A Young Florida Cottonmouth Stays Cool in the Heat of the Taxonomic Debate

Agkistrodon conanti, the Florida cottonmouth,
aka Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti;
Lowndes county, Georgia (22 April 2012).

A few years back, I lived for in Lowndes county, Georgia, for a short spell. About 25 miles north of the Florida/Georgia line, it was a fascinating place to look for and observe wild snakes. This range of extreme southern Georgia is essentially an intergradation zone between many of the “Florida” taxa and their “Eastern” or “Southern” counterparts. When you dig into the literature and scholarship, the typical arguments about taxonomy and classification are magnified immeasurably in extreme southern Georgia because of intergradation or hybridization. Further, I keep running into people (online and in the flesh) who have very strong opinions about various species/subspecies in this region. When it comes to cottonmouths, rat snakes, and watersnakes, boy howdy, there’s some serious disagreement when it comes to naming things in southern Georgia.

With that in mind, featured here is a young cottonmouth photographed in Lowndes county, Georgia, back in April of 2012. Most range maps consider cottonmouths in this area to be Florida cottonmouths, but some do register them as intergrades between Florida cottonmouths and Eastern cottonmouths. Not too much of a difference, right? Well, that depends on where you stand on species taxonomy of cottonmouths… Some folks consider the Florida cottonmouth to be a subspecies (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti (conanti being the subspecies rank). Other folks, based on more recent scholarship, think of the Florida cottonmouth as being its own distinct species, Agkistrodon conanti (conanti being the new species rank), separate from the Eastern cottonmouth (classified merely as Agkistrodon piscivorus).

So, which is this one? Well, I’ll just call it a Florida cottonmouth and leave it at that. I know some folks who swear by the almighty trident of Poseidon that Lowndes county cottonmouths must (“By God, they must!”) be Eastern cottonmouths if not intergrades of Easterns and Floridas, but, hey, since we can’t even agree whether or not Easterns and Floridas are related species or related subspecies, I’m just gonna say “Florida cottonmouth” for now and call it a day. We’ll let the ever-continuing gene studies sort this out over time.

As for this little Florida cottonmouth, it’s a fine example of a juvenile cottonmouth: very bright with thick contrasts, a yellow-tipped tail, and patterning to beat all bands.

I remember a guy walking by us (the snake and myself) on the boardwalk trail and exclaiming that this must (“By God, it must!”) be a copperhead, which is an entirely different species altogether (Agkistrodon contortrix). The copperhead is a species that doesn’t reliably range in this part of southern Georgia, though some people will definitely disagree with that assertion (“By God, it does!”).  I’m not kidding: passionate taxonomical disagreement is more rampant in southern Georgia than shotgun racks and church services. It’s insane.

One thing that wasn’t insane, however, was this juvenile cottonmouth. Despite being a juvenile disturbed somewhat by the massive, lumbering hominid with a dip net and a Nikon magic box, this young snake kept its cool the entire time I worked with it. No aggression, no mayhem, no carnage, no panic, no violence. Nada. Yet again, this young individual proved how agreeable and cooperative so many cottonmouths truly can be. Though venomous and deserving of great respect and caution, I honestly don’t understand how or why people think this species is so aggressive. I’ve never once seen a truly aggressive cottonmouth, though I have seen some hyper and/or stubborn ones. Rather, whenever I see a cottonmouth around other people, it’s the people who prove themselves to be aggressive and grotesquely misinformed.

Fortunately, after a quick round of shots as seen below, the young cottonmouth slinked off the elevated boardwalk and dipped back down into the water — free and clear of humanity, its aggression, and its taxonomical fury.

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