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Be Smart about Water Moccasins and Other Water Snakes

Be Smart about Water Moccasins and Other Water Snakes

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.


Young water snake

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.

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Image of cottonmouth snake by ESB Basic/Shutterstock.com

Image of young water snake by PhotoLizM/Shutterstock.com

About Katie Nichols


  1. I rarely see misinformation in Extension Service publications but this is a stinker: “raise a stick to a cottonmouth and you’d better be prepared to use it,” the implication being the snake will attack. Seriously? “Raise a stick” to a cottonmouth and it’s either going to characteristically hold its ground or it’s going to take off. It is not a threat unless maybe you DO use the stick and it tries to defend itself. You really need to issue a correction/retraction.

    • Maggie Lawrence

      Thanks for your honest response to our story. It’s good to know people are reading the stories here on Extension Daily. We spoke with Andy Baril, our regional forestry and wildlife agent, whose quote you took exception too. He intended for the quote to mean that the snake would stand its ground and did not mean to imply that one should should use the stick on the snake. The story has been updated to make Andy’s point clearer. Thanks again for caring enough to make sure that we got it right.

      • Thank YOU, Maggie and Andy, for being receptive to constructive criticism. If I could edit, changing “Service” to “System,” I would, but I’m old enough to remember when it was the Service.

      • Good article. Cottonmouths don’t back up worth a dime. Maggie, were you a Crowder before?

        Greg Slattery

      • I am slow. Just went and looked .

  2. Water snakes is that cool. I like this snakes.