Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Watch Your Step: The Myth of Cottonmouth Nests

            It is hard for many people to imagine something more nightmarish than strolling along the shore of their local lake and stumbling into a nest of Cottonmouths. I believe there is a legend of a water-skier plowing right through one, or perhaps it was a Cottonmouth breeding ball. In any case, although the details escape me, surely we can all agree that he died a painful and miserable death.

Fortunately though, nobody needs to spend much time worrying about Cottonmouth nests. They don’t exist.

A nest is an area or structure where an animal lays its eggs or raises its young. Cottonmouths give birth to live young so they don’t need nests to hold eggs. And, Cottonmouths don’t take care of their young after they are born, so they don’t need a nest for that either.

So, what is the origin of this myth? Perhaps the simplest explanation is that someone noticed a number of baby Cottonmouths shortly after they had been born. In those early moments, the little snakes were probably still clumped together; perhaps mom was there too. But, before long, all snakes would head their separate ways.

Another potential explanation is that what some may think is a nest of Cottonmouths is actually a breeding congregation of non-venomous water snakes. When a receptive female water snake is in the area, she may attract several males, which tend to be much smaller. The competition and confusion of this rendezvous may make it appear as one of the fabled Cottonmouth nests of lore.

Cottonmouths are opportunistic predators, they will eat just about anything and are happy to take advantage of situations that make their prey easier to catch. Due to their close association with wetland habitats and their tendency to prey heavily on fish, they may congregate around ponds as they shrink in size during droughts. In these rapidly shrinking puddles of water, it may appear as though there are very high densities of Cottonmouths in small areas. I’ve suggested this occurrence may explain the myth of Cottonmouth breeding balls, but perhaps it could also explain the myth of Cottonmouth nests.

I believe I’m running out of Cottonmouth myths to debunk…Have I forgotten any?


This isn't the first time I've written about Cottonmouths.  For a discussion of Cottonmouths allegedly dropping into boats, click here. Or, to read about breeding balls, click here. To learn about where in the world you can find Cottonmouths, and where you can't, click here. Worried about getting chased down by one of these snakes? Then you need to read this. Not concerned about being bitten by a Cottonmouth in the water? You should be.

I wrote about how these snakes are quick to show up when a lot of toads (= food) appear here.  I've also written about accompanying Cottonmouth researchers as they wade through swamps to catch snakes in the spring as the reptiles try to take advantage of the new warmth and at night in the summer as the venomous snakes swam around me.  Finally, I provide some tips on recognizing Cottonmouths from non-venomous watersnakes here.

Cottonmouth pictures are provided courtesy of Fingerprince Prints.

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