Some things to know about the cottonmouth snake

I have a confession to make. When I go wade-fishing on a southern Missouri stream, I sometimes end up being obsessed and on the lookout for cottonmouth water moccasins, especially if my buddies start yapping ahead of time about all the snakes in the stream where we are going to fish.

Like a lot of other folks, I had heard all the stories — including the one about the boy who jumped into a lake and inadvertently landed in a nest of cottonmouths, whereupon he was bitten 25 times and died on the spot.

So, I figured recently that it was finally time to address my “ophidiophobia” about the cottonmouth and get my hands on some reliable facts.

The official name for the cottonmouth water moccasin is “agkistrodon piscivorus” — the Greek translation for this being “hooked tooth that eats fish” — but people generally refer to this snake as the “cottonmouth,” “water moccasin” or simply “moccasin.”

It is the only venomous water snake in the United States. Its range is primarily in the southern states but it also can be found as far north as southern portions of Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

It is a pit viper, meaning that it has a “pit” or hole between each nostril and eye that allows it to detect heat on the bodies of its potential prey.

Most of its hunting occurs at night, so its ability to sense prey by body heat comes in handy in the dark.

The cottonmouth eats a huge variety of critters, including frogs, fish, snakes and yes, even other cottonmouths. The lifespan of a cottonmouth is believed to be about 20 years.

Immature cottonmouths have a visible brown and yellow pattern on both the top and bottom of the body plus a yellow tail.

Adult cottonmouths tend to be dark on the top and sides with almost no visible pattern; the belly of an adult is often cream-colored.    

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