Ahhhh! Valentine’s Day has just passed us by, and love is in the air! Flowers and chocolates were given by a male to a female to express signs of affection and vice versa. Or were they? We’re not talking about humans here, so there are no flowers, no chocolates or anything else that might symbolize romance in the world of….snakes!
Just last week I was visiting the Big Cypress boardwalk and glanced into a canal to see a snake resting on a low-lying tree branch, just a few inches above the water. At first glance, I was sure my eyes were gazing upon a water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth. I swung my Nikon camera up to my eye for a quick photo. On “sport’s mode” and “in focus”, my fingers snapped down to capture a nice, clear photo of this reptile. Upon further, close-up examination of my prize, I could see that it was not the venomous inhabitant at all, but a very common Florida water snake.
The cottonmouth and Florida banded water snake are quite often mistaken for each other. The exterior markings are quite similar and can fool a lot of people upon an initial sighting. My subject appeared to be about three feet long, which is not uncommon for this species. They typically range between twenty-four and forty– two inches long. Marked with red, brown, or black bands, they resemble the poisonous cottonmouth very easily and many water snakes are killed as a case of mistaken identity for their venomous look-alike.
Both species can be found in bodies of shallow, fresh water. Even though they possess no venom, a Florida water snake will strike, and bite, if provoked. The issue here would be infection from the germs in this snake’s mouth. The Water Moccasins are venomous, and its poison can be extremely toxic to humans.
So how do we tell the difference? The pupil in the eye of the cottonmouth runs vertical while the water snake’s is round. When viewed from above the eyes of the cottonmouth cannot be seen because of a ridge of skin on its brow while the water snake’s eyes are clearly visible.
Now that we have that resolved, let’s head back to Big Cypress boardwalk. I have been going there for years and just about this time of year, you can usually see water snakes, if you look hard enough, in a small waterway just before the boardwalk ends, off to the left. There is an abundance of Alligator Flag, a native plant with spear-like leaves, and some Pickerel Weed, as well as a felled tree across the water. For some reason unknown to me they have been sighted in this location every February or March.
When mating, it’s not a “one-on-one” match. It is, instead, a quivering mass of entangled flesh. Obviously, there are no wedding rings in the world of Big Cypress snakes!
So, this is the time of year to see the Florida Banded Water Snakes in the wild. Remember that they are not poisonous, but all reptiles should be approached with caution or, better yet, not approached at all. Let your binoculars and cameras get the close-ups for you.
There are other snakes to be concerned with as well. Many are not venomous but others such as the Eastern Diamondback Rattler, Pygmy Rattler and the Coral Snakes are dangerous. Although it is not poisonous, a new nuisance is making its presence more prominent in recent years. The Burmese Python is a constrictor and is eliminating many small mammals and birds in the Everglades.
But that, my friends, is a story for another time!
Bob is a Naturalist for the popular dolphin study/ecotour team on board the Dolphin Explorer. He is also an owner of Wild Florida Ecotours, departing from Port of the Islands, to view gators, manatees, birds, and dolphins. He is the author of two books and an award-winning columnist for Coastal Breeze News. Bob loves his wife very much!