If you live near wetland or swampy areas of the southeastern U.S., you are probably familiar with cottonmouths. These snakes are excellent swimmers, but they are also highly venomous. Worst of all, there are plenty of other snakes that hang out near the water that are perfectly harmless, and many of these are easy to confuse with cottonmouths. So, in this article, we’ll talk about these different snakes that look like cottonmouths and how to tell them apart.
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Snakes That Look Like Cottonmouths
There are many different species of watersnake, many of which live in the same environments as cottonmouths. As the name suggests, they spend much of their time in the water, further adding to the confusion.
Some of the watersnakes most commonly mistaken for cottonmouths include plain-bellied, diamondback, common, and banded watersnakes. Each of these snakes are generally dark in color, some with non distinct patterns that appear similar to young cottonmouths especially.
The best way to tell watersnakes apart from cottonmouths is, from a safe distance, to look at the back part of the snake’s body.
Cottonmouths generally have dark bodies, and even those that are patterned fade to darker colors at the tail. Watersnakes do not have this color change.
What’s more, watersnakes are harmless, so they will have rounded eyes and smaller heads than cottonmouths. Cottonmouths are pit vipers, so they will have more triangular heads and slanted eyes.
Finally, you may notice slight differences in color and pattern between watersnakes and cottonmouths. For example, the northern watersnake has a noticeable change in pattern halfway down the body and is generally more brown in color, while cottonmouths may have no distinct pattern and are usually blacker.
Visit the Virginia Herpetological Society for more detailed information about telling cottonmouths apart from watersnakes.
2. Queen Snakes
Queen snakes are found in temperate areas of eastern North America. They are found only in regions where they have access to plenty of fresh, clean water.
These are semi aquatic snakes that spend a lot of time in the water. Though they are harmless and nonvenomous, it is easy to confuse them with cottonmouths at first glance.
Queen snakes have no discernable pattern. They generally range from light gray to brown to nearly black, though they have white bellies which sometimes wrap around to their sides, giving them a striped appearance.
Queen snakes don’t grow as large as cottonmouths, usually reaching a maximum of two feet long. This smaller size, as well as the stripes on the sides of the body, can help you tell them apart from cottonmouths.
What’s more, queen snakes also have small, rounded eyes and small heads. This gives them a noticeably different look than pit vipers like cottonmouths, which have a more triangular shape to the head and slanted, cat-like eyes.
3. Hognose Snakes
There are several species of hognose snake found throughout North and South America, as well as Madagascar. These snakes have one thing in common: squarish, pig-like snouts.
They come in many different colors and patterns, though they are generally light in color with darker, blotchy patches. The eastern hognose is most likely to be confused with the cottonmouth.
The eastern hognose may be dark, with brown and black patterns that make it look quite similar to a cottonmouth. When you add in the squished appearance of the snout and its large, flat head, it’s easy to see why it is so commonly mistaken for a cottonmouth.
Hognose snakes generally don’t hang out in the water, however. They prefer drier environments like agricultural areas and forests.
They do have a mild venom, but it is generally harmless to humans; it may cause only mild skin irritation. On the other hand, cottonmouth venom can cause tissue damage and other negative effects.
Check out this video to learn more about hognose snakes and some of their common behaviors:
4. Crayfish Snakes
Crayfish snakes live in the southeastern United States and are found in many of the same regions as cottonmouths. They are often mistaken for cottonmouths due to their behavior and coloring.
Crayfish snakes are semi aquatic; they spend much of their time in the water hunting for crayfish, their primary food source.
They have thick bodies that are typically a dark olive brown in color and may have darker lines running down the length of their back. They are lighter on the underside, with beige or yellowish stripes on their underside.
Because of their solid, dark coloring and the fact that they hang out in the water, they may be easily confused with cottonmouths.
Crayfish snakes, however, are not venomous. They are most easily distinguished from cottonmouths by the lighter-colored stripes running down their sides and undersides, as well as the rounded shape of their heads and eyes.
5. Swamp Snakes
These snakes are related to crayfish snakes. There are several different species of swamp snake, all of which are found in the southeastern U.S.
Swamp snakes spend almost all of their time in the water, swimming around in cypress swamps. They hunt a variety of small aquatic creatures such as fish, frogs, tadpoles, and leeches.
At first glance, swamp snakes may appear to be cottonmouths. This is because they are excellent swimmers and are a dark jet black in color–at least on their backs.
If you get a look at their undersides you will quickly realize they have a distinguishing feature; their bellies are bright orange or red in color. Cottonmouths do not have this coloration.
What’s more, swamp snakes are much smaller than cottonmouths, typically just 10 to 15 inches long. Between this small size and the bright belly color, you shouldn’t have too much trouble telling them apart from cottonmouths.
As you can see, there are several different types of aquatic and semi aquatic snakes that can be mistaken for cottonmouths. These include watersnakes, queen snakes, crayfish snakes, and swamp snakes.
Fortunately, all of these snake species are harmless to humans and have identifying features to help you distinguish them from the venomous cottonmouths.