“All right, let’s dance!”

That’s about what we can imagine one male cottonmouth saying to another in late summer to early fall in the American Southeast, primetime among these rather notorious serpents for mating – and for associated competitive skirmishes over access to females.

Just such a skirmish, which does indeed look more like a choreographed dance routine than a no-holds-barred brawl, was caught on film early last month in a swamp on southeastern Georgia’s coastal plain. This kind of sodden stage is typical for cottonmouths, semiaquatic pit vipers also commonly called “water moccasins” which haunt bottomland forests, wetlands, lakes, and sluggish rivers.

The showdown was filmed in Bulloch County by Matthew Moore, a wildlife technician with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). According to a bulletin published by the agency, this was the third such mating-season cottonmouth battle Moore’s witnessed, and involved a minimum of three rounds.

The bout Moore filmed and posted to YouTube begins almost beneath his feet. The male snake that had come out on top in an earlier tussle, according to the DNR bulletin, rediscovered his opponent around the base of a bald-cypress tree where Moore was positioned. The water moccasins resume their battle, an extended one that moves from the tree out into the waterway as the serpents rear upwards while coiling and shoving. The contest plays out in silence, aside from the occasional slosh of water.

“Although these snakes are venomous,” Moore explains in his YouTube post, “they never bite each other while engaged in these wrestling matches. They simply vigorously entwine around each other and try to physically outmatch the other by pushing their opponent down to establish dominance.”

He noted that, more often than not and unsurprisingly, the bigger contestant usually triumphs in these fights. Although the snakes he observed were fairly similar in size, the slightly larger one once again seemed to win this unfriendly dance-off. “The dominant male chases the slightly smaller snake away,” the Georgia DNR bulletin reads, “then seems to lay claim to the creekbank cypress.”

Moore suspects a female cottonmouth may have been hidden somewhere in the vicinity of the tree, as he saw the victor at the same site the following day.

The writhing, rearing shove-fest these two Georgia water moccasins engaged in is a widespread male-versus-male combat routine among snakes, seen in one form or another in many species across multiple families.

Writing for Earth Touch News about a 2017 cottonmouth wrestling match filmed in Virginia, David Moscato noted that human observers can easily confuse these fights with mating coils, but those amorous male/female encounters aren’t so violent and high-energy, and involve more (ahem) intertwining of tails.

It’s a rare treat to actually get to witness two male water moccasins duking it out. Most swamp-sloggers, paddlers, and others roaming cottonmouth country spot these snakes going about more languid business: basking on banksides or logs, swimming with upraised heads through blackwater channels, sprawled on backroads.

In the same genus as the geographically overlapping copperhead (which is sometimes distinguished in old-school regional parlance as the “highland moccasin”), the cottonmouth definitely has a potent bite, but its dangerous reputation is overblown. It’s overall an unassuming and unaggressive snake, though when approached the species may hold its ground in a defensive coil, wiggling its tail and gaping with the whitish mouth that explains its common name. (Cottonmouths share their wet haunts with nonvenomous water snakes, with which they’re often confused; although water snakes are more liable to swiftly flee from a person, they actually may be quite a bit more “bitey” than a moccasin if they feel forced to defend themselves. Cottonmouths show a distinctive eye stripe and a bulkier build than water snakes, which, furthermore, don’t do the whole tail-wiggling and mouth-gaping routine.)

In a 2017 Georgia DNR bulletin, Moore wrote that his public outreach in the state had convinced him that “cottonmouths are the most misunderstood and maligned of Georgia’s six native species of venomous snakes.” They don’t chase people around, as popular lore sometimes insists, and they don’t (intentionally, anyway) drop into boats from overhanging trees. That article is worth checking out for some healthy moccasin myth-busting, showing how inoffensive a cottonmouth left unmolested can be.

Header image: Alan Schmierer