Authored by Matt Moore
It is obvious that snakes, in general, have an uphill battle in garnering respect from most people. However, not all snakes have it equally as tough in the struggle for acceptance. For example, kingsnakes and Eastern Indigo Snakes are relatively easy to endear to most people because not only are they not easily confused with venomous species, but also for the fact that they actually eat venomous snakes. On the other end of the public relations spectrum are watersnakes (genus Nerodia). Watersnakes have proven to be very challenging to endear to the public in my experience. Most of the people that I have talked to over the years about snakes are not aware that non-venomous watersnakes even exist. So how can a snake that so few people even know exists have such a tough time getting any respect? The answer is that, while very few people that I talk to even know that this entire genera of harmless snake species exists (i.e. harmless watersnakes), virtually everyone I talk to has heard of (and greatly fears) a snake that, technically speaking, does not exist: “poisonous water moccasins.”
The terms “water moccasin”, “cottonmouth moccasin”, and just plain old “moccasin” are frequently used as colloquial names for Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus). However, those colloquial names are all too often also thrown at any snake within eyesight of water. Colloquial names excel at causing confusion, whereas standardized common names are aimed at dissolving confusion. I have talked with people at educational outreach events who were adamant that Cottonmouths and “water moccasins” were two different kinds of “poisonous” snakes. One person claimed that Cottonmouths are the light colored, poisonous, water-loving snakes and “water moccasins” were a different type of sympatric water loving “poisonous snake.” I talked with another person who said the difference between a Cottonmouth and a “water moccasin” is not due to their respective colorations, but rather to the degree of toxicity of their respective “poisons.”
Here is my attempt to clear up the very muddied waters that have been created around the term “water moccasin”
On the rare occasion that I actually encounter someone who is aware that non-venomous watersnakes exist, that person hardly ever has any positive comments to say about these snakes. Watersnakes are not known for their affable personalities nor for their avoidance of the occasional fish for a meal. Neither of these traits should realistically make any difference, though. If you don’t want to be bitten by a watersnake, then all you have to do is leave them alone. If you are concerned that watersnakes are detrimental to fish populations, don’t be. Watersnakes do not pose any threat to fish populations and, in fact, if you see watersnakes basking on limbs or on the shore of a pond or lake, you can use that as evidence that this body of water has a healthy population of fish that you can share with the watersnakes.
Georgia has 5 species of harmless watersnakes. At least one (usually more) species of watersnake can be found in every county in Georgia. However, Cottonmouths do not occur in approximately an entire third of the state of Georgia. Cottonmouths are largely absent from the middle to upper piedmont and they are entirely absent from the mountains of northeastern Georgia. Additionally, their range in the coastal plain and lower piedmont is spotty. Some areas of prime habitat are entirely devoid of these snakes but are still inhabited by several species of harmless watersnakes. Cottonmouths are usually quite choosy about what constitutes suitable habitat. Throughout Georgia, Cottonmouths are a snake species that prefers swampy habitats. They generally avoid large open bodies of deep water. They also tend to bask close to the ground rather than on high limbs over the water. That large heavy-bodied snake that occasionally drops into a fisherman’s boat is almost always a harmless watersnake.
Even when an actual Cottonmouth is encountered, it really shouldn’t be a big deal either. I spend many hours each year wading in swamps with Cottonmouths. I’ve come across approximately 150 individual Cottonmouths over the past 2 years, many of which were in very close proximity to me, and I have yet to have a single Cottonmouth attempt to bite me, let alone chase me like so many people would have me believe they are apt to do. They do not mass together in writhing balls in the shallows of lakes waiting for a hapless skier to fall into their deadly trap, they do not chase people, and they are not “aggressive”. What they are, though, is woefully misunderstood. Occasionally, individuals will come towards me, but never with the intent to bite me, but rather to get to the hole in the stream bank that I am inadvertently blocking the snake from reaching.
At this point, some readers are probably wondering how to differentiate between watersnakes and Cottonmouths. The answer is referring to a quality field guide. I can provide the field guide for you in the form of an excellent and user-friendly online pdf field guide brochure provided by Ga DNR Non-Game Wildlife Resources Division entitled “Is it a water moccasin”