This seems like a strange title… of course they are still around. However, it is referring to the number of encounters beach residents in the Pensacola Beach have had this year. The first report was of a large individual coiled beneath a palm tree near a condominium unit by the gate of Ft. Pickens. Park officials relocated that snake. Soon after, another individual was found swimming in the surf of the Gulf of Mexico within the national seashore (honest… that is a strange place to find a rattlesnake). A third was photographed snake crawling near the gate at Johnson’s Beach on Perdido Key, again within the national seashore. I found a small individual coiled in the hollow space of a live oak tree at Naval Live Oaks in Gulf Breeze, again – within the seashore. And last week I was driving through the Ft. Pickens area and saw another crossing the road near Battery Worth; it safely made it across the road.
Diamondback rattlesnake near condominium construction site Pensacola Beach.
Photo: Sawyer Asmar
Some would say, “Safely made it across the road? I would not worry about safely making it across the road” – but most of you know I am a fan of snakes and do not wish them ill will. Others feel similar but would rather they stay away from people. I get that. Some would have tried to run over the snake so that it was not a threat to others in the park. I understand that thought process also but, as had been said before by many, snakes are beneficial to the ecosystem – benefitting us by controlling disease-carrying rodents, and rarely approaching people – it is usually the other way around. Besides, this is a national park – you cannot run over snakes there.
So what’s up with all the recent encounters?
Is the island overrun with snakes?
This question came up last spring over on Perdido Key when a community was frequently encountering cottonmouths. It would obviously take a population assessment by a qualified herpetologist to determine the density of snakes per acre; but no such study is being conducted – nor are there plans for one anytime soon. They tend to avoid people and, typically, become more visible when they are pushed from their hiding places. They are also more visible during breeding season, which for the eastern diamondback rattlesnake is late summer and fall.
There is concern for safety when discussing the rattlesnake. So let’s learn a little more about this animal. To know them better is to learn how to avoid problems with them.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnake crawling near Ft. Pickens Campground.
Photo: Shelley Johnson
The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) is the largest venomous snake in North America, reaching lengths of eight feet and 4-6 lbs. (though some have weighed as much as 15 lbs.). They prefer high dry ground, such as the dune fields of barrier islands, feed on a variety of rodents, and have a particular fondness for rabbits. Word is, if there are rabbits – there may be rattlesnakes.
When small, they have numerous predators including raptors, mammals, and even bullfrogs. To defend themselves, they lie beneath vegetation cover during the summer months and within burrows and stump holes in the winter. Unlike the cottonmouth, rattlesnakes prefer to hunt during the daylight hours.
They breed in the fall just before the first cold temperatures and then settle into a burrow for the winter. They will have 12-24 young, delivered live, and the females will stay with the young until they shed their first skin, at which time the young are on their own.
They tend to avoid human contact and rarely venture into our territory unless (a) we have provided good habitat for their prey, (b) we have reduced their preferred habitat to a point they have no choice. Locally, all recent encounters (less one) have been within the National Seashore. One encounter was in the dune fields near Big Sabine. These are all natural habitats far from people – which is a good thing.
Rattlesnake venom is potent, and people should keep a respectful distance for this animal. My college professor said their venom is “expensive” and meant for killing prey. What he meant by “expensive” was in terms of the energy and compounds to produce it. That said, they would inject venom if their life depended on it. One encounter I read about on a barrier island in Georgia involved a large eastern diamondback. He said the head was close to 4 inches and the coiled body was large enough to cover a manhole. He was not sure how long the snake was, but needless to say – it was a large snake. He was actually a herpetologist who works with snakes and was searching for them. He had a steel snake tong with him. He used that to cover his leg and walked past the snake. The snake never made an attempt to strike convinced it was camouflaged and did not need to. He looked back after walking a few feet and the rattlesnake remained in the coiled position awaiting a rabbit. Snakes that are annoyed will often rattle and lift into the S-shape strike position. You should give an animal doing this plenty of room, their strike range is 2/3 their body length.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnake swimming in intracoastal waterway near Ft. McRee in Pensacola.
Photo: Sue Saffron
Despite our fears, these are fascinating and beneficial animals. There is a variety of reasons we may be seeing more on our barrier islands, but understanding them will help reduce negative encounters.
Gibbons, W. M. Dorcas. 2005. Snakes of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press. Athens GA. pp. 253.
Graham, S. 2018. American Snakes. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore MD. pp. 293.
