Woe is the Life of the Water Snake

We come in peace!
We come in peace!

So...

...Out of the corner of my eye I saw a strange movement in the swift stream. It looked like a fishtail bouncing up and down out of the water. I elbowed my friend that was fishing with me and pointed at the oddity. He said, “What is that?”

I said, “I don't have a clue.”

We stared in wonder as it got closer to us. It was indeed a fish's tail bouncing up and down out of the water. We both starred in amazement wondering what could be causing a fish's tail to be bouncing up and down like that.

Finally it got close enough for us to see. The bottom half of the fish was inside the mouth of a large water snake. As he got closer he turned towards beaming with his big catch, as if he were a lucky fisherman passing by to show off his catch. Proudly he turned his head and strolled on down stream.

Both my friend and I were amazed. I said, “Wow! That is certainly something you don't see every day!”

My friend replied, “Jerk.”

Confused I spun toward him, “Huh?”

He spit and said, “We haven't caught any fish that big today.”


Spending all day swimming and fishing might not sound like a bad deal... Actually it sounds pretty amazing, but life isn't as simple as it should be for the harmless water snake. The reason life isn't as simple as it should be for water snakes is because we humans are stupid. People constantly mistake the poor harmless snake for the 'vile', 'evil', and 'conniving' venomous snakes that look somewhat similar.

The fact of the matter is that water snakes are harmless and even some times friendly to their own fault. I mean I've literally hand fed wild water snakes minnows that I was using for fishing bait. Unfortunately for innocent water snake, people can't seem to get over their ridiculous fear of snakes so many of them get killed for no reason.

What kind of snake am I?
What kind of snake am I?

Question 1

What kind of snake is in the picture above? The answer will be at the bottom of the article.

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Notice the cat like eyes? The extra hole that looks like a second nostril called a pit?  The triangular shape of the head? This is a venomous snake.
Notice the cat like eyes? The extra hole that looks like a second nostril called a pit? The triangular shape of the head? This is a venomous snake.
Notice the round eyes? No extra Nostril? The slimmer roundness of the head? This is a harmless water snake. Photograph taken by Patrick Coin. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Notice the round eyes? No extra Nostril? The slimmer roundness of the head? This is a harmless water snake. Photograph taken by Patrick Coin. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

So how can you tell the difference between a harmless water snake and Water Moccasin or Copperhead?


The Basics...

Both of the two species of venomous snakes mentioned are pit vipers and have different heads and eyes. The venomous snakes have large venom glands on their heads that create a triangle shape while the water snake will have a more rounded head. The water snake will also have an eyeball more similar to a human's eye in that the pupils will be round. The venomous snakes have eyes more similar to cats in that their pupils have slits.

Since most people that kill snakes are also utterly terrified of snakes I'm guessing most people won't bother trying to get close enough to check the head and eyes before smacking away at the poor creature with a canoe paddle so lets move on to how they look. First though, and I can't stress this enough. Don't go out of your way to kill snakes. This includes the venomous ones. Obviously if it comes down to you or a venomous snake... Smack away, but in most cases they will just want to get away from you. People who get bit by snakes are usually the ones that are messing with or trying to kill them. Some people call this natural selection.

What you looking at???  This is a water moccasin/cottonmouth up close. If you ever find yourself looking this close in to a water moccasin's face... You aren't in a good place.
What you looking at??? This is a water moccasin/cottonmouth up close. If you ever find yourself looking this close in to a water moccasin's face... You aren't in a good place.
Notice the whiteness in the mouth. This is why they are called cottonmouths.  Photo by Geoff Gallice.
Notice the whiteness in the mouth. This is why they are called cottonmouths. Photo by Geoff Gallice.

Water Moccasins/Cottonmouths.


Yes they are the same thing. If anyone tells you otherwise they are wrong. Feel free to inform them they are wrong at your own risk. Some people are quite adamant that they are different.

Water moccasins are probably the most common thing that people mistake water snakes for. In fact some people call brown water snakes false moccasins. The reason is... Drum roll please... They are both semi-aquatic species of snakes. Semi-aquatic meaning that while they prefer water they don't have to be in water all of the time to survive. However, you will generally only see water moccasins and water snakes in or near a water source.

In most cases when you come in close contact with a snake it will flee regardless of the species. However, water moccasins have a reputation for standing their ground. The water snake will pretty much always run when scared. When the water moccasin stands it's ground it will open it's mouth and hiss. When it's mouth is open you can see that it's disturbingly white... Hints the name cottonmouth. Also it's good to note that contrary to popular belief most water moccasin's won't attack unless you actually attack them first. Venomous snakes only have so much venom at any given time, and they would much rather use it on food then some stupid human waving a paddle at them.

Water moccasins tend to be darker colored with brown and black patches. They some times have other shades but generally dark brown with thick black spots or a black with brown spots. Their patterns also tend to be kind of random.

