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Swamp Moccasins

This column was originally written in June 2008.

I was sitting in my office a couple weeks ago, commenting to my colleague Sean that I had nothing to do that night, when he offered me the chance to accompany him to Tuskegee National Forest to help him search for cottonmouths.

For his Ph.D. dissertation, Sean is studying how these snakes may influence transmission of certain diseases and it is necessary for him to find snakes in their natural habitat to take blood samples. Unfortunately for me, their natural habitat includes the muddiest, deepest, swamps that Tuskegee has to offer. Oh, and we have to find them at night, when they’re most active.

I agreed to go with him, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get out and see some animals that I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to observe. I changed into some of the rattiest clothes I owned and before I knew it, we were in the forest, hiking to his research site. You might wonder if I was wearing waders. The answer is no, the swamp terrain is so full of underwater channels (created by beavers) and submerged stumps, that is inevitable that one will fall in, drenching nearly your entire body. This happened to me promptly once we stepped into the wetland.

We mucked around in the water for about 30 minutes and it was quickly dark; I switched on my headlamp and started searching near the shoreline, looking for any snakes that might be hunting in the area, while Sean was in a slightly deeper area. All we had to show for our efforts so far was a brown snake. It wasn’t the species we were after but it was interesting to see this animal in the wild. As it’s not particularly vulnerable to the changes that humans wreak upon the landscape, brown snakes are most often found in people’s backyards.

There were plenty of frogs calling that night though; we could hear many grey treefrogs and bird-voiced treefrogs singing to one another. Although their calls are distinct, they 
are difficult to tell apart by sight. We caught one of the bird-voiced treefrogs and Sean was showing me the difference (the upper legs of the grays are orange or yellow) when he exclaimed, “There is one, a mouth!” Following Sean’s gaze and his headlight’s beam, I noticed only the head of a 
cottonmouth sticking out of the water about 20 feet away, its pale throat caught the light and my attention. In a flurry of activity Sean strode through the water and grasped the snake with his tongs.

So began an elaborate process of handling the snake. The first step is to persuade it into a plastic tube for our safety. Then my job was to hand Sean equipment as needed, including syringes, measuring tape, sample vials, and the GPS unit. I was very dismayed as the expensive GPS unit fell into the water promptly after I placed in what I felt was a secure spot on a half submerged log. I instinctively thrust my hand into the water after the unit to immediately retrieve it, but I was too late. It didn’t work for the rest of the night.

After our first snake we split up, Sean focused on the main pool of the swamp while I was nearer the shore, pushing shrubs out of the way as I navigated around tupelo trees, the water up to my calves. The beam of light from my headlamp caressed the outlines of reed bunches and tussocks of emergent vegetation in the water. And then, suddenly, a snake. After looking at 100 bunches of grass that looked identical, I made out the outline of a snake’s head at the base of one. I hesitated, convincing myself that this was one of our target animals before I yelled out. I traced the outline of the snake as it wove in and out of some emergent vegetation. It was facing the water, perhaps waiting for a hapless frog to swim by to eat.

I yelled out, “Here’s one. Snake!”

“Alright, I’m on my way”

“Do you want me to take it?”

“Do it!”

I heard splashing noises signaling Sean’s impending arrival. I knew that cottonmouths at this site were skittish and I didn’t want it to get away before he got there. But I hesitated, although I have considerable experience with eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and timber rattlesnakes,I’m usually on solid ground when I deal with these snakes. Catching a venomous snake in the water was something I’m not familiar with. However, the chance of losing a snake and never living it down persuaded me to make a move. Before the cottonmouth could react it was within the grasp of my tongs and it was quickly processed.

As we worked our way around a beaver dam, searching along downed logs and vegetation bunches, Sean warned me of a deep beaver channel. “You may want to crash through this brush right here if you don’t want to get soaked to your chest.”

Even though I had recently lost my balance and fell into the water, soaking myself already, I decided to take the high ground. The reeds were taller than me as I used my tongs to part a pathway through the vegetation. I disappeared into the brush, glancing downwards occasionally to ensure I wouldn’t trip over a submerged log. It was then that I noticed the triangular shaped head about two feet from my leg.

“Another snake!” I yelled out again.

I didn’t know if I’d be able to grab the snake through all the vegetation, but if it spooked and swam off then I wouldn’t be able to tell which direction it went, even if it decided to head towards me. So I thrust the tongs through the reeds and was able to secure it. Sean quickly appeared behind me to get a better grasp and helped pull the snake out.

It was getting late at this point but only four minutes after we released the last cottonmouth, Sean spotted a plain-bellied water snake slowly making its way through the grass. He quickly grabbed it and took some weight and mass measurements. Finally, after releasing the last snake, he suggested we call it quits for the night. Overall, we observed a great diversity of animals, including three species of snakes, and saw bird-voiced treefrogs, gray treefrogs, cricket frogs, and green treefrogs breeding. But it was a week before Sean’s GPS unit started working again.