Water Snakes in Bella Vista Lakes

Mon, July 27, 2015 | Lakes and Parks

Water snakes in Bella Vista lakes are generating more than average questions and comments this year, especially from folks on Loch Lomond. Each year I field a few calls from members with questions about snakes in Bella Vista lakes such as “Do water moccasins exist here?”, “What kinds of snakes are around my dock?” Etc. But this year folks seem to be calling about and observing more snakes than in years past, and of course many wonder if they are seeing “water moccasins”, which are the species of snake with the common name,”cottonmouth”; scientific name, Agkistrodon piscivorus.

First, let me start by saying that while we have an abundance of water snakes in the village lakes, I have yet to see or be provided any evidence of a cottonmouth in any of our village lakes – and I have looked.  But some members are convinced the snakes swimming around their docks and seawalls are indeed, cottonmouth.  Recently, one member on Lomond was so convinced that he and a friend brought the most recently killed snake to my office proclaiming he had killed 14 snakes at his place already this year and they were all “cottonmouth water moccasins”.  Upon driving up in the parking lot at my office building and handing me a plastic bag, he started telling me the key characters he was using to identify the snake as a cottonmouth.  I emptied the carcass onto the asphalt and instantly informed the member that indeed, he had apparently killed 14 midland water snakes, becuase that’s what the dead snake was lying in front of me.  Midland water snake (Nerodia sipedon pleurallis) is the most common species of non-poisonous water snakes in this area.  The man actually continued to argue his key points but he was using characters that really aren’t key characters.  I showed him the parts that really count and finally satiated him that he was not dealing with “water moccasins”.  Upon leaving he proclaimed that he would still kill these snakes because he didn’t want them around his grandchildren in the water.

So, this just comes down to the strange, seemingly inherent fear we humans have of snakes. With no evidence of attack, no biting, no aggressive behavior and being informed that a snake is non-poisonous; many of us will choose to kill them or at least prefer they not be around.  They just make us uncomfortable for some reason.  So I’m not here to judge anyone’s fears or behavior’s and I am not making fun of the member who brought the snake.  I’d say he represented the average attitude toward these animals and I appreciate his concerns.  Had we verified that he was indeed dealing with cottonmouth, we would now be having a very different conversation and I would be writing a different article. 

So here’s my point – all animal populations fluctuate in numbers overtime for various reasons.  predator-prey relationships tend to cause numbers to cycle from many to few, for both predator and prey.  Also, habitat changes can cause a response in numbers of animals in an area.  Water snakes could be increasing in numbers in Lomond or maybe other village lakes, just indicated by the increase in calls on the matter.  This could be related to a habitat increase – specifically, “water willow” plant beds are spreading fairly rapidly in Lomond and the dense vegetation beds in the water indeed provide great habitat for fish, but also likely everything else associated with the water – certain birds, and herptiles (reptiles and amphibians), also.  I have also received more calls about the water willow in Lomond this year also as it increases its shoreline coverage around the lake.  I’ll discuss more about water willow next month.  Also, climate change will likely have effects on fish and animal populations in our part of the world, also over time. 
 
But,… could we have cottonmouth in village lakes – yes.  We are within the native range of these snakes and they are more commonly seen in local streams and rivers.  But, I have yet to see one or verify one in the village lakes yet and I’ve been here since April of 2007. 

Here’s one behavioral observation that might help you when observing snakes in village lakes.  In general, non-poisonous water snakes are thinner bodied than cottonmouth and they swim with most of their body under the water, usually with only the head sticking up out of the water or the whole snake will be under the water (Figure 1).  Cottonmouth, our only poisonous water snake, is very heavy bodied and very naturally buoyant.  They tend to swim with all or the majority of their body on top of the water, usually floating and slowly swimming in an exaggerated serpentine movement (Figure 2).  If you see this behavior, you are likely looking at a cottonmouth.  I have had only one member, with us having had no prior discussion, describe this behavior to me as he and his wife experienced while floating on air mattresses at their dock on Lake Norwood.  He is a retired educator and researched what he observed on the internet, and I really think he saw a cottonmouth based on his description of the snake and the way it swam and acted – they are generally fearless and rather arrogant seeming in the manner they will not attempt to get away from you but rather will instead stand their ground, act indifferent to your presence, or actually show aggression. 
 
Figure 1.  Midland water snake in typical swimming behavior.  This is the most common water snake in Bella Vista Lakes.


 
Figure 2.  Example picture of a cottonmouth swimming on top of the water.

The mid-land water snake, and other similar non-poisonous water snake species, can also have a nasty attitude once they are threatened or cornered, but they initially just try to get away from you, normally.  Cottonmouth usually will try to avoid you.
 
So learn some snake identification characters when recreating on our village lakes – an informed observer can tell a non-poisonous water snake from a cottonmouth.  Be sure to let us know if you actually see a cottonmouth on a village lake.  I’d like to document the first one if it ever occurs.  Otherwise, know that you are likely seeing a non-poisonous water snake, usually a midland water snake, when you observe a snake in a village lake. 

Water snakes in Bella Vista lakes are generating more than average questions and comments this year, especially from folks on Loch Lomond. Each year I field a few calls from members with questions about snakes in Bella Vista lakes such as “Do water moccasins exist here?”, “What kinds of snakes are around my dock?” Etc. But this year folks seem to be calling about and observing more snakes than in years past, and of course many wonder if they are seeing “water moccasins”, which are the species of snake with the common name,”?cottonmouth”; scientific name, Agkistrodon piscivorus. Water snakes in Bella Vista lakes are generating more than average questions and comments this year, especially from folks on Loch Lomond. Each year I field a few calls from members with questions about snakes in Bella Vista lakes such as “Do water moccasins exist here?”, “What kinds of snakes are around my dock?” Etc. But this year folks seem to be calling about and observing more snakes than in years past, and of course many wonder if they are seeing “water moccasins”, which are the species of snake with the common name,”?cottonmouth”; scientific name, Agkistrodon piscivorus.