Water Moccasins Versus Water Snakes

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There are many snakes that reside in water, the majority of which are harmless. When people are afraid of snakes, then all snakes look the same to them. This results in many harmless snakes being confused with the deadly water moccasin, or the cottonmouth. As a result, they are killed out of fear.

These deaths could be prevented if people were able to distinguish between a water moccasin and a simple water snake. The best way to accomplish this is by learning the most noticeable differences. This will allow individuals to quickly assess the threat and risk factors of the snake they have encountered.

What is a Water Moccasin?

The water moccasin, otherwise known as the cottonmouth, is the only venomous water snake located in North America. They are categorized as pit vipers. This means they have heat-sensing facial pits located between their eyes and nostrils.

Water moccasins are often on the larger side, measuring between 2 to 4 feet long. They are known for having cat-like pupils and large jowls, stemming from their venom glands. Water moccasins possess a few unique identifying features, one being the dark stripes by each nostril. The other is their large, triangular heads attached to a slender neck. This aids in their identification because not many other snakes have a distinctive neck.

What are Water Snakes?

Harmless water snakes are often mistaken for water moccasins, but they actually come from two different families. Unlike water moccasins, water snakes do not possess pits on their face or triangular-shaped heads. 

Water snakes can vary in color depending on the species. However, the most common colors seen are brown, gray, olive green, and red. These colors can change depending on whether the snake is wet or dry. Size varies depending on the type of water snake. For example, the northern water snake can reach up to 5 feet. In comparison, other species can reach up to 3 feet. Females tend to grow faster, heavier, and larger than their male counterparts.

Harmless Water Snake versus Venomous Water Moccasin

There are two major differences to consider when trying to distinguish between a harmless water snake and a venomous water moccasin. 

Body Shape

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Water moccasins are characterized by having very thick and heavy bodies with short, thick tails. This is unique when comparing the size of other snakes that are equal in length.  In contrast, harmless water snakes are characterized by long, slender bodies. Unlike the water moccasin, their bodies are more slender for their length, and their tails are longer.

Head Shape

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Image Credit: KingsleyLake.org

As stated above, water moccasins are known for their thicker heads. Their heads are large and bulky, but their necks are distinctly narrower. The inside of their mouth is also white in color. This is how they gained the nickname “cottonmouth”.  In comparison, harmless water snakes have more slender heads. Due to their heads looking flattened, their necks are not as distinct as the water moccasin’s.

If you are approached by a snake in a water environment, it is always best to move to a safer location. While snake attacks are rare, these reptiles are known to stand their ground and attack when they feel it is necessary. Always take your safety into consideration before your curiosity.

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