Harmless Watersnakes Often Mistaken on SanCap

Cottonmouth (not found on SanCap) vs. Florida watersnake (harmless, and found on SanCap)

Cottonmouth (not found on SanCap) vs. Florida watersnake (harmless, and found on SanCap)

This time of year usually means high water in the basins on Sanibel. With that, come more frequent observations of snakes by residents and visitors. This is because the wetlands, where several Sanibel snakes call home, become flooded and watersnakes or their relatives need a place to dry out and sun themselves. With no other options, those dry places become backyards, sidewalks, and parking lots. When water levels drop, most aquatic and semi-aquatic snakes retreat to dry areas near the edge of the wetland and out of the way of most people.

Unfortunately with the rise in snake observations due to high water come the reports of “water mocassins” (cottonmouths), a venomous snake in Florida. Sanibel is well within the range of the Florida cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti), however they have never been documented on Sanibel, Captiva, North Captiva, Cayo Costa or Pine Island.

Watersnake, not Cottonmouth
The snake that many people are seeing, and unfortunately misidentifying, is the Florida watersnake (Nerodia fasciata pictiventris). This is a common snake of the freshwater basins of the island. In brackish and saltwater (mangrove) areas of the islands, that snake is replaced by the mangrove saltmarsh snake (Nerodia clarkia compressicauda). Both of these harmless snakes are unfairly persecuted by people because they are thought to be “mocassins” simply because they are seen in or around water.

This does not ignore the fact that we are in the range of the Florida cottonmouth and it is possible for them to arrive here by swimming across the bay or arriving in shipments of sod/mulch/plants etc. Snakes are a very important part of the many ecosystems on Sanibel. They both eat prey and get eaten by predators as part of the food web. Native snakes should not be harmed, especially on this conservation island.

A major issue is that most people cannot correctly differentiate between the two snakes. Common verbal inaccuracies that I often hear from snake novices are “it had a triangular head,” “it rattled its tail,” “it had a heavy body,” “it was swimming,” etc.  The truth is that most snakes have a triangular shaped head and most exaggerate that triangular shape when they are threatened. Most snakes will rattle their tail, even though they don’t have a rattle, as a false threat. It is true that cottonmouths have a large, heavy build, but well fed watersnakes can also be massive. Finally, all local snakes can swim. There are many misnomers when it comes to snakes — and watersnakes probably experience the worst of that in regards to the cottonmouth.

Here are some key diagnostic features for the Florida watersnake (usually between 2.5- 3.5 ft) as compared to the cottonmouth:

  • Round pupils, as opposed to all venomous snakes in the U.S. with the exception of the coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) which have elliptical pupils (like a cat).
  • Banding is usually reddish with white outlines. The white is usually visible along the lower side of the snake (near the underside), even on dark specimens.
  • The labial scales (upper lip scales) have dark vertical outlines.
  • The body can be highly contrasting or almost solid black, but the banding should still be somewhat noticeable on dark animals.
  • Primarily a freshwater inhabitant.

The mangrove saltmarsh snake (usually 1 – 2.5 ft): (1)

  • Round pupils, as opposed to all venomous snakes in the U.S. with the exception of the coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) which have elliptical pupils (like a cat).
  • Narrow banding (difficult to see in most adults.
  • Variable color forms (black or brown with faded banding, all red or orange, or a blending of those.
  • Primarily a salt water or brackish inhabitant (found in mangrove systems).

The Florida cottonmouth (usually 3 -5 ft) as compared to the nonvenomous watersnakes of Sanibel:

  • Elliptical pupils, like a cat.
  • Wide, non-conformed bands with spots and speckles intermixed.
  • Labial scales not boldly outlined, but can have a pattern.
  • Brown or black bar on each side of the head that hides the eye of the snake (common to most rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths).
  • Mostly freshwater but also inhabits saltwater in north Florida.