoxins that malfunction blood cells, avoiding the blood from clotting or coagulating, follow to Viernum. The hemotoxins lead to "hemorrhaging transparent the circulatory mechanism wherever the venom has spread," she said. Gift bitten and also injected through cottonmouth venom can lead to "temporary and/or irreversible tissue and also muscle damage; loss of one extremity, depending on the place of the bite; interior bleeding; and extreme pain around the injection area," Viernum added.

The university of Florida proclaimed that 7,000 to 8,000 civilization are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. Each year, but only around five to six world die from their bites. Cottonmouths have accounted for less than 1% of every snakebite deaths in the U.S., according to TPWD.

Conservation status

Local cottonmouth populations have the right to be threatened by wetland drainage for agriculture, development, and being disturbed or eliminated by humans. However, cottonmouths room categorized as a types of least problem on the IUCN Red perform of intimidated Species, which means that across nearly every one of its range, the species is in ~ low hazard of extinction. Cottonmouths have a wide distribution, and the IUCN presumes the the cottonmouth population is large and relatively stable. However, the IUCN critical assessed the species in 2007, and also the organization states that their assessment demands updating.

Many cottonmouths live in protected state and national parks, and the types is likewise protected by state regulation in part places. In Missouri, for example, all snakes are safeguarded from being killed, consisting of cottonmouths, follow to the Missouri room of Conservation.

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Additional resources

This write-up was to update on June 14, 2021, through Live science Staff Writer Patrick Pester.