Image © Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH.
An adult from Cleveland County, Oklahoma. Image © Suzanne L. Collins, CNAH.
REPTILIA (Reptiles) SQUAMATA (PART) (Snakes) CROTALIDAE (Pit Vipers)

Northern Cottonmouth
Agkistrodon piscivorus (Lacepede 1789)
ăg-kĭs-trō-dŏn — pī-sĭv-ōr-ŭs


Conservation Status:

State: None

Federal: None
NatureServe State: S5 - Secure
NatureServe National: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Global: G5 - Secure
CITES: None
Diagnosis:
DANGEROUSLY VENOMOUS (a threat to life or limb): The Northern Cottonmouth is commonly confused with several species of non-venomous watersnakes of the genus Nerodia and to a lesser extent, Regina.
The Northern Cottonmouth is the only uniformly dark-colored snake in Kansas with no rattle on its tail and a small pit on each side of its head between and slightly below the eye and nostril. Adults of this snake normally are a uniform gray or black; bands are present on the back and sides but normally can be seen only when the snake is submerged in water. The belly is dark. Young adult specimens may be banded, and juveniles have yellowish tails and resemble young Copperheads. The tails of male Northern Cottonmouths are slightly longer than those of females.
Adults normally grow 76.0-122.0 cm (30-48 inches) in total length. The largest specimen from Kansas is a male (KU 218677) from Cherokee County with a total length of 91.5 cm (36 inches) collected by Shane Eckhardt on 14 September 1991. The maximum length throughout the range is unknown, and previously published maximum lengths were lumped in with A. conanti.

Distribution:
The only credible records of this species in Kansas are from the Spring River drainage in extreme southeastern Kansas. The Spring River roughly defines the boundary of the Ozark Plateau in Kansas. Populations in Oklahoma approach the Kansas state line on the Caney, Verdigris, and Neosho rivers in Chautauqua, Montgomery, and Labette counties respectively. However, all Kansas records previously assigned to these counties in Kansas have been discredited (see Remarks).
There are records from the Marais des Cygnes/Osage River drainage in Missouri approximately 55 miles east of the Linn County, Kansas line.
(,   Museum Voucher) (,   Observation) (,   Literature Record) (,   iNat Record), (  Fossil)
Open icons are questionable records; Click on a marker to view details.
Full range depicted by light shaded red area. Export Google Earth (.kml)
  • Occurrence Summary:  
  • 8
    Records 
  • 7
    Museum Vouchers 
  • 1
    Other Observations 
Some county occurrences indicated below may be too imprecise to map above.
County Breakdown: County Name (# occurrences):
Cherokee (4); Labette (1); Montgomery (3);

Fossil History:
Not known from Kansas.

Natural History:
Little is known about the Northern Cottonmouth in Kansas, but it is probably active from April to early October. During the cool spring and fall months, this snake is probably active only during the day and normally may be found coiled along small streams and backwaters where it awaits the approach of prey. In summer months, Northern Cottonmouths become nocturnal and prowl oxbows and other waterways for food, aided by two sensory pits between the eyes and nostrils. Like those of Eastern and Broad-banded Copperheads, these pits detect the body heat of warm-blooded prey. Because of their irritable disposition and proximity to aquatic areas used by people for recreation, these snakes are often killed. Nonetheless, the few people annually bitten by these snakes are normally the victims of accidents and definitely not the victims of aggressive, dangerous animals. During the fall, this snake leaves its aquatic environs, travels to an upland den site used in previous years, and retires deep beneath the ground to avoid the cold temperatures of winter.
This snake breeds in spring, just after emergence from winter inactivity. Many female Northern Cottonmouths bear young only every other year. Courtship and mating have not been observed in Kansas. Adult male Northern Cottonmouths are among those snakes which infrequently engage in combat dances.The young are born venomous and number from two to fifteen per litter (Fitch, 1985), with an average of six or seven. Females give birth in August and September.
Northern Cottonmouths feed on insects, fishes, salamanders, frogs, turtles, lizards, other snakes (including smaller Northern Cottonmouths), birds, and small mammals.
Predators of Northern Cottonmouths include large birds, mammals, and larger snakes, but people are their chief enemies.

