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Water Moccasins vs. Cottonmouth Snakes: Are They Different Snakes?

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key point:
  • The buckskin is the only semiaquatic rattlesnake and the only venomous water snake in North America. It reaches an average length of 31.5 inches, while some subspecies and specimens can grow to 71 inches and weigh as much as 10 pounds.
  • The cottonmouth is named for the bright white inside of its mouth, which resembles the color of cotton. It will pull itself into an S shape, stand upright and open its mouth wide when threatened.
  • Although cottonmouth snake venom is rarely fatal, it can cause temporary or permanent muscle damage. Sometimes, people lose limbs due to the damage caused.

Contrary to popular belief, water moccasins and cotton sandals
Snakes are not different types of snakes.

People often think of moccasins as harmless, non-venomous creatures, while cottonmouth snakes are more dangerous and more venomous. In fact, the two terms refer to the same species, Agkistrodon piscivorus – North America's only venomous semiaquatic snake. Read on to learn more about cottonmouth snakes (also known as buckskin snakes), including how to identify them and where to find them.

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Characteristics of the sambar and cottonmouth deer

buckskin snake
Unlike many neckless snakes, those belonging to the cottonmouth are thin and distinctive

© Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

Agkistrodon piscivorus , commonly known as cottonmouth and buckskin snake, is a species of pit viper native to the southeastern United States. North America's only venomous water snake — and the only semi-aquatic pit adder — the buckskin has an average length of about 31.5 inches, including the tail. However, some subspecies and specimens are known to grow to over 71 inches, and some weigh as much as 10 pounds.

A member of the viper family, the cottonmouth is a rattlesnake. Like other members of this family, including rattlesnakes and copperheads, the samurai has heat-sensitive facial dimples between the eyes and nostrils. These pits are so sensitive that they can detect even the slightest temperature difference, allowing pit vipers like the buckskin to attack their prey more accurately. The fact that the "pit" in "pit viper" directly refers to these particular facial features is also an excellent way of distinguishing these venomous snakes from their more harmless counterparts.

Because of their large venom glands, cottonmouths have large jaws on their thick, muscular bodies, averaging between 2 and 4 feet in length. Their large triangular heads are a distinctive feature, and the snake's thin neck makes them even more prominent. The thin neck is another distinguishing feature, as many snakes have no distinct neck at all. Water moccasins have vertical "cat's eye" pupils with dark stripes near each nostril. The nose is pale compared with the rest of the head.

A side view of a cottonmouth snake with its mouth open, curled up on a leaf.
The cottonmouth snake is named for the white, cotton-like inside of its mouth

©KF2017/Shutterstock.com

Another well-known characteristic of the water moccasin also gives it another common name – cottonmouth deer. That's because the inside of the snake's mouth is bright white, like cotton. When the snake feels threatened, it pulls itself into a distinctive S-shape, erect and opens its mouth wide. The bright white inside of the mouth contrasts with the rest of the snake, both as a distraction and as a warning sign. Indeed, it can be said that sambars "wave the white flag" when threatened.

The body of the snake is thick and muscular, but not particularly long, so it looks relatively thick. Its body is covered in scales with distinctive keels, or ridges. It may vary in color from black or dark brown to olive or even yellow. Some specimens have banded brown coloration. The belly of the cottonmouth is lighter in color than the back.

Juvenile and adult water moccasins tend to be light brown in color and have a distinctive stripe across their body. With age, these bands and other patterns can fade or disappear completely. So if you see a cotton mouth with a unique pattern, it's probably quite young. In addition, juvenile sambar have bright yellow tail tips through which the snake slowly swings back and forth as bait.

Distinguishing Buckskins and Cottonmouths from Nonvenomous Snakes

People often mistake harmless snakes for cottonmouths, leading to the needless killing of many harmless snakes each year. The northern water snake Nerodia sipedon is a common victim of this phenomenon. Although it looks a lot like the cottonmouth, the crossed bands on its back do not broaden at the ends like the northern water snake.

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If you live where buckskin snakes are found, it helps to know how to tell them apart from non-venomous snakes. Some ways to tell them apart include:

  • Swimming style – Unlike the brown water snake, Nerodia taxispilota – another snake often mistaken for the water buckskin – the cottonmouth swims with its entire body resting on the water's surface. Other water snakes, including the brown water snake, keep most of their body submerged when in motion, with only their head exposed when in motion.
  • Pupils – The pupils of non-venomous water snakes are round. On the other hand, the pupils of the water moccasin are vertical and look similar to those of a cat.
  • Head shape – Cottonmouths have a triangular head, while nonvenomous snakes have a more elongated and oval head. A word of warning: When threatened, non-venomous water snakes flatten their heads to make them look more triangular.
  • Facial Dimples – Venomous snakes like the buckskin have facial dimples between the eyes and nostrils. Non-venomous water snakes don't have these pits, so this is an easy way to tell them apart.
  • Scales – Finally, buckskins have a single row of scales behind the anal plate, while non-venomous water snakes have a double row of scales.

Habitat

A cottonmouth snake in the sand near a body of water.
Cottonmouths are commonly found in swamps, swamps, drains, and the edges of bodies of water.

