If you’ve ever seen a cottonmouth slithering along the surface of a pond or marsh, you may have wondered about its lifestyle habits. In particular, what does a cottonmouth snake eat? How does it kill its prey? And do cottonmouths ever end up on the other side of the predator-prey relationship? Keep reading! In this article, we’ll explore the answers to all of these questions.
What You'll Learn Today
What Do Cottonmouths Eat?
Cottonmouths are carnivores so they live entirely on a meat-based diet. They are considered opportunistic or generalist feeders; this means they will eat many different kinds of foods depending on what they can find.
Some of the foods they commonly eat include:
- Fish: Fish are perhaps a cottonmouth’s favorite food group, as they make up the majority of the snake’s diet. Fish are plentiful in many of the streams and marshes that many cottonmouths call home.
- Amphibians: Amphibians are another common food source due to their abundance in the cottonmouth’s natural habitat. Cottonmouths particularly enjoy eating all different kinds of frogs, tadpoles, and salamanders.
- Reptiles: Cottonmouths eat various reptiles as well, including turtles, lizards, and geckos. Most impressively, cottonmouths have even been known to kill and eat baby alligators!
- Invertebrates: Cottonmouths sometimes eat invertebrates to supplement their diet. Some of these invertebrates include insects, spiders, slugs, and snails.
- Mammals: Cottonmouths eat a variety of small mammals, including mice, rats, skinks, and shrews. They may even target larger mammals, as their venomous bite allows them to kill animals much bigger than themselves.
- Birds: A variety of small birds sometimes make it into the cottonmouth’s diet. At times, they will even target larger birds, such as chickens and seagulls.
- Other snakes: Cottonmouths frequently eat other types of water snakes, and they will sometimes even target other venomous pit vipers. They have also been known to cannibalize juvenile members of their own species.
- Eggs: When looking for an easy meal, cottonmouths will sometimes eat bird or reptile eggs that have been left unattended. These eggs are rich in protein and nutrients that feed the baby animals developing inside; in turn, they provide a good source of food for any cottonmouths that come across them.
- Carrion: Cottonmouths are unique among snakes in that they will eat prey that has been killed by other predators or that has died some other way. Most snakes shy away from eating carrion, but cottonmouths aren’t picky and will take nearly anything they can find.
How Do Cottonmouths Kill Their Prey?
Cottonmouths are venomous pit vipers, and their venom allows them to take on sizable prey with relative ease.
Cottonmouths often lie in hiding, waiting for their next meal to pass by. Sometimes they will float in the water with their mouths open, waiting for fish or other water creatures to swim inside; other times they will coil up in tall grasses or under forest debris to wait for land animals.
Still other times, they will wiggle their tails like a worm in order to attract prey to them. This is especially true of juvenile cottonmouths, which have bright yellow tails that assist with attracting insects and small animals.
Once their prey gets close enough, the snake will lunge forward and bite down hard, injecting venom through its fangs. If the prey animal is large, the snake will let go and allow it to escape, following it at a safe distance until it dies.
With smaller prey, the snake will typically wrap its body around its victim, holding on tight until the animal dies from the venom. It will then swallow the prey whole.
Check out this video of a cottonmouth killing and eating a rattlesnake:
What Predators Eat Cottonmouths?
Though cottonmouths are intense predators, they are not at the top of the food chain. Many animals eat snakes, and just because they have a dangerous bite doesn’t mean cottonmouths are safe from these predators.
So, what kinds of predators are we talking about? Which animals are daring enough to risk messing with cottonmouths?
- Alligators: Though cottonmouths sometimes eat baby alligators, they are no match for the adults. Alligators are common in many of the same regions and environments as cottonmouths, and as such, they are one of the cottonmouth’s most common predators.
- Birds of prey: Hawks, eagles, falcons, and other birds of prey commonly eat all kinds of snakes, including cottonmouths. Water birds such as herons eat cottonmouths as well from time to time.
- Snapping turtles: Snapping turtles are large, aggressive, and have a damaging bite, and they sometimes target cottonmouths living in their habitat. Though adult cottonmouths would probably have the edge over young snapping turtles, the same is inversely true of adult snapping turtles taking on young cottonmouths.
- Humans: Most humans try to avoid cottonmouths, but in some regions people hunt the snakes for meat. This is most common in survival situations and military combat training, but cottonmouths are occasionally cooked and served as a delicacy in some localities.
Cottonmouth snakes eat many different kinds of animals, insects, and other meat-based foods. They are generalist feeders and fierce hunters, but they sometimes become the hunted when they face off against larger predators such as alligators, birds of prey, and even humans.