Occurrence Activity:
Number of Unique Obervations (=days): 7; Range: 06 Apr to 15 Sep
Remarks:
Northern Cottonmouths are an enigma in Kansas. The species long history in Kansas has been summarized by Hall and Smith (1947), Burkett (1966), Perry (1977), Collins (1978, 1979, 1982, 1993), Rundquist et al. (1978), Fitch (1983), Capron (1984), and Rundquist and Triplett (1993). Even so, less is known about the status of the Cottonmouth within Kansas than any other member of the Kansas herpetofauna. Reports of their occurrence are received regularly, even as far away as Thomas County. These invariably turn out to be any of the various species of harmless water snakes (Nerodia, Regina, and Thamnophis).
Unverified reports, by biologists, indicate that populations may exist along Snow Creek east of Coffeyville and along the Verdigris River southeast of Independence. A focused attempt to systematically survey each of the drainage systems along the Kansas state line east of Cowley County may help to shed light on the status and distribution of this species in the state.
The only standing (not discredited) records of the Northern Cottonmouth in Kansas are two specimens from Cherokee County (Rundquist and Triplett, 1993). Both were collected in late summer 1991. The first reported (14 September) was taken at the river access pull-off (since removed) on the south side of old US 96 east of Crestline and just west (~100yds) of the Spring River. The collector (Shane Eckhardt) went there to fish, discovered the snake at the pull-off, and shot it with a pistol. He then reported the snake and the specimen was secured. The second specimen (a DOR on 29 August) preceded the first but was reported later, by a Kansas Fish and Game conservation officer on Wyandotte Road at Shawnee Creek, just over a mile SE of Crestline (~2.5 WSW of Mr. Eckhardt's specimen). The DOR specimen was secured, frozen, and stored by James Triplett at Pittsburg State University until retrieved and cataloged in the University of Kansas (KU) herpetology collection.
The earliest extant, and valid, specimen is (KU 218780) collected by K. Outt in Cherokee County on 29 August 1991..
The Northern Cottonmouth is considered a member of the Kansas herpetofauna based on the two specimens from 1991. Its inclusion is tenuous and certainly subject to debate. There is no evidence that they are reproducing in Kansas, though it is unlikely these two specimens dispersed into the state.
The Northern Cottonmouth is not known from any Missouri counties adjacent to Kansas. The nearest specimen is Missouri is 50 miles east of Cherokee County, Kansas (UMC 6941; 7.14035599, -93.66523902; Lawrence County; 1991) in the Marais des Cygnes River drainage. There are no known records from the Spring/Neosho/Grand River drainage in Missouri.
The nearest specimens recorded from Oklahoma are from the Verdigris River (19.5 miles south of Montgomery County, Kansas; OUMNH 45219 Nowata County, OK: 36.71276, -95.5797) and Neosho/Spring River (25 miles south Labette County, Kansas; OUMNH 7311 Craig County; 36.62697983, -95.12014771). Capron (1984) reported a specimen supposedly presented to KU that was found 0.5 miles south (of Cherokee County, KS) in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, and Baker (1982) reported specimens collected in 1981 and 1982 in Osage County, Oklahoma (14.5 miles south of Chautauqua County, Kansas).
An iNaturalist report (https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/19788798) was made on 28 May 2018 at Hulah Lake (36.91512, -96.123375) in Osage County, Oklahoma. This locality is 5.75 miles south of Chautauqua County, Kansas. The Northern Cottonmouth is the least commonly encountered native Kansas snake, despite also being one of the most common (albeit falsely) reported.
Based on a captive specimen, Snider and Bowler (1992) reported a maximum longevity for this species of 21 years, four months, and ten days.

