Cottonmouths and Similar Looking Harmless Species

Northern Watersnake
Brown Watersnake
Plain-bellied Watersnake


The most notable thing about the Northern Cottonmouth in Virginia is its very limited distribution within the state. In recorded Virginia history, the venomous cottonmouth has only been found in the following counties/cites: Chesterfield Co., Prince George Co., Surry Co., Sussex Co., Chesapeake City, Newport News City, Suffolk City, Virginia Beach City & York Co.

Young Northern Cottonmouths with yellowish tail tips.
* Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version

Northern Cottonmouths are born alive with a bright yellowish to yellowish green tail tip. The yellow tail tip is used as a lure for frogs, lizards and other prey items. This brightly colored tail tip fades to black as the snake ages. The color of cottonmouths is a yellowish olive to black with about 13 black crossbands that are wide on the sides and narrow as they approach the backbone. Some of the crossbands may be broken, not meeting at the backbone. The outer edges of the bands are usually black. Crossbands get darker as they approach the tail. Older adults may be a uniformed dark color, usually black, without a discernable pattern.

The name "cottonmouth" refers to the manner in which the cottonmouth notifies other animals including humans of its presence. Opening of the mouth and flashing the inner white lining is not an aggressive action, it simply makes the cottonmouth more visible. Despite common folklore, cottonmouths do not chase after people.


The Northern Cottonmouth is very buoyant and usually swims across the surface of the water. All other water snakes found in Virginia swim with just a small portion of their neck and head above the water surface. Keep in mind that all of our water snakes, including the Northern Cottonmouth can swim completely submerged.

The Northern Cottonmouth is a pit-viper, as are all three of Virginia's venomous snake species (Eastern Copperhead, Northern Cottonmouth and Timber Rattlesnake). The "pit" in pit-viper refers to the heating sensing pit located between the eye and the nostrils on the snake's head. In addition to the heat sensing pit all three venomous snakes in Virginia have vertical pupils. All harmless snakes in Virginia have round pupils and lack the heat sensing pits. Another characteristic of all Virginia's venomous snakes is the single row of scales on the underside of the tail after the anal plate (vent).

While close inspection of a snakes face and/or its bum is a definitive way to distinguish a venomous snake from a harmless species, it requires one to get dangerously close to a potently dangerous animal. It is far better to learn the pattern and coloration of a few snakes so that specimens may be identified from a safe distance.

Cottonmouths primarily feed on fish and frogs, however they also play a pivotal role in controlling rodent populations. Without cottonmouths and other rodent eating snakes there would be a drastic increase in crop/food damage and rodent spread diseases. While cottonmouths are venomous they are placid snakes that only bite if stepped on or otherwise threatened. If you see a cottonmouth, leave it alone and rest assured it will do its best to avoid you.

Northern Cottonmouth vs. Northern Water Snake

Northern Watersnakes are one of our most abundant snakes and can be found near any body of water that supports fish and/or frogs. Unfortunately, harmless northern water snakes are frequently misidentified as "cottonmouths". This occurs at an alarming rate even well outside the range of the cottonmouth.

Northern Watersnakes have a body color of brown to gray with varying amounts of white, red and yellow. Their pattern consists of closely positioned crossbands. The crossbands break up about halfway down the length of the snake and form a series of rectangular, alternating blotches near the backbone and on the sides. Some Northern Watersnakes can be a uniformed brown to grayish color without a discernable pattern.

A couple reduced patterned Northern Watersnakes. Click to enlarge


Venomous Northern Cottonmouth

Harmless Northern Watersnake

Very Limited Distribution and Population

Very Abundant State Wide Distribution and Population

Hour-glass pattern outlined in black. Pattern is narrow on the sides and wide near the midline.
Reduced patterned and patternless Northern Watersnakes
are typically found in the Potomac Drainage from Arlington
south to Quantico


Northern Cottonmouth vs. Brown Watersnake

Juvenile Brown watersnakes are patterned the same as adults. This snake has a relatively long head which is wider than the neck. Active during the day and often seen basking on overhead vegetation over the water. Brown Watersnakes primarily feed on catfish.

Venomous Northern Cottonmouth

Harmless Brown Watersnake

Very Limited Distribution. Limited Distribution
Hour-glass pattern outlined in black. Rectangular blotch pattern on the side and back Blotches do not touch.


Eastern Cottonmouth vs. Plain-bellied Watersnake

Juvenile Plain-bellied Watersnakes are boldly patterned with a pattern similar to a juvenile Northern Watersnake, but usually with a pinkish base color. Adults are reddish brown to chocolate brown. Subadults or young adults may retain traces of a juvenile pattern.

Venomous Northern Cottonmouth

Harmless Plain-bellied Watersnake

Very Limited Distribution. Limited Distribution
Hour-glass pattern outlined in black Reddish brown solid color

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