© Christian Bale/Shutterstock.com

The sambar, or cottonmouth, can be found throughout much of the southeastern United States. Their range extends from southern Virginia through Florida to eastern Texas. Preferred habitats for these rattlesnakes include swamps, swamps, and drains. They are also commonly found on the edges of streams, lakes, and ponds. They tend to be especially prevalent in areas where wading birds congregate to breed.

While on land, cottonmouths stay close to water and are often seen in open fields. Because they, like all snakes, are cold-blooded, this species will spend a lot of time basking on logs, twigs, and stones near water.

Habits of Cottonmouths and Water Moccasins

A cottonmouth slithers on gravel with its head held high.
Cottonmouths do not often attack humans, but they have been known to hold their ground when threatened.

© Mike Wilhelm/Shutterstock.com

Cottonmouths are generally considered aggressive, but they rarely attack humans. At the same time, however, these snakes will hold their ground when threatened, and they won't flee at the first sign of trouble. The most notable defensive feature of the Sambar deer is the wide open mouth that reveals the bright white inside of the mouth. This white flash is some sort of warning signal that the snake won't back down, giving it a chance to flee. The cottonmouth is the only snake that exhibits this behavior. Other defenses include flattening its body, which helps it hide and evade detection, and emitting a strong, pungent anal secretion to warn potential predators. In this way, the snakes are a bit like skunks.

These water snakes keep their bodies above the water while swimming, but their heads are always sticking out. This is a good way to identify them, as many non-venomous water snakes swim with most of their bodies submerged in water. They are active year-round in most areas, but may become inactive at the onset of extremely cold weather. In this case, cottonbills hibernate until the weather warms up again, looking for logs and holes in the ground to protect themselves. They can be active both day and night, but they tend to hunt after dark. This is especially true in summer.

Diet-wise, sambar moccasins are large, muscular ambush predators, so they can prey on a variety of different creatures. The diet of these carnivores consists mainly of fish and frogs. However, they also eat other snakes, turtles, squirrels, rabbits, mice, rats, snails, birds and their eggs, lizards, and even small crocodiles. They also occasionally eat caterpillars, cicadas, and other insects. Cottonmouths may also eat smaller cottonmouths, so they are not averse to cannibalism.

Water moccasins usually mate in spring. Both sexes reach sexual maturity around 2 to 3 years of age. When looking to mate, males will glide near females, waving their tails to lure them away from rivals. Male cottonmouths often fight with each other for the attention of female snakes, so it's not uncommon to be aggressive during mating season.

The cottonmouth is oviparous, which means it hatches its eggs inside its body. Every two to three years, the female gives birth to live young after a three to four month gestation period. The average litter size consists of 10 to 20 young snakes, which are brightly colored and distinctive at birth. Buckskin snakes provide no parental care, so newborn snakes slip away and start a life of their own right away.

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How long do Cottonmouths or Water Moccasins live?

cottonmouth snake
Water moccasins or cotton mouths that can live up to ten years

©Marcum Havens/Shutterstock.com

According to experts, these rattlesnakes can live up to about 10 years in the wild. However, in captivity, they can live much longer. Undoubtedly, one particularly lucky individual was able to live in captivity for more than 24 years thanks to increased comfort, good medical care, and a steady supply of food.

Taxonomy

A cottonmouth holds its head up in the water.
Cottonmouth snakes provide no parental care, and newborn snakes begin to live independently as soon as they are born.

©jo Crebbin/Shutterstock.com

Agkistrodon piscivorus , also known as the buckskin snake or cottonmouth, belongs to the class Reptiles , Squamata , Viperidae and the genus Vipers . It is one of eight rattlesnake species belonging to the genus.

In terms of etymology, Agkistrodon is derived from the Greek ancistro, meaning "hook", and odon, meaning "tooth". The word piscivorus is derived from the Latin piscis, meaning "fish," and voro, meaning "to eat." Therefore, the scientific name of cottonmouth fish can be roughly translated as "hook tooth fish eater". Of course, the snake's teeth are retractable, but the overall shape of the jaw and teeth is rather hooked. Since buckskins are water snakes, their diet includes a lot of fish. So it makes sense to call these snakes fish eaters. However, their diet is more diverse than that, including frogs, rodents and even baby crocodiles.

In addition to the buckskin and cottonmouth, common names for the species include gaper, mangrove rattlesnake, black buckskin, swamp lion, slithermouth, trapjaw, water mamba, water pilot, and bobtail snake. Different names may be used in different parts of the country. The nickname "gaper" refers to the way the snake opens its mouth when threatened. It opens it up as far as possible, creating a flared effect that reveals the white interior. The "mangrove rattlesnake" makes sense, since these snakes often inhabit mangroves. However, they are not rattlesnakes. Although they wag their tails like rattlesnakes, they do not have rattlesnakes; therefore, no noise is produced.

