Originally created 05/05/02

Tracking the cottonmouth

Bob Reed, clad in tall leather boots and canvas trousers, stepped deftly over a rotting cypress log half-buried in mud.

Then he stopped.

"Smell that?" he said. "Smell the cottonmouth? He's close - right here somewhere."

It took only a moment for Reed and his colleague, Whit Gibbons, to detect the source of the musky odor. A few feet away, unblinking and motionless, sat one of nature's most misunderstood creatures.

"Now that's a nice cottonmouth," Reed said. "Real nice. He's big, pretty, and he's even got his mouth open."

Gibbons and Reed are herpetologists with decades of expertise behind them, not to mention a pair of doctorate degrees. So I couldn't resist an invitation to accompany them on a walk through the Savannah River swamp.

"Cottonmouths are fascinating creatures," Reed said, jostling the docile specimen with a hooked snake-handling tool. "They're the only aquatic pit viper. And they eat everything - even other cottonmouths."

Their cucumber-like odor occurs when they are startled. Also known as the water moccasin, their more common nickname is derived from their white inner-mouth, exposed whenever the snake cocks its gaping jaws.

Gibbons has studied hundreds of cottonmouths to determine how likely they are to bite. He perceives them as shy, gentle creatures. They are cowards first, preferring to stay hidden and undetected.

Then, if provoked, they bluff - usually only pretending to bite.

"Their venom is to get food, to kill prey," he said. "They don't want to waste it on something they can't eat."

Snakes also can break their fragile fangs by striking something hard or inedible. Such damage could render the snake unable to hunt and threaten its survival.

"Their venom is like ammunition," he said. "You only have so much so you don't waste it on something you can't eat."

Like a loaded handgun, a cottonmouth has deadly potential - but is mostly harmless unless mishandled. Nationally, most snakebites from venomous species occur when someone tried to pick them up.

The cottonmouth's notoriety is second only perhaps to the rattlesnake. And its resemblance to its common cousin - the harmless water snake - accounts for untold numbers of mistaken identity killings.

Locally, the cottonmouth's range extends up to the Fall Line that roughly follows Interstate 20. The dark banded reptiles are common in stagnant swamps but much rarer along flowing streams and rivers.

"They like cover," Reed said. "They want to be close to water, but in a place where they can bask when the sun comes out."

In all, we averaged one cottonmouth for every 16 minutes we strolled through the swamp. It makes me wonder how many more we didn't see.

GOT TICKS? A warm, damp spring makes it likely you'll encounter ticks this month. If you find one, and aren't too attached to it, Dr. Mike Felz will remove it for free.

Felz, a physician at Medical College of Georgia's Department of Family Medicine, is in his final year of a research project to determine the best method of extracting the blood-sucking little beasts from human skin.

So far, Felz has taken ticks off 62 people, but he needs 38 more to reach his goal of 100. If you find a tick on you, call Felz at 721-2855 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

In addition to removing the tick, Felz will identify the species and provide medical information on any diseases it might carry.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119 or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.


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