This beautiful scarlet kingsnake was run over near the author’s home
Snakes are some of the coolest animals on the planet but I’ll admit to something right up front; when a snake surprises me, I still jump, often. Even if I seem composed on the outside, something inside me almost always jumps. It does not matter if it is a venomous species or not. In spite of my basic understanding of and great appreciation for reptiles, snakes connect with a primal instinct that shouts “lookout” at some subconscious level. This human character trait is most-often the undoing of many an innocent serpent, happily going about its business when, WHAM, lights out. When a snake dares touch the human subconscious, our first emotion is often shock or fear; then perhaps anger; and in the end, payback for the offense. Many a good snake has met a very bad end when it has surprised a person.
Shock and fear are powerful emotions and I can almost (not totally) understand the outcome described above when someone is honestly shocked by a snake’s unexpected appearance. Nevertheless, even my wife, during a shocking encounter with a 5-foot oak snake while collecting eggs in the chicken house, was able gather her wits and shoo the critter out of the coop with a stick, rather than kill it. She did have me go the next evening to get the eggs though.
The one thing I have no empathy for however is when folks go out of their way to kill a snake that is trying to cross one of our roadways. About 90% of the dead snakes I see on the road are so close to the edge of the pavement that they were easily avoidable. C’mon people, that should be a “snake-safe” zone. These animals are likely never to encounter a human as they go about their business, performing important ecological functions in their natural habitat. Their great misfortune was that they had to cross an asphalt corridor used by humans. How about providing the same courtesy that most folks do when they see a turtle on the highway.
I see my share of cottonmouths smashed on the road (and that’s a shame too in my book) but other flattened species I’ve encountered include mud snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, ribbon snakes, water snakes, racers, scarlet kingsnakes, green snakes, and many more; all harmless creatures. Recently, I stopped to look at a nice 4-foot coachwhip; a beautiful specimen, except for the fact that it was dead.
I get a thrill in seeing a living snake and having the chance to marvel at its form, function and beauty. If you ever have the chance to look closely at a pygmy rattlesnake in the wild (hopefully not in your turkey blind) you will be blown-away by its magnificent beauty. Black, velvety blotches on a gray background, with a rusty stripe running down the middle of its back. Same thing for a large diamondback rattlesnake (from a respectable distance). These have been some of my favorite natural encounters in the woods of North Florida, where we are truly blessed with a diversity of amazing animals and yes, super-amazing snakes. We should always use common sense of course when roaming the woods and enjoying our wild encounters, i.e. don’t ever catch venomous snakes (not worth the thrill), keep your hands out of hidden places, and watch where you put your feet. Oh, and work on cultivating a “live and let live” attitude when it comes to our scaly friends on the highway. They will oblige likewise.
In the past week, three eastern diamondback rattlesnakes were encountered near the Ft. Pickens area on Pensacola Beach. The first was at a condominium unit near the park gate where construction work was occurring, the second was found swimming in the surf of the Gulf of Mexico within the national seashore, and the third was in the national seashore’s campground. This is an animal we rarely encounter on our barrier islands – but that is the keyword… encounter… they are there, but tend to avoid us.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnake crawling near Ft. Pickens Campground.
Photo: Shelley Johnson
Report on rattlesnake in Gulf surf –
The eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) is the largest venomous snake in the United States. An average snake will reach six feet and five pounds, but they can reach eight feet and up to 15 pounds. Because of their large bodies, they tend to move slow and do not often try to escape when approached by humans. Rather, they lie still and quite hoping to be missed. If they do feel you have come to close, they will give their signature rattle as a warning – though this does not always happen. If they are considering the idea of striking – they will raise their head in the classic “S” formation. Know that their strike range is 2/3 their body length – larger than many other native snakes – so a four foot snake could have a three foot strike range. Give these snakes plenty of clearance.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes prefer dry sandy habitats, though they are also found in pine flatwoods (such as Naval Live Oaks north of highway 98 in Gulf Breeze). They are quite common in the upland sandhills of longleaf pine forests. They spend the day in tree stump holes and gopher burrows and hunt small mammals and birds in the evenings. They are particular fond of rabbits. The dunes of our barrier islands are very similar to the sandhills of the pine forest further north. They are actually good swimmers and saltwater is not a barrier – distance is. They have been seen numerous times swimming from Gulf to Pensacola Beach or the opposite. Again, they tend to avoid encounters with humans and are not often found on lawns etc.
Diamondbacks give birth to live young around August. The females will find a dark-cool location to den and give birth several young. Anywhere from four to 32 offspring have been reported. The female remains with the young for about 10 days until they have their first molt (skin shedding) and then she leaves them to their fate.
Diamondback rattlesnake near condominium construction site Pensacola Beach.
Photo: Sawyer Asmar
So what’s up with three encounters in a relatively small location within one week?