Bibliography:
1789 Lacepede, Bernard G. de. Histoire naturelle des quadrupèdes ovipares et des serpens. Tome Second. [Natural history of oviparous quadrupeds and serpents. Second volume.] Hotel de Thou, Rue des Poitevins, Paris, France. 671pp.
Contains the original description of Coluber triangulum (=Lampropeltis triangulum) page 86 and Crotalus piscivorus (=Agkistrodon piscivorus) age 130. In French.
1799 Palisot de Beauvois, Ambroise M. F. J. Memoir on Amphibia. Serpents. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 4():362-381
1903 Branson, Edwin B. Snakes of Kansas Thesis. University of Kansas, Lawrence. 41pp.
Describes all snake species reported from Kansas, considering doubtful those species that the author has not encountered himself. This list contains twenty-nine valid species. Collections examined included State University (KU), State House, Washburn College (WU), Ottawa University, State Normal School (ESU), State Agricultural College (KSU), and several high schools in Kansas. Examined the material available to Mozley (1878) and determined that of the thirty-three species listed, only twenty-three species were valid currently. And that Cragin's (1880) list of thirty-two species included eight specimens on the authority of Mozley that this author could not verify in any collection.
1904 Branson, Edwin B. Snakes of Kansas. University of Kansas Science Bulletin 2(13):353-430
1929 Taylor, Edward H. A revised checklist of the snakes of Kansas. University of Kansas Science Bulletin 19(5):53-62
1943 Gloyd, Howard K. and Roger Conant. A synopsis of the American forms of Agkistrodon (copperheads and moccasins). Bulletin of the Chicago Academy of Sciences 7(2):147-170
1947 Hall, Henry H. and Hobart M. Smith. Selected records of reptiles and amphibians from southeastern Kansas Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 49(4):447-454
Report on certain Kansas specimens housed in the collection at what is now Pittsburg State University. Included are several species of dubious status today, including Cryptobranchus alleganiensis from the Neosho and Spring rivers (the only specimens from those significant drainages ever documented), Ambystoma maculatum from just north of Pittsburg, Crawford County, Heterodon nasicus from Crawford County, Opheodrys vernalis from Crawford County, Sonora episcopa from Crawford County, Agkistrodon piscivorus from Cherokee County, Crotalus atrox from Crawford County, and Crotalus viridis from Crawford County. They report several significant range extensions including Kinosternon flavescens from Turkey Creek in southeast Cherokee County, Graptemys geographica from just north of Pittsburg, Crotaphytus collaris from near Columbus, Cherokee County, Sceloporus consobrinus from just north of Pittsburg, Phrynosoma cornutum from Cherokee and Crawford counties, Heterodon platirhinos from Cherokee and Crawford counties, Haldea striatula from Crawford County, Sistrurus tergeminus from Crawford County, and a 402 lb Macrochelys temminckii in Cherokee County from just east of Chetopa (Labette County). They allude to the potential for Anaxyrus fowleri to occur in southeast Kansas and for native populations of Crotalus atrox in south central Kansas (in part from the disclosure that John R. Breukelman [then of ESU] had obtained three specimens in Woods County Oklahoma, 3/4 of a mile south of the Kansas line). None of the specimens the paper was based on, exist today.
1950 Smith, Hobart M. Handbook of Amphibians and Reptiles of Kansas. University of Kansas, Museum of Natural History, Miscellaneous Publication (2):336
The first modern herpetology of Kansas. Includes locality dot maps within individual species accounts. Reports 96 species from Kansas (table and text say 97 on p. 10) and 13 "probable but unverified" species and subspecies.
1956 Smith, Hobart M. Handbook of Amphibians and Reptiles of Kansas. Second edition. University of Kansas Museum of Natural History Miscellaneous Publication (9):1-356
Hobart M. Smith's updated second edition of his first (1950) modern herpetology of Kansas. Includes locality dot maps within individual species accounts. Reports 96 species from Kansas (table says 97 on p. 10; text says 98 on p. 10) and 11 "probable but unverified" species and subspecies. The second edition has updated taxonomy, added Plestiodon laticeps, and removed Eurycea tynerensis.
1959 Prophet, Carl W. An outline for conservation teaching in Kansas. Kansas School Naturalist 5(3):16
1966 Burkett, Ray D. Natural history of cottonmouth moccasin, Agkistrodon piscivorus (Reptilia). University of Kansas Publications Museum of Natural History 17(9):435-491
1972 McLeran, V. The Moccasin myth. Kansas Fish and Game (29(4)):1-4
