Western Cottonmouth

A Western Cottonmouth basks in a road in southeast Arkansas.

Here in south Arkansas we are blessed with an abundance of public land to explore and recreate on.  Some of these areas, such as Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, contain large areas of bottomland hardwood forest that stay wet most of the time. This provides excellent habitat for herpetofauna (snakes and amphibians), who can be seen and heard throughout most of the year in these areas.

One of the most commonly observed (and misunderstood) snakes in this area is the Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous leucostoma).  These snakes are indeed venomous, but like most wild animals, prefer to be left alone to carry out their daily duties.  Reports of cottonmouth chasing humans to kill them abound, and most folks kill cottonmouth upon sighting.  Many times non-venomous water snakes are mistaken for cottonmouth, and killed in the name of human protection.  Just yesterday I saw a young specimen attempting to cross a road who fled when I attempted to lie prone and photograph him.  Vicious indeed!!

Most folks associate this snake with water-and rightfully so.  They thrive in areas of slow-moving water, and are often encountered while boating or fishing, leading to this association.  While this is generally accurate, they are also regularly observed in upland areas that border their more common aquatic habitats.  I spend a good bit of time traveling gravel roads while working, and often encounter specimens basking in roads or attempting to cross them.

A cottonmouth creeps through an upland pine forest.

Oddly enough, they are becoming one of my favorite snakes to study and photograph.  Loathed by many, I find them to be fascinating to observe (as with many other things in nature!), and generally experience a bit of a mutual respect when I encounter them.  If they allow, I photograph them for a few minutes, then let them get on their way.  I only wish they enjoyed their encounter with me as much I enjoy each encounter with them….

Texas Ratsnake

“Hold on!”, I exclaimed to my wife on a warm spring afternoon during a trip to our local wildlife refuge.  I didn’t have to look at her to realize she wasn’t quite as enthused as I when I brought our SUV to a fairly abrupt stop on the side of the gravel road.  “What?”, asked my wife as I put the vehicle in park.  I was oblivious to her question-not even stopping to realize that she had asked me something.  I grabbed my camera and flung open the door in one motion, and began the approach to what had caught my eye seconds ago.

There it was.  A beautiful Texas Ratsnake (Pantheropis obsoletus, formerly Black Ratsnake, Elaphe obsoleta) who lacked only a few feet from safely completing his journey across the gravel road.  He stopped to see what was checking him out, and I immediately positioned myself in the road to document this specimen.  Image

He posed for me for several minutes-stone still at the edge of the road ditch.  I’m not quite sure as to the logic behind their “kinked” posture when approached, but it must work in their defense.  Most specimens I find along forest edges exhibit this same behavior.  The light was partially diffused through some afternoon clouds, and couldn’t have been much better.  After a minute or two of photographing him in profile, I decided to make an image of his head from another angle.  He still hadn’t moved, as if I had ordered him to remain where he was.

A close-up of the top of his head. The scale pattern can be a useful tool in distinguishing between some species of snakes.

After a few seconds of photographing him here, I decided it was time to head on back to the vehicle and head towards the house.  I decided to give him a hand completing his journey, but his defensive posture immediately informed me that he didn’t need or want my help!  It wasn’t my intent to agitate him, but I decided to take advantage of his behavior and make a couple of images for the sake of documentation.  I returned to my original prone position, and began to photograph him once again.  He cooperated, and presented me with the opportunity to make multiple images, which I readily took advantage of.  After several minutes, I decided to let him get on his way, and rejoin my family in our vehicle.

Note the defensive posture exhibited here after my attempt to help him finish crossing the road.

I thanked him as I walked back to my vehicle, silently hoping that this journey across the road wouldn’t be the last for him.  Sadly enough, many of us would have went out of our way to run him over with our vehicle.  I guess I get it-I was taught as a child that a snake must be killed immediately-but why?  Could it be that we don’t understand these important contributors in the ecosystems they inhabit?  He was simply out doing what the Lord made him to do-trying to make a living, if you will.  Hunting for the next rat, vole or mouse to cross his path and sustain him for another day, as he gave everything each day to perpetuate his species.  I must ask myself this question-am I doing what I was designed to do each and every day?  What if I could be more like this Ratsnake, and worship my Creator with my every move?

As I re-entered my SUV, my wife appeared glad to know that we were headed for home.  “What was it?”, she asked as I set my camera body back on the seat.  “Ratsnake”, I replied, and showed her a few of the images on the camera’s LCD screen.  She shuddered as I turned the camera off, and we headed back towards the house.