As people take to lakes and rivers to cool off from summer’s heat, it’s possible they might see a snake in the water. Not every snake you see swimming is a water moccasin. Alabama has a number of non-venomous water snakes. There are ways to tell the difference, and Alabama Extension professionals have important information to keep you and yours safe as you head toward the water to celebrate Independence Day.
Cottonmouths — commonly called water moccasins — are venomous snakes that frighten many people, but Extension Forestry and Wildlife Specialist Dr. Jim Armstrong said fear and identification are two major factors that play a role in safety around snakes.
“Learning to identify snakes is a major safety factor,” Armstrong said. “Lots of snakes killed each year are not cottonmouths. Many people allow an unrealistic fear of snakes to hinder their enjoyment of the outdoors.”
Is the Snake a Water Moccasin?
Regional Extension Agent Andrew Baril said attitude is one of the most telling features of a water moccasin.
“Walk up on many snakes and most will flee,” said Baril. “But confront a cottonmouth be prepared for them to stand their ground.”
Baril said that a cottonmouth taken by surprise will likely spread its mouth open and gape, showing the white lining of its mouth. That’s where the common name, cottonmouth, comes from. He adds that despite their aggressive reputation, research indicates that the species will seldom bite unless stepped on, picked up or physically attacked.
Juveniles are colorful, with a brown body and reddish brown cross-banding. This means the color stripe wraps around the body from backbone to belly. Older adults tend to be black with faded banding. Their eyes are very hard to see because of a frontal facial band, and head shield above the eye.
Armstrong said one of the best ways to spot a cottonmouth is to look for movement. The tip of a juvenile moccasin’s tail is bright yellow and used as a ploy to catch food.
“With any snake, be sure to look closely before you put your hands or feet in an area,” Armstrong said. “Snakes can be in the area, but won’t necessarily bite. It is always better to be safe than sorry.”
If it isn’t a Water Moccasin, what is it?
Baril said snakes can be found anywhere there is water, but most choose to avoid humans.
Locomotion for all snakes occurs in the side-to-side ‘S’ pattern, so swimming is not an easy way to determine what type of snake it is.
Brown Water Snakes, Midland Water Snakes, Diamond-backed Water Snakes, Florida Green Water Snakes, Southern Water Snakes, Plain-bellied Water Snakes and Mississippi Green Water Snakes are nonvenomous snakes you may spot in your favorite body of water.
Armstrong said most snake bites occur because the snake is provoked. Baril and Armstrong agree the best way to avoid a run-in with a water moccasin or any water snake is to leave them alone.
- Identification and Control of Snakes in Alabama
- Venomous Snakes of Alabama
- Identification of Snakes in Alabama for Forest Workers
- Outdoors Alabama: Snakes
Image of cottonmouth snake by ESB Basic/Shutterstock.com
Image of young water snake by PhotoLizM/Shutterstock.com