There are two species and two subspecies:

  • Florida Cottonmouth – scientific name Agkistrodon conanti , named after the famous herpetologist Roger Conant. This subspecies, also known as the green-tailed buckskin deer, is found in southernmost Georgia and throughout Florida, including the Everglades.
  • Western Cottonmouth – This subspecies, A. p. leucostoma is the smallest of the group, with an average length of 27.5 inches. It is usually dark gray or brown with few markings. Its range extends from southern Alabama through the Gulf Coast to southeastern and central Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and southeastern Nebraska and western Kentucky.
  • Eastern Cottonmouth – Found primarily in southeastern Virginia, the A. p. piscivorus eastern cottonmouth averages between 20 and 48 inches in length. It is also found in the Atlantic coastal plain, across the lower Piedmont of the Carolinas and west across Georgia. This subspecies is found on river banks, peninsulas and even coastal islands.

Behavior

A cottonmouth snake lying on the ground with its mouth wide open.
Despite their reputation for aggression, cottonmouth monkeys prefer to avoid conflict with humans

© Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

People think cottonmouths are very aggressive, but this is an unfair stereotype. In fact, these snakes almost never bite or attack humans. If they notice humans in the area, they usually sneak away to avoid conflict. However, when confronted by a predator, they are more likely to hold their ground than flee. When threatened, the Amber Moccasin pulls itself into a dramatic S-shaped configuration. It opens its mouth wide, revealing the bright white inside of its mouth. The white color is reminiscent of cotton, which is why the snake is known as the cottonmouth in many parts of the country. Ironically, its range is mostly the southern United States, where cotton was once king. More likely, the term "cottonmouth" has at least a little to do with the predominance of cotton in this part of the country and the cultural significance of the crop.

During mating season, male cottonmouths tend to become aggressive, often fighting other males for the attention of females. As ambush predators, they prefer to sneak up on potential prey before attacking. The element of surprise helps them accept larger animals, including baby alligators. Water moccasins use the dimples on their faces to detect even tiny changes in heat. This allows them to pinpoint their prey, making it easier to strike accurately. These venomous snakes have retractable fangs, and they store their venom in large glands that form the jaws under their heads.

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bite

Cottonmouth partially submerged in water, covered with green aquatic vegetation.
The cottonmouth snake's venom prevents blood from clotting, or clotting, normally.

©Mark_Kostich/Shutterstock.com

The cottonmouth is the only venomous water snake in North America. Although it rarely bites, this semi-aquatic snake is quick to attack when threatened. It possesses a stronger and more violent cytotoxic venom than the copperhead, so people living in areas where it infestes are rightfully afraid of it. However, the snake's venom is not as dangerous or venomous as that of rattlesnakes.

When the cottonmouth bug strikes, it bites and grips tightly. From there, they inject the venom into their victims. The snake's potent venom consists mainly of blood toxins that break down blood cells. So when this venom enters the victim's system, it prevents the blood from clotting or clotting as usual. So if a water moccasin bites you, you may experience bleeding in your body wherever the venom travels through your circulatory system.

Cottonmouth bites are rarely fatal. However, it can cause serious damage and is considered a medical emergency. Water moccasin venom can cause temporary or permanent muscle damage. Sometimes, people lose limbs from the damage caused by the venom. For example, the tissues inside the hands or feet may become severely damaged from lack of oxygen to the blood. If the condition is not dealt with quickly enough, amputation may be required.

Internal bleeding is another serious potential side effect of a moccasin bite. Since it's usually not obvious, it's important to seek medical attention even if everything looks fine. Victims of a sambar moccasin bite also experience excruciating pain around the bite site.

People living in areas of the country where cottonmouth snakes are common should also take care to protect their pets from these snakes. Dogs and cats can accidentally run into cottonmouths in the wild and be attacked. Smaller animals are more likely to be seriously injured by the venom, and they may actually die from this snakebite.

Cottonmouth, Water Moccasin – exactly the same

Agkistrodon piscivorus has many different nicknames and is often confused with other snakes. Although many people think that the buckskin is different from the cottonmouth, the truth is that they are the same thing. Regardless of its name, all subspecies of this snake are venomous, but not particularly aggressive. Before you kill a snake you think is a cottonmouth, try to confirm that it is not a different water snake species. Also, since cottonmouth monkeys prefer to run rather than fight, there is usually nothing to do but stand by and wait. By knowing the difference between a cottonmouth and a non-venomous water snake, you can avoid unnecessary harm to these creatures, so be sure to do your research before venturing into an area where you might encounter it.

While humans are certainly predators of cottonmouths, they have a number of other predators that prey on them. For example, aquatic creatures such as largemouth bass, otters, and snapping turtles have been known to eat them. Some birds of prey such as herons, owls and hawks will also attack and kill them. Cottonmouths should beware of kingsnakes, which are immune to their deadly venom.

If you are bitten by a cotton mouth or water moccasin

If you are bitten by a cottonmouth/buckskin snake, call 911 immediately – it is important to get antivenom as soon as possible. While you wait for help, try to stay away from the area where the snake was located to prevent re-biting. Before swelling occurs, remove clothing or jewelry from the area near the bite. Stay as calm as possible and position yourself so that the bite is below heart level. Finally, if you can, clean the bite without rinsing it with water, and cover the bite with a clean dressing. Do not use a tourniquet or ice.

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Buckskin vs Cottonmouth Snake

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