What is a Moccasin Snake?

Lumara Lee

The moccasin snake is a pit viper in the same general family as the rattlesnake and the copperhead. A water moccasin is the only poisonous water snake in North America, and one of the most deadly. It is usually found near streams and ponds, and is considered semi-aquatic. The scientific name for the moccasin snake is agkistrodon piscivorus.

Moccasins, which are also referred to as 'cottonmouths', are aggressive poisonous snakes that can be found along creeks and lakes in the American southeast.
Moccasins, which are also referred to as 'cottonmouths', are aggressive poisonous snakes that can be found along creeks and lakes in the American southeast.

Moccasin snakes display the same dark coloration of other water snakes but have the vertical pupils typical of pit vipers, while nonvenomous water snakes have pupils that are round. Water moccasins have very broad bodies compared to other snakes, and the adults attain a length of anywhere from four to six feet (122 to 183 cm). A moccasin snake has a triangular head which it commonly holds at a 45-degree angle. Adult snakes often have a diamond or banded pattern in tan or greenish colors, and their coloration is drab compared to the young moccasins. A distinct pit can be seen between the eyes and nostrils of the snake.

Though most moccasins have brown scales, colors can vary from purple to reddish.
Though most moccasins have brown scales, colors can vary from purple to reddish.

The female moccasin snake is mature enough to bear young when she is about three years old. She does not lay eggs like nonpoisonous snakes do, and instead gives birth to anywhere from one to sixteen live snakelets that are between 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) long. The female will then bear young about every other year. Young moccasin snakes have brighter coloration than the adults, and resemble copperheads with yellowish or lime-green tails.

Moccasin snakes eat frogs.
Moccasin snakes eat frogs.

Moccasin snakes have a varied diet and will eat birds, lizards, mammals, alligators, and turtles. They also eat fish, frogs, and other snakes. The moccasin snake can be seen lying on rocks, logs, and tree limbs that hang over waterways, waiting silently for prey to appear. They also inhabit ditches, swamps, canals, and creeks. Moccasin snakes don’t announce that they are about to strike, unlike their cousin, the rattler.

Another name for the moccasin snake is cottonmouth because when the snake is startled or threatened, it raises its head and opens its mouth, displaying a snowy white interior. It is one of the most aggressive snakes, and instead of leaving a threatening situation will often head towards the person or animal and attack. The moccasin snake has curved, hollow fangs that swing forward and become filled with venom when the snake opens its mouth to strike. Unlike other snakes which strike and withdraw, the moccasin snake will latch onto its prey. If left untreated, its bite can be fatal.

Moccasin snakes commonly inhabit swamps.
Moccasin snakes commonly inhabit swamps.

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Discussion Comments

Pippinwhite
@Grivusangel -- In general, cottonmouths are not aggressive, unless you're standing between the snake and where it wants to go, which is usually in the water.

My town is on a river, and the golf course is on the backwater. Golfers talk about seeing snakes all the time. They see cottonmouths frequently. I've yet to hear of someone being bitten.

As a rule, if you leave a cottonmouth alone, it will leave you alone. Watch where you walk and don't be really stupid and try to pick up any snake in the wild. That's just ignorant.

Grivusangel
The primary people threatened by a cottonmouth are fishermen. A water moccasin is apt to hop into a boat with a fisherman, if the catch has been good! It can smell the fish.

The open mouth display is the "I'll bite" signal. And not all rattlesnakes rattle before they strike. Some will just nail you.

The best way to avoid cottonmouths is to avoid where they like to live. Deep, still, quiet streams of water are favorite dens. Mostly, wear heavy boots if you're in that kind of area, and watch where you step.

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