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Copperheads and Cottonmouths

Growing up in Northwest Florida I always understood that the “copperhead” and the “moccasin” were two different venomous snakes.  As I grew older and talked with locals, I have found that the name “copperhead” is often used when talking about moccasins.  I was puzzled by the confusion, I thought they looked completely different, but now understand; juvenile moccasins are banded and “copper-ish” in color.  I had also heard of the “copper” phase of the moccasin.  All moccasins I have encountered were either solid black or black/grey banded with a slight hint of copper. I had never seen this “copper” phase until recently.  My wife and I were surveying one of our terrapin beaches when we spotted what appeared to be a rope on the white sand between the grass and the water’s edge.  This beach typically has all sorts of debris so we ignored it and went on with my terrapin work.  When we returned to our canoe the “rope” was still there.  I walked towards it searching for turtle tracks when the “rope” raised its head!  It was a “copper” moccasin – absolutely beautiful.  Seeing this I better understand how the term “copperhead” is used for both animals.  In their book Snakes of the Southeast Gibbons and Dorcas state that some call the Copperhead the “highlands moccasin.”  We have found from snake talks that many think the “water moccasin” and “cottonmouth” are different snakes as well; making the confusion even deeper.

This southern copperhead was found along a trail in Atmore AL. Photo: Molly O'Connor

This southern copperhead was found along a trail in Atmore AL. Photo: Molly O’Connor

The two species are phenotypically and genetically similar.  They are both in the Family Viperidae (pit-vipers) and they are in the same genus (Agkistrodon).  In Ray Ashton’s book he describes “similar species” and on both counts does not mention color at all.  Instead he focuses on the stripes on the side of the head of the moccasin.

Another difference is habitat; moccasins are common in Florida near water.  Copperheads are not as common in our state and though found near water, they frequent dry woodland and rocky areas.  They are common in the Piedmont areas of north Alabama and Georgia where moccasins are absent.  Ashton states that the copperhead is found only in the panhandle of Florida from the Apalachicola River west with museum records from Gadsden and Liberty counties.  Gibbons and Dorcas write that the species is ONLY found in the Apalachicola basin and there are no records of it in our area.  There are certainly reports of the animal here, but again there has been confusion with identification.

There is NO doubt the moccasin is found here, as a matter of fact both texts mentioned in this paper report it in every county in Florida.  Both texts also report an unsuccessful attempt by herpetologists to make the official name for this snake the cottonmouth.  However local terms are local terms and moccasin is still used, but we will from this point on refer to it as the cottonmouth.  This name comes from the bright white inner lining of the mouth the snake shows when disturbed.  I have seen this display more than once. There are legends about the aggressiveness of this species; from crawling into boats to jumping out of trees at anyone who may cross their “line”.   We have encountered plenty of cottonmouths while searching for terrapins.  The first thing we noted was the surprise of finding them in brackish habitats.  Of the locations we have paddled searching for turtles this is one species we have seen in just about every location.  An interesting note here; I read the Travels of William Bartrum, as this naturalist describes his travels through Florida in 1774.  He talked about rattlesnakes throughout his trip all over the southeast but I do not believe he mentioned the cottonmouth once.  I found this odd… today I would argue that the cottonmouth is much more common than rattlesnakes.  It was either not the case in 1774 or he just, for whatever reason, did not mention them.

In our encounters with the cottonmouth we have had a chance to observe the aggressive legend of these animals and have noticed some patterns.  One, most are not aggressive… most of our encounters find a snake that is trying to avoid trouble; and we happily allow it to go where it wants to go.  We have never had one “charge” or strike as stories go.  The few times we have observed aggressive behavior we noticed two things: 1) they do not charge but DO hold their ground and 2) they often had just finished a meal – or were about to strike their prey.

The coloration of this juvenile cottonmouth explains why many locals call them "copperheads".  Photo: Rick O'Connor

The coloration of this juvenile cottonmouth explains why many locals call them “copperheads”. Photo: Rick O’Connor

Both copperheads and cottonmouths are venomous.  This snake should never be handled; remember 95% of those bitten were either trying to catch or kill it.  Both Ashton and Gibbons/Dorcas report the copperhead as a docile, nocturnal snake; preferring to hide than put on an aggressive show.  Gibbons/Dorcas also report that more folks are bitten by the copperhead in the south than any other venomous snake and both authors state that their cryptic nature is excellent with most people who come near them having no idea that they just past one; maybe a reason there have been few sightings in our area.  Both copperheads and cottonmouths are opportunistic hunters feeding on a variety of prey including: fish, other snakes, young turtles, baby alligators, amphibians, small mammals and birds, insects, and lizards.

Venomous snakes are not without their predators; the juveniles of both species have plenty.  Kingsnakes are known to prey on venomous snakes.  Adult cottonmouths are preyed on by alligators and larger cottonmouths in addition to kingsnakes.  Both copperheads and cottonmouths are reported to release musk if potential trouble gets close.  We have met a biologist formerly with FDEP who said he could easily detect this musk in the wild and almost always found the cottonmouth nearby.   Both species have spring and fall mating seasons.  Males seek out females by smell and will “combat” rival males using the “snake dance” seen in many pit vipers.  These snakes are ovoviviparous and produce liters every other year.

They are certainly interesting snakes but should be treated with caution.  Death from either species is rare but possible.  Precautions should always be taken when venturing into snake habitat.  We always have a hiking or snake stick, boots are preferred.  We will discuss how to handle snake bites in a later article this year, but if interested now you can contact Rick O’Connor at the Escambia County Extension Office: 850-475-5230 or roc1@ufl.edu

The cottonmouth, or water moccassin, is one of the more commonly encountered venomous snakes in Northwest Florida.  Photo: Molly O'Connor

The cottonmouth, or water moccassin, is one of the more commonly encountered venomous snakes in Northwest Florida. Photo: Molly O’Connor

Permanent link to this article: http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/wwww/2013/06/27/copperheads-and-cottonmouths/