Cottonmouth/Water Moccasin (Venomous)
Do not occur naturally throughout most of Tennessee. They bask on land or on logs and stumps near the water surface; swim with their heads elevated above the water and their bodies riding on the water surface. They may vibrate their tails and gape their mouths when threatened. Cottonmouths, if banded, have bands that are widest on the sides and narrow on top; have triangular heads with elliptical eye pupils and a heat-sensing pit; and have a single row of scales on the underside of their tails.
The cottonmouth’s rumored reputation as a vicious snake far exceeds its true character. This is not an aggressive snake that attacks without provocation, and rarely does it strike even when harassed. Venom is a precious commodity that cottonmouths use for subduing prey, and wasting venom on anything that is not “food” may prevent a snake from catching its next meal. Further, the gaped display of the “cottony” inner-mouth of a cottonmouth is not an act of aggression, but rather a warning of its toxicity no different than the rattling behavior of rattlesnakes. Venomous snakes pose very little threat to humans who leave them alone the vast majority of snakebites result from attempting to capture, harass, or kill them.
Water Snakes (Nonvenomous)
Occur in aquatic habitats throughout Tennessee. Water snakes bask on limbs overhanging water; typically swim below the water surface. If banded, the bands are widest on top and narrow on the sides. Water snakes have round eye pupils and have a double row of scales on the underside of their tails. All snakes play an important role in the environment, including venomous species such as cottonmouths. Please help protect these unique animals. It is illegal in Tennessee to harm, kill, remove from the wild or possess animals taken from the wild, including ALL snakes, without the proper permits.
Some people ask this question when they see a snake in the water. Unfortunately, many people assume all snakes in the water are cottonmouths and kill them “just in case.” Along with sharks and bats, snakes are among the most misunderstood and mistreated animals on earth. Yes, some species of snakes, including the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), also known as the water moccasin, are venomous and therefore a potential danger. However, of the 32 snake species native to Tennessee, only 4 are venomous all others are completely harmless. Among the 28 harmless nonvenomous snakes, water snakes (Nerodia and Regina species) and eastern hognose snakes (Heterodon platirhinos) are often unfortunate victims of mistaken identity thought to be cottonmouths. This brochure was developed to highlight the differences between water snakes, hognose snakes, and cottonmouths with the hope that familiarity with these snakes will prevent further unnecessary killing of snakes.
COTTONMOUTHS VS. WATER SNAKES
Cottonmouth?” should be to refer to the distribution map that illustrates the range of the cottonmouth. Collectively, water snakes can be found in every county of Tennessee, unlike the cottonmouth, which does not naturally occur in most of the middle and eastern half of the state. However, since distributions are not static and snakes may be moved around intentionally or accidentally, physical features and behaviors of questionable snakes should also be examined. Although it is difficult to summarize the habitat preferences of these snakes, in general cottonmouths do not prefer large, open reservoirs, whereas many water snakes do. Cottonmouths tend to inhabit slow-moving streams, swamps, and backwaters.