This is a copperhead sticking his tongue out at you. Some 'Scientists' might tell you that they use their tongue as a sensory organ... but I think he may just sticking his tongue at you to taunt you in to a fight!
This is a copperhead sticking his tongue out at you. Some 'Scientists' might tell you that they use their tongue as a sensory organ... but I think he may just sticking his tongue at you to taunt you in to a fight!
Can you see me? The copperhead's camo is top of the line. They can be very hard to spot in their preferred domains.
Can you see me? The copperhead's camo is top of the line. They can be very hard to spot in their preferred domains.

Copperheads


Copperheads aren't aquatic. That doesn't mean that you will never see them in water, but the chances are a lot lower. Usually when someone says they saw a copperhead in water it generally was really just a water snake.

Copperheads also will avoid contact with humans like the other two, however they have a different technique when approached by humans. Where water moccasins like to flex their muscles and act tough, copperheads will often hold completely still. The reason for this is believed to be because of their amazing camouflage. Copperheads can be nearly impossible to spot in the right environment. So when a human approaches a copperhead it may hold completely still until it's actually being touched. If you may have passed right by hundreds of copperheads in your life and never even known it. Of course this also leads to accidental bites occasionally from people unknowingly stepping on copperheads.

There are five different breeds of copperheads in the U.S., and each have slight differences in appearance. However, when you see one clearly they all are pretty much obviously copperheads. Generally they have a light tan or pink color that has dark brown or red overlays. In some species they have large brown bands that kind of wrap around the body. The others which are more common in my neck of the woods tend to have brown or red patches over top the light tan or pink that looks like camo.

Also their heads... Surprise... Surprise... Are usually copper colored.

Water snakes


Water snakes you will almost always see in or very near water. If you have read any of my fishing articles you will know that I spend a lot of time canoeing and kayak a creek that runs behind my house. I see at least a few water snakes nearly almost every trip. In the 10 years that I've been floating that creek I've only seen one water moccasin and no copperheads in or around the creek. Now obviously that isn't going to be the case everywhere. I'm sure if you go down in the swamp you will see a higher population of moccasins, but on your average river, stream, or lake I would surmise that you would be more likely to see a water snake then a copperhead or water moccasin.

Water snakes come in a variety of colors and patterns. However since we are talking about how they get mistaken for copperheads and water moccasins I'm going to focus on the kinds that could be easily mistaken. Some can have a dark brown appearance similar to that of some water moccasins. Others have red and brown colors similar to copperheads. The biggest difference I can see, and someone please correct me if I'm wrong but most water snakes don't have full bands that go all the way around their body. As mentioned previously, both water moccasins and some breeds of copperheads tend to have full bands that go around their back from side to side. They might have the same color pattern of the venomous snakes, but the pattern is different. Instead of bands they have spots or patches that randomly run up and down their bodies.

For instance the water snakes I commonly see that people mistake for copperheads are tan with reddish brown patches. However where the copperheads have bands the water snakes will have patches. The patches may follow a more controlled pattern than the copperhead's too.

This isn't always the case however as there is a breed of water snakes that does have bands and can look pretty close to either a copperhead or water moccasin.

What kind of snake am I? Careful... This ones tricky!
What kind of snake am I? Careful... This ones tricky!

Question 2

What kind of snake is in the picture above? The answer will be at the bottom of the article

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What kind of snake am I?
What kind of snake am I?

Question 3

What kind of snake is in the picture above? The answer will be at the bottom of the article

See results without voting

The best way to tell for sure if a snake is safe is to leave it alone!


Hopefully this will help people see the difference and a few less water snakes will be killed for no reason. Realistically though I know there are few brilliant people out there that will continuing killing every snake they see, and will get added to the statistics of people being bitten by snakes. Seriously the most common cause of venomous snake bites is people messing with or trying to kill venomous snakes. So if people took a moment to realize that their fear of snakes is silly and didn't try to go Rambo on every snake they see then a whole lot less people would get bitten. If a venomous snake poses no immediate danger to you or your loved ones then the best way to keep them safe is to let the snake go on with it's business. It probably won't hang around people long anyway.

Answers

Question 1: Water Snake... The head is hard to see but look at the pattern. Small patches, not full bands going around the body.

Question 2: Juvenile Water Moccasin... This one really looks like a copperhead, but is in fact a baby water moccasin. I would have guessed copperhead too. The head should blatantly point out that it isn't a water snake.

Question 3: Water Snake... Look at the round slim head. It's a dead giveaway.

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Comments 3 comments

Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York

Great hub. Funny you should mention mis IDing water snakes. I've been planning on writing a hub about a pretty stupid blunder I saw on my local news: a so-called vet misIDed some kind of water/garter snake for someone's pet BOA CONSTRICTOR (that they stupidly assumed must have been placed there as a joke), and pretty much justified the man's killing of it with a 2x4 (it was found in a walmart bag).


Phillbert profile image

Phillbert 4 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Wow lol some vet! I don't even see why he would have wanted to kill it if he thought it was a pet boa. Pet boas are usually pretty harmless too unless they are a big and aggressive breed. Obviously it must have been pretty small for him to mistake it for a water or garter snake. Randomly snake killing is just silly.


EdTecher profile image

EdTecher 18 months ago from USA

Thanks for this info. I live near a river and occasionally see snakes there, but did not know what kind they were. I'll be sure to pay attention to the shape of the head and eyes next time!

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