Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Our gentle friends, the cottonmouth and rattler

Pure Florida (http://pureflorida.blogspot.com/), one of my favorite nature blogs, had a post recently about the cottonmouth moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus) in which he wrote about how the species is not at all aggressive despite what the average ignoramus says. Thus I am prodded into writing about a few encounters of my own re cottonmouths and the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus).

As you probably already know, wetlands are protected by federal, and in the case of Florida, state laws. My former profession as an environmental consultant often involved delineating wetlands, which is done by walking around a wetland’s perimeter and hanging surveyor’s plastic flagging at the legal edge of the wetland.

One day while doing so I hung a flag on a large slash pine (Pinus elliottii), at the base of which was a spongy mound of pine needles more than a foot thick. This unsteady purchase was hard to balance on when looking upward at the flag I was tying, so I leaned forward to brace myself against a stick that I saw out of the edge of my vision. That worked fine, so I finished tying the flag and then looked down in order to see which way to go on to the next survey point.

As I looked down I suddenly realized that the “stick” was actually a 3.5ft long momma water moccasin with a half-dozen babes draped over her thick body. The instant they were discovered, several of the young ‘uns leapt into the water and hid, although momma and her remaining children merely pulled their heads back a little as if startled, too. Of course I stepped back quickly, very quickly I might add, but they never made a hostile move toward me.

On another instance I was hanging a flag on a wax myrtle bush (Myrica cerifera) around a wetland within an abandoned phosphate mine near Lakeland, Florida. I finished tying the tape and looked down, and there were two 4.5ft long diamondback rattlesnakes at my feet. One was coiled up in a pre-position to strike while the other was stretched out. Both were easily within striking distance of my legs. I have a slight mental block as to exactly where the two were relative to my feet (can you blame me?), but I think my left foot was actually touching the coiled snake. Why were there two of them together like that? Possibly, they were “smoking a cigarette” after the act, if you know what I mean. LOL

Kirk, a friend I used to work with, was delineating wetlands on another abandoned phosphate mine nearby, and was having trouble figuring out exactly where to place the next flag. There are “gray areas” in every profession, and these highly disturbed sites are often highly “gray.” Anyway, he was walking back and forth and around and around, pondering the soils, hydrology and vegetation of the place, when suddenly a stretched out diamondback rattler came into focus, a big one maybe 5.5ft long.

That snake had a dent in the middle of its back that was exactly the size and shape of Kirk’s boot. Kirk surmises that the snake saw him coming and “froze” in order to avoid being seen. That tactic worked for a while, in fact long enough for Kirk to actually step on the snake at one point, leaving his boot mark in the back of the serpent.

How could Kirk NOT have felt the snake’s body when stepping on it? Well, imagine you are walking through a field and you step on a clump of broomstraw grass (Andropogon virginianus). The clump is soft and will tip sideways when you put your weight on it, and you will likely slide off. Evidently, that’s what the back of a large rattlesnake feels like!

Point of order: Snakes do not actually “freeze” when they want to remain hidden as you walk beside them. What they really do is relax, and that way if you step on them you think you are stepping on a rotten branch or a tuft of grass.

I have spent 30 years as a field biologist, plus another 10 years as a woods-walking adolescent and teenager, plus the last 9 years as a woods bum retiree. In those 49 years I have never been threatened by any of Florida’s four species of poisonous snakes (the other two are the pygmy rattlesnake, Sistrurus miliaris miliaris [http://tinyurl.com/yq84ua], and coral snake, Micrurus fulvius fulvius [http://tinyurl.com/yr7w57]).

A few weeks ago a small moccasin (15 inches long) was killed by an iggerant working at the RV park where I now live. He didn’t know what kind of snake it was, but he killed it because he kills all snakes that he finds. His fellow iggerant drove up and got really uptight when I approached to photograph the corpse, telling me stories of how a dead snake can bite me (and they can). the latter also kills all cottonmouths he runs into.

I don’t know how many times (but many!) I have looked down at my feet and seen a poisonous snake there, or how many time I have watched a companion walk directly over a poisonous snake, yet none of us were bitten. Usually we were not even threatened. Think of it this way: How much do you weigh? How much does a snake weigh? If that serpent knows anything in its dim little reptilian brain, it knows that if it bites you that you are going to kill it. So relax – poisonous snakes do!


  1. Up here in Ohio, I've never encountered any venomous snakes while working in the field. Copperheads are our most widely distributed hot herp, but I've never even seen one. It is just a shame that so many snakes are killed in Ohio because people think they might be venomous. Ohio doesn't even have eastern cottonmouth- its amazing how many northern water snakes are killed because people think they are poisonous "water moccasins".

    I've always heard that ecologically and physiologically speaking, it isn't worth a venomous snake to use its venom to strike in defense. It just isn't worth it to the snake, since the stuff takes energy to produce. Better save it for real prey. I'm just echoing your post- poisonous snakes are only going to strike as a last defense- you really have to prod and poke any snake to induce striking.


  2. On a trek thru the rain forest of lowland Belize we encountered two fer-de-lances (that we know of). A few of our members stepped literally over an 18 inch specimen, yet it did not threaten us (until hassled).

    Later that day we spotted a 6ft fer-de-lance coiled under a ginger plant. This is a VERY dangerous snake sporting 3/4 inch long fangs, two big poison glands and poison that will definitely kill you if you are a day or two away from medical attention. It, too, hunkered down and hoped it would not be seen.

    Venom is indeed expensive to make, the snake doesn't want to die, venom is needed for prey and for the next predator that comes along. There is no reason to kill these beautiful creatures.