Cottonmouth Mythbusters

Knowledge is power when it comes to one of Arkansasís most infamous venomous snakes.

By Calvin Vick

Cottonmouth snake in defensive posture.

Cottonmouth snake in defensive posture.

Juvenile diamondback water snake.

Juvenile diamondback water snake.

As a young herpetologist, I notice that one of the most commonly misunderstood Arkansas snakes is the cottonmouthósometimes referred to as a water moccasin. True, cottonmouths have potent venom, which is a pretty big strike against them. It makes sense why people would have a healthy fear of cottonmouths, but it does not make sense why some people hate them. After all, it's not the snake's fault they're venomous.

The myths that surround cottonmouths are primary contributors to the fear of the snakes. Cottonmouth snakes are not out to get you; they would prefer to hide while you walk by so they can get on with their lives. 

One common myth is that cottonmouths chase people. Those who work with cottonmouths definitely find this to be false. Itís easy to see why someone might think they are being chased because the snake happens to flee in their direction. But the truth is, they are trying to get away. In my many experiences in the field, cottonmouths have never tried to chase me. Instead, they flee or go into a defensive posture (coiled, head back and ready to strike). Donít let their body language make you think they are evil. When startled, you might scream, gasp or jump back. When a snake is startled, they flee if they can get away. If they can't, they move into their defensive posture. In fact, cottonmouths are pretty reluctant to strike at times because venom is time-consuming for the snake to make. It can take weeks for the snake to produce replacement venom, leaving the snake vulnerable. 

Another myth, and probably the most common, is that cottonmouths breed in balls or live in nests. In fact, very few species of snakes breed in balls. Breeding in balls occurs when a bunch of males compete for a female. Common garter snakes engage in this breeding ritual. While cottonmouths do compete for females by sometimes wrapping around each other until one finally gives up, they dont compare to garter snakes, where thousands of males compete for females. With cottonmouths, after breeding takes place, the two snakes go their separate ways.

The babies are born live in an embryonic sac, not an egg. This usually occurs during August and September. Cottonmouths are venomous right from birth. Once born, baby cottonmouths are on their own. In a few years they will be adults and ready to breed.

The last myth is very important as it involves your personal safety. Cottonmouths can strike underwater. They have to be able to bite underwater to eat fish, frogs and aquatic or semi-aquatic creatures. Just because a cottonmouth has gone into the water does not mean that the snake cannot bite you.

On a related note, there is a group of Arkansas snakes that are negatively impacted by the killing of cottonmouths: water snakes. Water snakes are often misidentified as cottonmouths. Water snakes look very similar to cottonmouths, and this is on purpose in hopes that a predator will be frightened away thinking it is venomous. Water snakes, although non-venomous, can act aggressively and even strike when threatened. Arkansas's native water snakes include diamondback water snakes, northern water snakes and broad-banded water snakes. 

Cottonmouth snakes hold a very important place in our ecosystem. Like all native animals, they should be treated the same as any other wonderful creature in the state of Arkansas. Cottonmouths keep mice populations in check and provide food for birds. 

I hope this will change your mind about cottonmouth snakes and maybe the next time you encounter one, you will reach for your phone, call your local wildlife center to have it removed or just leave it alone. Sometimes, the people who try to kill them are the ones that end up getting bitten.

Until next time, conservation through education friends.