1974 Collins, Joseph T. Amphibians and Reptiles in Kansas University of Kansas Museum of Natural History Public Education Series (1):283 pp
Joseph T. Collins first Kansas herpetology. <Need to get species total and principal differences with previous 'version' (= Smith 1956)>
1974 Platt, Dwight R., Joseph T. Collins, and Ray E. Ashton, Jr. Rare, endangered and extirpated species in Kansas. II. Amphibians and reptiles. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 76(3):185-192
The initial initiative to determine population and conservation status of Kansas' amphibians and reptiles based on our understanding at the time. A lot has changed regarding our increased knowledge on all the listed species.
1975 Taylor, Edward H., A. Byron Leonard, Hobart M. Smith, and George R. Pisani. Edward H. Taylor: Recollections of an Herpetologist . Monograph of the Museum of Natural History, the University of Kansas (4):1-159
1976 Ashton, Ray E., Jr., Stephen R. Edwards, and George R. Pisani. Endangered and threatened amphibians and reptiles in the United States. Herpetological Circulars (5):65
1977 Perry, Janice. KHS to hunt Cottonmouths. Kansas Herpetological Society Newsletter (20):2
1977 Perry, Janice. KHS members achieve goal: Get Cottonmouth. Kansas Herpetological Society Newsletter (21):3-4
1977 Clarke, Robert F. A note from the president. Kansas Herpetological Society Newsletter (22):1
1978 Rundquist, Eric M., Eddie Stegall, David Grow, and Peter Gray. New herpetological records from Kansas. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (81):73-77
Reports on new population discoveries of five species for which information was lacking at the time.
1978 Collins, Joseph T. Rediscovery of the western cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma) in southeastern Kansas Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 80(2):71-74
1979 Collins, Joseph T. New records of fishes, amphibians, and reptiles in Kansas for 1978. Technical Publication of the State Biological Survery of Kansas 8():56-66
1982 Collins, Joseph T. Amphibians and Reptiles in Kansas. 2nd edition. University of Kansas Museum of Natural History Public Education Series (8):
Joseph T. Collins second Kansas herpetology. <Need to get species total and principal differences with previous 'version' (= Collins 1974)>
1983 Fitch, Henry S. Status of pit vipers in Kansas. Kansas Fish and Game Commission, Pratt. 12pp.
1983 Baker, R. E. The western cottonmouth in Osage County, Oklahoma. Bulletin of the Oklahoma Herpetological Society 8(2):56-57
1983 Barker, Randy E. The Western Cottonmouth in Osage County, Oklahoma. Bulletin of the Oklahoma Herpetological Society 8(2):56-57
1984 Secor, Stephen M. and Charles C. Carpenter. Distribution maps of Oklahoma reptiles. Oklahoma Herpetological Society Special Publication (3):1-57
1984 Capron, Marty B. The Cottonmouth in Kansas. Kansas Herpetological Society Newsletter (58):9-11
1986 Strimple, Peter D. The Cottonmouth or Water Moccasin Agkistrodon piscivorus (Lacepede). Part II. Greater Cincinnati Herpetological Society Newsletter 11(10):8-14
1990 Gloyd, Howard K. and Roger Conant. Snakes of the Agkistrodon complex: A monographic review. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles Contributions to Herpetology Number 6, . pp.
1991 Conant, Roger and Joseph T. Collins. Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. 3rd ed. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. pp.
1992 Ernst, Carl H. Venomous Reptiles of North America. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D. C. pp.
1992 Knight, A., L. D. Densmore III, and E. D. Rael. Molecular systematics of the Agkistrodon complex. Pages 49-69 in Biology of the Pitvipers Selva, Tyler, Texas. pp.
1992 Collins, Joseph T. New records of amphibians and reptiles in Kansas for 1991. Kansas Herpetological Society Newsletter (87):12-17
1992 Shoup, J. Mark. Confirmed Cottonmouth. Kansas Wildlife and Parks 49(1):41
1993 Collins, Joseph T. and Suzanne L. Collins. Amphibians and Reptiles in Kansas. Third Edition. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Lawrence. 397pp.
Joseph T. Collins third Kansas herpetology. <Need to get species total and principal differences with previous 'version' (= Collins 1982)>
1993 Rundquist, Eric M. and James Triplett. Additional specimens of the Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma, Reptilia: Squamata) from Kansas. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 96():148-151
1996 Shoup, J. Mark. Wise as serpents. Kansas Wildlife and Parks 53(4):39
1998 Conant, Roger and Joseph T. Collins. Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. 3rd ed, expanded. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. pp.
