A snake by any other name…

It never fails. Just as I’m about to regale students with the wonders of the wetland, a chaperone will sidle up to me and whisper, “Don’t want to alarm the kids, but there’s a water moccasin in the cattails.” The kids inevitably overhear, and pandemonium ensues.

In actuality, the range of the venomous water moccasin—a.k.a. cottonmouth—extends from Florida to southern Virginia, leaving Adkins Arboretum well in the clear. The snake seen sunning itself in our wetland is actually a harmless northern water snake.

water moccasin - photo by Trisha Shears

water moccasin – photo by Trisha Shears

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northern water snake – photo by Patrick Coin

These snakes are important to the balance of the wetland ecosystem, feeding on the many frogs, tadpoles, minnows, crayfish, and other small birds and mammals that call the wetland home. Northern water snakes, in turn, provide a tasty meal for raccoons, foxes, snapping turtles, and other snakes.

While northern water snakes are not poisonous, all snakes bite, and the northern water snake will do so repeatedly if pushed, poked, prodded, pinched, or otherwise manhandled. So admire this sleek, serpentine beauty from the safety of the wetland boardwalk. Late spring and early summer days are prime basking times at the Arboretum, for reptiles and humans alike.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator

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