Cottonmouth Encounter

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………this is not a confrontation

To view a full screen image of this Cottonmouth, just click on it;  this will take you to the photo gallery.  You will return to this story by simply clicking onto itsaboutnature.net, in the left margin of the photo gallery.

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I was slowly wading in shallow Everglades waters ………  when I was thrilled to suddenly encounter this animal, the largest living Florida Cottonmouth (Akdistrodon piscivorous) I have seen to date, at a distance of about 10 feet…..and its only escape would have to be to the rear of me…..because that is where the only water was.

For a long time I had wanted the opportunity for this photo.  Now here it was, right in front of me and I had my camera, lens and monopod with me!  This was what I was hoping to find that day because the temperature was about right for this opportunity:  It was a cool but sunny Fall afternoon, so the snakes would be looking to get into the Sun for some basking, not out of it to escape the heat.  And I knew where to look for one of these big specimens.  I just did not think the animal would be quite this big!

Because of their relatively low metabolic rates, snakes are “cold-blooded”, or ectothermic.  Of Greek origin, “ecto” means outside and “thermós“ hot.  It refers to organisms that control body temperature through external means.  Snakes are dependent on environmental heat sources to maintain comfort and movement.  They move around in their environment to keep their body temperature in a comfort zone.   The most obvious example of this is the enjoyment that snakes get from basking in the sun on cool days.  But snakes will take just as much care to stay out of hot temperatures because then they will overheat and collapse.

I had seen that happen one day when, in my attempt to do photographic retakes of a Cottonmouth, I repeatedly used my monopod to pull it back onto the Everglades levee it was trying to cross.  It was a hot, sunny day and at the time I had not yet seen a snake persist to remove itself from an area that was too hot for it.   After repeatedly pulling this snake back to the levee surface it collapsed!  I quickly picked it up with my monopod, move it into the brushy shade and it immediately recovered.  I thought about the incident.  Unlike almost every other Cottonmouth I confronted, this snake did not go into its typical defensive posture.  It was because it had to remove itself from the direct sunlight on the bright levee surface.

So on this cool Fall day, without the radiant energy of direct sunlight, I was not going to see any snakes.  But because the sun was out……..I had a real good chance.  Through many days on the marsh, I had learned that on hot Summer days (because it is too hot and they are under cover, AVOIDING the Sun) or a cold, overcast, Winter day (during a cloudy South Florida cold front)………I could not find a single Cottonmouth anywhere on the marsh surface.  They are still there, but under cover, out of sight, and largely incapable of even moving.  Also, during one of these very cold, South Florida cold fronts  I had been on a small “tree” island that was noted for a place where deer drop their fawns and, as I found out that day, became noted for its density of cottonmouths.  On this island there is a low, herbaceous ground cover, probably one to two feet in height.  On that cold day I entered the island and discovered many cottonmouths coiled and immobile (because of the cold temp) under the vegetation.  They were “everywhere”.  At one point I broke the Cardinal Rule by unknowingly stopping and standing, dangerously within inches of a coiled cottonmouth that was under this canopy of low vegetation!  I refused to move now, remaining motionless for more than several minutes.  Then I began to suspect what came to be fact:  None of these snakes could move at all because it was too cold.  It was like they were all dead, but they were not.

Now, on this cool but sunny day, basking in the Sun’s warm radiant energy, meant that temperatures were just right for this big snake to relish life in the Everglades. 

Cottonmouths simply dread humans……..probably because most humans within the Cottonmouth’s range will kill this animal on sight.  And so, no matter how much I wanted it to stay and kidded myself that it might………this one wasn’t going to stick around for any photo shoot.  And if I pressed it at all it would go into a defensive posture:  the head flung back and the mouth widely gaping.  That had happened many times in previous encounters…….and I did not want to portray the snake as being nasty-temperamented and aggressive.   I wanted the relatively calm subject…………just as you see it here and just as I believed it would happen one day.  To get the above photograph I knew to keep my distance and move very slowly, so as not to trigger its defensive posture.

One trait common to all the species of water snakes and the alligators is that they use water as escape cover.  And so, except during drought or sometimes in the breeding season, they are always immediately adjacent to water.   

Upon my encounter with this snake, we both became motionless, staring at each other.  But after a few moments it slowly began making its bid to escape to the safety of the water……but the only water was BEHIND me.

I was uneasy because I feared that it might move directly toward  me, forcing  me to move out of its way.    I thought, at best it would try to flank me to reach the water.  And then it did just that:

It began slowly making its way around me to escape to the water.   I was so relieved to see that this really big Cottonmouth wanted nothing to do with me at all….but I had to stop its escape to the water.

So I could stick to my game plan – remain at a distance where the snake did not feel pressed………but still block its path to the water………and do it very slowly.  I hoped that if I continued to move slowly and continued to block its escape path that it would again stop and remain motionless.  So each time the snake moved to get around me, I moved slowly and laterally to block its path to the water.  When it moved to its right toward my left flank, I moved laterally to my left….and then when it switched directions to get around my right flank, I slowly moved to my right to temporarily block its path.

While this was all happening I busily assembled the camera equipment that I would need for this shot.  These snakes possess a toxin that is extremely destructive to tissue.  I’d already paid hell once before, when I was bitten by a smaller Cottonmouth I was messing with.  I learned my lesson……never again get within striking range of the head.    And Cottonmouths are also likely to carry a group of highly infectious microbes in their mouths.  This might be because, unlike the other Crotalids, Cottonmouths eat carrion, usually in the form of dead fish.   I was alone and many miles from a hospital:  I had to be very careful.  But I knew from many encounters with these snakes that avoiding the danger would be simple…….just stay out of range of the snake and…….. do not provoke it.

