These next two snakes are more commonly encountered than the elusive coral snake, which I described in the previous blog regarding identifying venomous snakes. They are the southern copperhead and the western cottonmouth. In the pit viper family, both species can be active during daylight hours and are frequently found near bodies of water. It is for these reasons that they are arguably the most commonly encountered venomous snakes in the southeast United States; virtually any sizable body of fresh water near a wooded area could be potential habitat for these snakes, whether it is a pond, creek, river or lake.
Averaging between 3-4 feet, the southern copperhead actually found in a variety of different habitats, but tends to favor any relatively near water, as its natural diet includes amphibians. It will also eat small rodents and large insects. While their hues can vary slightly throughout their range, copperheads are typically patterned with triangular/hourglass-shaped bands around their bodies, usually colored in shades of pink/tan and brown. Being ambush predators, they will often sit motionless in a pile of leaf litter, becoming virtually invisible while they wait for their next meal to cross in front of them. Likewise, they use their natural camouflage as a defense against predators, remaining motionless. Unfortunately for humans, this behavior makes it very difficult for spot them in their natural environment, and many bites occur when the snake is accidentally stepped on. So always be aware of your surroundings when hiking in copperhead habitat.
Also known as the water moccasin, the cottonmouth is a larger, heavier relative of the copperhead, often reaching 5 feet or more in length. The pattern on its body is similar, but most cottonmouths have darker shades of burgundy and brown, sometimes even black in adult specimens. While the copperhead is reasonable proportioned, the cottonmouth is stocky, almost like a thick miniature python. It is also notoriously more pugnacious than its smaller, terrestrial cousin, making it all the more dangerous when it is encountered; while copperheads will usually remain still unless severely provoked, cottonmouths can become very aggressive and stand their ground at the slightest offense. They will readily coil up and “gape,” showing off their characteristic white mouth. Because they often bask on low hanging tree limbs, they are prone to inadvertently dropping into watercraft if disturbed. Once again, be mindful of your surroundings when you are in cottonmouth habitat.
Not unlike the coral snake, copperheads and cottonmouths have their harmless look-alikes as well. The most common case of mistaken identity for copperheads would be the common corn snake. While their coloration is similar, the corn snake has a much slender oblong-shaped head and its belly features a distinctive black and white checkerboard-like pattern (some say this is how the corn snake got its name, due to a resemblance to Indian maize).
The cottonmouth’s doppelgangers are a bit more tricky, as there are many different species of harmless water snakes that share its natural range. Of course, there is the tell-tale fact that only cottonmouths have vertical “cat-eye” pupils, whereas all harmless species have round pupils, but seriously, who is going to look that closely? Then there is the “triangle-shaped head” method of identification; technically true, as pit vipers do have wide, wedge-shaped heads. However, many water snakes will flatten out as a defensive posture, making their normally oval-shaped heads appear triangular. Using that technique is somewhat subjective, unless you are really familiar with snakes.
Most water snakes are not nearly as heavy-bodied as an adult cottonmouth. And curiously enough, both juvenile copperheads and cottonmouths have bright, yellow tails, which they use a lure for amphibian prey; a characteristic that all other snakes species in the southeast U.S. lack. See all images for comparison.
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