1998 Powell, Robert, Joseph T Collins, and Errol D Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians & Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. Univ Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. 131pp.
2002 Kingsbury, Bruce and Joanna Gibson. Habitat Management Guidelines for Amphibians and Reptiles of the Midwest. Publication of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Address not given. 152pp.
2006 Taggart, Travis W. Distribution and status of Kansas herpetofauna in need of information. State Wildlife Grant T7. Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Pratt. vii + 106pp.
2006 Wozniak, Edward J., John Wisser, and Michael Schwartz. Venomous adversaries: A reference to snake identification, field safety, and bite-victim first aid for disaster-response personnel deploying into the hurricane-prone regions of North America. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 17():246 266
2009 Kraus, Fred. Alien Reptiles and Amphibians: A Scientific Compendium and Analysis. SpringerVerlag, Heidelberg, Germany. 563pp.
2009 Douglas, Michael E., Marlis R. Douglas, Gordon W. Schuett, and Louis W. Porras. Climate change and evolution of the New World pitviper genus Agkistrodon (Viperidae). Journal of Biogeography 36():1164-1180
2010 Collins, Joseph T., Suzanne L. Collins, and Travis W. Taggart. Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles of Kansas Eagle Mountain Publishing., Provo, Utah. 400pp.
Joseph T. Collins fourth Kansas herpetology. <Need to get species total and principal differences with previous 'version' (= Collins 1993)>
2011 Ernst, Carl H. and Evelyn M. Ernst. Venomous Reptiles of the United States, Canada, and Northern Mexico. Volume 1. Heloderma, Micruroides, Micrurus, Pelamis, Agkistrodon, Sistrurus. Johns hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. pp.
2011 Taggart, Travis W. Kansas Herpetological Society 2011 spring field trip to beheld in Chautauqua County. Journal of Kansas Herpetology (37):5-7
2012 Rohweder, Megan R. Spatial conservation prioritization of Kansas for terrestrial vertebrates. Thesis. Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas. 151pp.
2012 Powell, Robert, Joseph T Collins, and Errol D Hooper Jr. Key to the Herpetofauna of the Continental United States and Canada: Second Edition, Revised and Updated. Univ Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. 152pp.
2014 Taggart, Travis W. Recent scientific and standard English name changes effecting the Kansas herpetofauna. Collinsorum 3(2-4):9-10
2014 Burbrink, Frank T. and Timothy J. Guiher. Considering gene flow when using coalescent methods to delimit lineages of North American pitvipers of the genus Agkistrodon. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 2014():1-22
2014 Strickland, Jason L., Christopher L. Parkinson, J. Kelly McCoy,and Loren K. Ammerman. Phylogeography of Agkistrodon piscivorus with emphasis on the western limit of its range. Copeia 2014(4):639-649
2015 Burbrink, Frank T. and Timothy J. Guiher. Considering gene flow when using coalescent methods to delimit lineages of North American pitvipers of the genus Agkistrodon. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 173():505–526
2016 Powell, Robert, Roger Conant, and Joseph T. Collins. Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston. 494pp.
2017 Crother, Brian I. (editor) Scientific and Standard English Names of Amphibians and Reptiles of North America North of Mexico, with Comments Regarding Confidence in Our Understanding. Eighth edition. Herpetological Circulars (43):1-102
2019 Powell, Robert, Joseph T Collins, and Errol D Hooper Jr. Key to the Herpetofauna of the Continental United States and Canada. Third Edition. Univ Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas. 192pp.
2020 Daniel, Richard E. and Brian S. Edmond. Atlas of Missouri Amphibians and Reptiles for 2019. Privately printed, Columbia, Missouri. 86pp.
2021 Holding, Matthew L., Jason L. Strickland, Rhett M. Rautsaw, Erich P. Hofmann, Andrew J. Mason, Michael P. Hogan, Gunnar S. Nystrom, Schyler A. Ellsworth, Timothy J. Colston, Miguel Borja, Gamaliel Castaneda-Gaytan, Christoph I. Grunwald , Jason M. Jones, Luciana A. Freitas-de-Sousa, Vincent Louis Viala, Mark J. Margres, Erika Hingst-Zaher, Inacio L. M. Junqueira-de-Azevedo, Ana M. Moura-da-Silvaf, Felipe G. Grazziotin, H. Lisle Gibbs, Darin R. Rokyta, and Christopher L. Parkinson. Phylogenetically diverse diets favor more complex venoms in North American pitvipers. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of the United States of America. 118(17):10
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Travis W. Taggart © 1999-2024 — w/ Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University