My first inclination is two possibilities – maybe a combination of the two.
- We have had a lot of rain this year – and then T.S. Gordon came through. Snakes like to be on high dry ground as much as anyone else and they tend to move closer to human habitats because they are built on higher ground.
- Breeding season for eastern diamondbacks is late summer early fall. This time of year, the males are on the move seeking interested females – so they are encountered more.
As far as finding one in the surf of the Gulf of Mexico. I am not sure. I have never seen this and the newspaper account suggested it was not doing well when found. Again, I have seen plenty swimming the Intracoastal but this is a first for the Gulf. I would say it had wondered the wrong way.
They are actually fascinating animals and are not a threat unless you approach too close. Give them room and feel lucky if you get to see one.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. Natural History. Center for Biological Diversity. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/reptiles/eastern_diamondback_rattlesnake/natural_history.html.
Krysko, Kenneth L., and F. Wayne King. 2014. Online Guide to the Snakes of Florida. Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA. [Online: September 2014] Available at: http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/herpetology.
Most people know that snakes are ectothermic and the environment is what regulates their body temperature. However, many do not know that they like to maintain their temperature close to 98 F like us. To do this they must move to locations where they can either warm (like basking in the sun or lying on warm asphalt) or cool (like under rocks or logs). Unlike us, their temperature can rise to above 100 F or down close to 30 F with few health problems.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake swimming across the Intracoastal Waterway near Pensacola Beach.
Photo: Andy Barnes
When environmental temperatures become colder, their heart and breathing rates slow significantly. Their blood oxygen levels decrease, and they become very slow and sluggish – a condition we call torpor. There are some advantages to this, such as not having to hunt for food for several weeks or months, but when the air temperatures begin to climb they become more active… Moreover, their hungry.
In the last two weeks, I have had numerous reports of snakes moving around in yards. There have been three records of diamondback rattlesnakes in the Pensacola Beach area alone.
Should I be concerned about doing outdoor activities?
No, not really – but you should be aware. As it warms, snakes will become more active early in the morning and late in the evening. Pit vipers, like rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, actually prefer hunting at night. However, when the temperatures are cool enough for mid-day movement, they will. Food and reproduction (for some species) are on their mind this time of year.
Stay on the trails – snakes typically do not like to be in the open because of predators but they do have to bask to increase their body metabolism; so they may be along the edge. If I am hiking, I tend to look down along the trail when walking. If I want to observe something in the trees, I stop.
These snake movements happen every year, and very people have problems, but with the recent increase in encounters it is could to be aware. I actually think snakes are pretty cool. I enjoy seeing them, especially ones that are not viewed very often like coral snakes and rattlesnakes. You should still go out and enjoy the Pensacola Bay area. It is a great time of year to do it.
the “cottonmouth” gape of this venomous snakes is a warning. Notice the banded coloration of this individual.
Photo: UF IFAS Wildlife
Also known as the Water Moccasin, this is a snake that is all too familiar with most Floridians… Or is it? Several non-venomous water snakes are often confused with the cottonmouth and are thus killed. That said, cottonmouths are common in the state near areas of water and many residents do have encounters with them. This fact sheet will provide information that help reduce negative encounters with this venomous snake.
- cottonmouths have a relatively thick-stout body with a broad head and thin neck
- they are generally banded and can be brown, gray, reddish in color; many become darker with age and may be solid black; cottonmouths who frequent tannic waters may have cooper color to them
- average length 36″ (3 ft.); max length 74″ (6 ft.)
- copper colored with a yellowish-green tipped tail; used to attract prey
HOW TO TELL FROM NON-VENOMOUS WATER SNAKES
- there are several species of water snakes from the genus Neroidia which are confused with cottonmouths
- the scales between the eyes on top of the head are larger than others on the head; they have narrow necks
- Neroidia will have heads shaped more like your thumb and neck is as wide as head – NOTE: Neroidia CAN WIDEN THEIR HEAD WHEN THREATENED
- when head is viewed from above, the eyes of the cottonmouth are hard to see
- cottonmouths have a creamed colored cheek with dark “mask” extending from eye to back of lower jaw
- Neroidia may have creamed colored cheek but will lack “mask”; will possess thin vertical stripes that extend from lower to upper jaw
- there are single scales extending from the vent (anus) to tip of tail in cottonmouths; those same scales are divided into multiple ones on Neroidia
- the underside of the cottonmouth tail is usually dark; Neroidia is usually lighter in color
- pupil of cottonmouth is elliptical; it is round on Neroidia
- cottonmouths, being members of the pit viper family, will have heat sensing pit between nostril and eye; Neroidia will lack this pit
- scales are keeled, but this is true for some non-venomous snakes
This banded water snake is often confused with the cottonmouth. This animal has the vertical stripes extending from the lower jaw, which is lacking in the cottonmouth.
