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By Anders Nielsen, Ph.d.
The cottonmouth snake, Agkistrodon piscivorus, is comparatively abundant in wetlands and other aquatic environments. It is larger than its close relative, the copperhead snake, and it can reach a length of 30 to 48 inches (75-125 cm).
The cottonmouth consumes a diverse diet of animals. Its nutritional regime includes other reptiles, fish, amphibians, invertebrates, birds, and mammals.
The cottonmouth is different from many other snakes because it does not swallow its prey until it is dead. This behavior is seen when the prey is held in the snake's jaws until it finally succumbs to the venom.
Prey that is likely to bite back is first bitten and then released; when the prey escapes, the cottonmouth is able to track it down using its Jacobsen's organ to sense the prey.
The cottonmouth produces its venom in glands close to where the jaws join. When it bites, the muscles around the glands squeeze venom from the glands through ducts to the fangs. The venom destroys blood cells and reduces the normal coagulation and clotting abilities of the blood. This results in hemorrhaging where the poison has penetrated into the prey.
The name cottonmouth originates from the cotton-like color in its mouth. The name water moccasin is also often used instead of cottonmouth snake.
It is a widespread misunderstanding that the cottonmouth snake is aggressive compared to other snakes.
In a study by Gibbons and Dorcas (1998)1, this misunderstanding was challenged when data suggested that the cottonmouth is not as aggressive as people believe.
They demonstrated that, when the cottonmouth was threatened, it would try to escape in more than 50 percent of the incidences.
Most of the cottonmouths used threat displays to avoid the danger in the form of an artificial hand, and less than one out of three snakes tried to attack the artificial hand.
The cottonmouth snake is black, brown, or olive colored with lighter bands on its side.
The eggs of a cottonmouth mature inside the female's body and hatch within the female before birth. The size of a Cottonmouth litter ranges from 6-12 juvenile snakes that can be anywhere from 8-10 inches long (10-25 cm) and 0.75 inches (2 cm) in diameter.
Most female cottonmouths reproduce every second year. The percentage of females reproducing depends on prey availability, temperature, and size distribution of females in the population. Small female cottonmouth snakes are less likely to give birth. In a Virginia survey of cottonmouths (Blem & Blem, 1995)2 it was found that winter mortality during hibernation had a huge impact on fertility rates.
1Gibbons & Dorcas. "Defensive behavior of cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) toward humans", COPEIA Volume 1, pp. 195-198 (2002)
2Blem & Blem. "THE EASTERN COTTONMOUTH (AGKISTRODON PISCIVORUS) AT THE NORTHERN EDGE OF ITS RANGE", JOURNAL OF HERPETOLOGY Vol. 29 (3) pp. 391-398 (1995)
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