These snakes are very dangerous, but simply not aggressive.   There is a big difference between those two traits.

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Here, I would like to temporarily leave my description of this encounter, returning after a paragraph or so.

Literally, 100% of snake bites are triggered by provocation, sometimes the person is unaware they are provoking the snake, but the snake is still being provoked:  The bitten person was either teasing the snake, attempting to capture it, or mistakenly stepping-on or standing-on the snake.   The latter situation does happen more often than you might think.     

There is no North American species that will move toward a person.  If provoked, it will only strike from the position in which it is coiled.  I have heard of people claiming that cottonmouths can be territorial and will move toward them at times.  I do not believe it.  Now, several times I have personally seen a large or mature cottonmouth move toward me AT A TANGENT OR ANGLE, i.e. not directly toward me.  I stood still and the snakes simply will crawl past me, seemingly oblivious to my presence. 

A woman once told me that while she was fishing, a cottonmouth crawled toward her and that it would have kept coming at her had she not gotten out of the way.  She told me that when she related the story to her husband, he said that it was probably after her milk, because at that time, she was pregnant!  I told her that snakes are not mammals and so they do not consume milk.  I wanted to tell her that her story illustrates just how ignorant some folks are regarding these snakes, but I thought better than to insult. 

So let me ask the reader a question:  When you read of these encounters with Cottonmouths, or experience them yourself with a group of Rednecks, which animal displays aggression?  Is it the Cottonmouth or is it the human?  Well the inarguable fact is that it is always the human that acts aggressive………ALWAYS.  The snake is forced into a defensive mode…..otherwise it is doomed and even then it is doomed.   Do you see this huge cottonmouth I photographed here, with its mouth agape?  No you do not.  The only reason is because I was very careful not to provoke it.   Ok, Cottonmouths seem to go into their defensive mode with little provocation, but that does not equate to aggression.  No way.  And once they go into that defensive mode, they do not attack.  But the Redneck does!  Most Rednecks tease the snake and then kill it.  That is not right.  And that is the truth, whether you like it or not.

Now back to the encounter:

So to stay WELL out of range of any potential strike I chose the 300mm lens.  The camera/lens went atop a monopod to dampen camera movement.  These were the days well before VR or IS stabilization technology.

After what seemed to be about two minutes, the snake stopped and remained motionless – staring at me.  And by the time the big snake stopped…..I was ready for the shoot.  Working quickly I placed my left hand atop the lens, draping it around the lens to dampen movement, weighting the lens down through the axis of the stiff monopod and into the ground.  Then I focused on the serpent’s eyes or snout and began hand-cranking off shots as fast as possible, but being careful to squeeze (not punch or jab) the shutter release button, and bracketing exposures to assure that I got one perfect exposure on the Kodachrome 64 film (image captured in late 1980′s….before digital cameras).  Following the “Sunny 16” rule, I varied exposures around the base exposure of f16 @ 1/60 second.  I insisted on f16 for maximum depth of field so I would have a sharp image from front to back.  This image was taken with a manually focusing Nikon 300 f4.5 EDIF lens attached to the camera body, all atop a Bogen pro monopod (since archived).  Years later, using a Coolscan scanner, I digitized the Kodachrome slide.   It all worked……. together…….all of which hinged foremost on confronting this animal in such a delicate manner so to get it to stop for the portrait, while not triggering its defensive posture.

Finally, as I stepped out of its way, this huge Cottonmouth peacefully moved past me and disappeared into Everglades marsh waters.  And I trusted it to simply move past me to the water, because that was all it wanted from the moment it found itself confronted by me……and I knew it was not aggressive.

The whole encounter and shoot couldn’t have gone any better!  

Could we call this mutualism ? ……because the snake did get something out of it.  Ok, so I ruined its day at the beach.  But it also brought you, the reader and naturalist, closer to an understanding of the TRUE nature of this long-maligned and unfairly maligned animal.

Yes, Cottonmouths do have a reputation for being easily provoked into a defensive posture and they often “stand their ground” when pressed.  If I had pressed this snake just a little bit it would have held its head vertically, as if to say “Don’t mess with me!”……….like this:cottonmouth at sunset (defensive posture)

And if I really pushed it, it would go into the typical cottonmouth posture of its head back and mouth gaped open, exposing its cotton-appearing interior.  But this encounter showed what I already knew to be true:  Cottonmouths are not aggressive….very defensive if confronted, but not aggressive.  If these snakes are aggressive, as many Good Ole Boys will still insist…..why did this jumbo-sized Cottonmouth not go after me?  Or why didn’t it just “barge” right through to the water?  From all my encounters with these snakes I have come to believe that WE BOTH FEAR EACH OTHER.

I am sure that behavior varies among individual animals.  Some Cottonmouth’s defensive posture is triggered just upon seeing a human.  And it is likely that there are other factors affecting the animal’s behavior.  Who among researchers could identify all factors that affect this species’ behavior when encountered by a human?  Maybe on this particular day the snake I have pictured here was feeling real good.  I like to think so.

What I know for certain is that the Eastern Cottonmouth or Florida Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) is the most maligned snake in the great American Southeast.  And in and around the Everglades that I worked in and am most familiar with (above Tamiami Trail), it is routine for folks to carry a gun (a handgun in the hunting off season) on their airboat or pick-up as they travel the Glade’s marshes or levees…….so all encounters with this snake end in the snake being shot to death.  But with this article and more in the future, maybe people WiILL begin to come around to the truth:  None of our North American snakes are aggressive.

Robert King

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