Photo: University of Georgia
HOW TO TELL FROM OTHER PIT VIPERS
- cottonmouths are often confused with copperheads – both in same genus
- copperheads will lack characteristic “mask” found on cottonmouths and rattlesnakes
- the bands of the copperhead are more uniformed than the cottonmouth and are shaped like an hour glass
- copperheads are generally lighter in color
- it is difficult to tell young copperheads and cottonmouths apart; both have the light yellow-green tipped tail and light body coloring
SUBSPECIES OF COTTONMOUTHS
- there three recognized subspecies of cottonmouths
- the Florida Cottonmouth (Florida (A.p.conanti) – is darker, many times black, with two vertical bars on snout; found throughout the state of Florida
- the Eastern Cottonmouth (A. p. piscivorous) is lighter in color than the Florida and has no pattern on snout; found in extreme western Florida panhandle and the Appalachian valley of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina
- the Western Cottonmouth (A.p.leucostoma) – is similar to the eastern cottonmouth but darker in color; found in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma
WHATS IN A NAME
- The Cottonmouth and the Water Moccasin are the two names for the same snake; herpetologist prefer to use the name Cottonmouth
- The snake was originally described by B.G.E. Lace (1789) using the term “piscivorous”; which means “fish eater”
- Gerard Troost (1836) describe the western subspecies using the term “leucostoma”; which means “white mouth”
- Howard Kay Gloyd (1969) described the Florida subspecies using the term “conanti”; which was honoring the herpetologist Roger Conant of the Philadelphia Zoo
Many in the panhandle use the terms cottonmouth and copperhead interchangeably. They are closely related but this photo of a copperhead shows the lighter coloration and the hour-glass shaped pattern of the blotches along the body.
Photo: UF IFAS Wildlife
- cottonmouths are found throughout the southeast United States but avoid mountainous areas
- they are usually found with 30 feet of a water source, though some have been found as far as 100 feet away
- they prefer slow, quiet, backwater areas over faster flowing waterways
- they are most common in pine flatwoods but can be found in a variety of habitats and do well near humans
- they have been found in brackish water areas but freshwater is usually nearby
- they are becoming more common on barrier islands, and in some cases in high numbers, but do need sources of freshwater; they cannot extract from seawater
- cottonmouths hunt primarily at night; though daylight hunting happens
- on cool mornings they may climb lower branches of trees to bask; usually close to water
- they will remain still in one location for long periods of time waiting for prey to come within range; but they are known to stalk prey as well
- when prey are found they will strike using their hollow fangs to inject a hemotoxin; this venom is known to contain components that cause death, by attacking the muscle and circulatory system, and digestive enzymes to begin the process before swallowing
- in the cooler parts of their range cottonmouths will hibernate; but tend to be active year round in FL
- cottonmouths are carnivorous and opportunistic; prey include fish, small mammals, reptiles and birds; they will feed on smaller cottonmouths
- they are known to scavenge and are attracted to the smell of dead fish
- they hunt primarily at night but are known to during daylight hours as well
- they hunt fish and CAN bite underwater – despite the legend that they cannot
Cottonmouth’s are known to feed on a variety of prey including carrion.
Photo: University of Florida
- primary predator include alligators, kingsnakes, and larger cottonmouths
- secondary predators include large mammals, birds, hawks, and owls
- cottonmouths tend to “freeze” when they first detect a predator – no movement at all
- if the predator gets too close they will vibrate their tail in leaf litter to alert the intruder and may gape their mouth showing the white inside of their “cottonmouth”; they may also flatten their bodies to appear bigger and release a musk as a warning
- they prefer to flee than bite but they will strike if they have nowhere to flee
- mating occurs in spring and sometimes fall; in Florida they may mate year round
- males sense pheromones from females to know when it is time and, like other vipers, males may fight for the right to mate
- females can store sperm for long periods of time and typically breed every other year
- females give live birth in late summer to early fall; they sometimes congregate to give birth
- the average number of offspring/litter is 7-12 but can be as high as 22
Is this a cottonmouth?
No, it is not…
Can you tell why?
Photo: University of Florida
DEALING WITH ENCOUNTERS
KEEPING THEM AT A DISTANCE
- when hiking in cottonmouth territory it is recommended to wear high boots and look down while walking; if you need to look ahead we recommend you stop walking – look ahead – and then put your eyes back to the ground while walking
- stay on trails; snakes do not like short grass; avoid walking in tall grass where they may be hiding
- to keep cottonmouths away from your home – reduce food sources, freshwater sources, and shelter areas
- cottonmouths like fish ponds and are often found in the filter system; they may be attracted to swimming pools
- cottonmouths also eat rodents; bird feeders, sacks of corn, wood and brush pikes can attract cottonmouth prey, and thus cottonmouths
- if you must have brush piles and bird feeders place them away areas where people frequent – away from front and back doors, sidewalks, etc.
- many properties have natural ponds and swimming pools; if encounters are a problem consider placing some small mesh fencing to keep them from reaching the source may be helpful; this fencing should be buried 2-6″ below the surface and the wooden stakes should be on your side of the fence – snakes can climb the rough wood stakes; if you cannot continue the fencing across your entire property – make a 90° turn AWAY from your property to encourage them to return from where they came
IF I ENCOUNTER ONE
- despite stories, cottonmouths do not chase people; most will sit very still hoping you do not see them; I have personally accidentally placed my foot within inches of a cottonmouths with no reaction from the snakes; their first reaction is to “freeze”
- if they feel you are getting too close they often will begin to vibrate their tail very fast; this means they are getting nervous and are warning you to stay clear; many times they are in leaf litter when they do this and you can hear them – DO NOT APPROACH ANY CLOSER; the probability of a strike is still low, but has increased
- another warning behavior is mouth gaping and showing of white mouth- “cottonmouth”; though strike probability is still low, studies show that gaping cottonmouths tend to strike more often than tail vibrating ones – DO NOT APPROACH; move back and allow the snake to pass
The dark phase of the cottonmouth. This is an older individual.
Photo: UF IFAS
BUT WHAT IF I ALLOW IT TO PASS AND IT IS HEADING FURTHER ON TO MY PROPERTY?
- great news right?
- statistics show that about 95% of people bitten by snakes are trying to catch it or kill it – so trying to remove it yourself significantly increases your chance of getting bit
- many have had success with sweeping non-venomous snakes into a trash can with a broom and releasing somewhere… But these are non-venomous snakes, we recommend professionals for venomous snake removal
- you may have no other optional than to kill the snake; if this is the case be careful… Again, many are bitten trying to kill snakes; also know that snakes are known to strike after they are a dead
WHAT IF I AM BITTEN?
- first know that death from cottonmouths is very rare; annually in the U.S. about 7,000 – 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes (about 1 in 40,000 people) and about 5-6 die (about 1 in 50 million)
- also know that many times vipers give what is called a “dry bite” – no venom injected; but you do not know this so treat as if venom was injected; MANY WHO DIE FROM VENOMOUS SNAKE BITES DID NOT SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION
- first rule is DO NOT GET BIT TWICE; after being bit many people will then try to kill the snake and are bitten again; many feel that they need the snake at the hospital for identification – they do not
- second rule is to remain calm; easier said than done, but an elevated heart rate will move the toxin within the blood faster
- with toxic viper bites there will be pain and swelling; remove watches, jewelry, or any tight fitting clothing from bite area
- you do not need to add ice or heat
- we do not recommend tourniquets, lancing the bite and sucking out venom; many times the venom has spread from the bite area and health officials have found that many times there are more problems with the “first aid” than with the bite itself
- try not to move the limb where bite occurred- easier said than done; if you can elevate your heart above the bite this is good
- do not drink alcohol; you may think you need a drink right now but you do not; alcohol or caffeine can accelerate heart and spread venom faster
- call 911 and alert the closest hospital that you have a snake bite victim coming in; answer any questions they may have to the best of your ability
- again, do your best to relax and get to a hospital; fatalities are rare due to the excellent medical care in this country
All of this said, there is a lot of concern surrounding cottonmouths in Florida. As we expand our neighborhoods into more of their habitat, we will encounter more of them. In some cases, the location for their resources may be our neighborhoods. We will need to learn how to identify them and understand their behavior to avoid negative encounters. The statistics show that they are not as big a threat as they are perceived to be, but folks are still concerned for their family and pets – and understandably so. Hopefully information in this fact sheet will be of help to you.
Ashton, R.E., P.S. Ashton. 1981. Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part I Snakes. Windward Publishing. Miami FL. pp. 175.
Gibbons, W., M. Dorcas. 2005. Snakes of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press. Athens, GA. Pp. 253.
Gibbons, W. 2017. Snakes of the Eastern U.S. University of Georgia. Athens GA. pp. 416.
Johnson, S.A. Frequently Asked Questions About Venomous Snakes. http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu/venomous_snake_faqs.shtml.