Does Virginia Have Water Moccasins?

Key Takeaways:

  • Water moccasins, also called cottonmouth snakes, are found in southeastern Virginia, concentrated in the southern regions of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake.
  • Isolated populations of water moccasins occur in several counties like Brunswick, Dinwiddie, Greensville, and York as well as cities like Newport News and Suffolk.
  • Water moccasins are semi-aquatic pit vipers and the only venomous water snake species found in Virginia.
  • They thrive in swamplands, marshes, drainage ditches, and along the banks of slow-moving bodies of water.
  • Water moccasins have a distinctive blocky, triangular head and a thick body with keeled scales in dark brown, black, or olive colors.

The water moccasin, scientifically known as Agkistrodon piscivorus, is a venomous snake belonging to the pit viper family. It is also commonly referred to as the cottonmouth or simply cottonmouth snake due to the white interior of its mouth. As their name suggests, water moccasins are semi-aquatic snakes that inhabit swamps, marshes, streams, lakes, and other water bodies predominantly in the southeastern United States. Virginia marks the northeastern limit of the water moccasin’s range where suitable wetland habitats are present. But does Virginia really have water moccasins and if so, where are they found in the state?

This comprehensive article will analyze the distribution, identification, habitat, behavior, reproduction, and bite treatment of water moccasins in Virginia. It will evaluate confirmed sightings and range maps to determine where cottonmouth populations currently occur. Descriptions of key physical features and tips for differentiating water moccasins from nonvenomous lookalike species will be provided. Details on water moccasin behavior, reproduction, habitat preferences, and human health risks will also be covered. The article aims to offer an exhaustive reference on cottonmouths in Virginia for nature enthusiasts, hikers, anglers, and anyone spending time outdoors near potential snake habitats. By the end, readers will have a thorough understanding of water moccasin distribution, appearance, ecology, and dangers in the state.

Distribution of Water Moccasins in Virginia

Water moccasins have a relatively restricted distribution in Virginia compared to other southern states where they are more widely dispersed. According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), water moccasins mainly occur in the southeastern region of the state. The highest concentrations are found along tidal creeks, swamps, and marshlands in the southern portions of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. There are also isolated populations documented in several inland counties and cities.

Based on range maps and confirmed sightings, the DWR lists the following areas as having cottonmouth populations in Virginia:

  • Brunswick County
  • Chesterfield County
  • City of Chesapeake
  • City of Newport News
  • City of Suffolk
  • Dinwiddie County
  • Greensville County
  • Prince George County
  • Southampton County
  • Surry County
  • Sussex County
  • York County

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Herpetology reviewed museum records and citizen science databases of water moccasin observations. It confirmed occurrences in all the above regions. The study also noted the highest densities along the Chowan River drainage area bordering North Carolina.

Overall, water moccasins in Virginia are concentrated in the southeast but sparsely distributed in the central and eastern parts of the state. There are no cottonmouth populations in the mountainous southwest region or the Northern Neck and Northern Virginia areas.

How To Identify Water Moccasins in Virginia

Properly identifying water moccasins is critical for avoiding potentially dangerous snake encounters in Virginia. Here are the key physical features and characteristics to look for:

Distinctive Head Shape

  • Water moccasins have a very wide, triangular-shaped head that is distinctly blockier than other snakes. This helps differentiate them from nonvenomous water snakes.

Thick Body

  • Their body is very stout and thick, unlike the slender form of most water snakes. Adults can reach lengths of 3-4 feet.

Keeled Scales

  • The scales have a rough, keeled texture and are arranged in crossbanded rows along the body. This causes a slightly chunky, jagged look.

Color Pattern

  • Coloration consists of distinctive dark brown, olive, or black crossbands on a background color ranging from yellowish to dark brown or black. Young snakes have more vivid patterns that fade to solid dark colors in older adults.

White Mouth Lining

  • When threatened, a cottonmouth will often open its mouth wide revealing the stark white interior lining, hence its common name.

Elliptical Pupils

  • Like other pit vipers, water moccasins have elliptical, cat-like pupils instead of round ones.

Heat-Sensing Pits

  • They have heat-sensitive loreal pits on each side of the head between the nostrils and eyes that help detect warm-blooded prey.

Rattlesnake-Like Body

  • Although water moccasins do not have rattles, their thick, blocky body and head are similar in proportions to some rattlesnake species.

Semi-Aquatic Habits

  • If an unknown snake is encountered near water, it’s more likely to be a water moccasin than a harmless species.

Being able to correctly identify water moccasins is key to avoiding bites and unnecessary killing of harmless snake species often mistaken for cottonmouths. When in doubt, it’s best not to approach or handle any wild snake closely.

Where Do Water Moccasins Live in Virginia?

Water moccasins thrive in swamplands, marshes, lakes, ponds, streams, rice fields, and other wet, humid habitats in Virginia. They particularly favor areas with dense aquatic vegetation and ample hiding spots:

Swamps & Marshes

Water moccasins are highly associated with swamps and marshes. They love warm, stagnant waters and wetlands with plentiful access to frogs, fish, and small mammals for prey. The Great Dismal Swamp along the North Carolina border provides ideal cottonmouth habitat.

Lakes, Ponds & Slow Streams

Edges of ponds, oxbow lakes, backwaters, and slow meandering streams offer prime real estate. Moccasins often bask on branches hanging over water.

Drainage Ditches & Canals

Man-made linear waterways are readily colonized by the snakes as they create wet corridors through landscapes.

Flooded Forests & Wet Woodlands

Periodically flooded bottomland forests and swampy woodlands interspersed with pools and small channels are cottonmouth havens.

Rice Fields

Flooded agricultural rice fields also provide ideal moccasin habitat in southeastern Virginia.

Near Water’s Edge

Moccasins stick closely to water’s edge with ample basking sites. Hiding spots include thick vegetation, stumps, burrows, and debris piles.

Any areas with fresh or mildly brackish, slow-moving water, abundant prey, and plenty of cover are likely to harbor cottonmouths in Virginia.

Cottonmouth Behavior & Habits

Water moccasins exhibit some predictable behavioral patterns and habits:

  • Mostly active at night – They are largely nocturnal snakes but may cautiously bask during the day.
  • Spend most time in water – Cottonmouths are rarely found far from water, seldom venturing over land except to move between sites.
  • Strong swimmers – Moccasins often rest in shallows and diligently patrol waterways hunting for prey. They can remain submerged for extended periods.
  • Territorial & stand their ground – Water moccasins are highly defensive and will aggressively stand their ground if threatened. This makes them more prone to bite than many other snakes that flee.
  • Sometimes communal – They may den together in groups during winter or shelter communally in wet burrows, stump holes, or other refuges near water.
  • Eat fish, frogs, mammals – Fish, frogs, small mammals, birds, snakes, turtles, and invertebrates are all cottonmouth prey.
  • Give live birth – Unlike most snakes, water moccasins do not lay eggs. They are viviparous and give birth to live young.

Water moccasins spend nearly all their time in or near water hunting prey. If you encounter one on land, it will usually freeze or quickly return to the safety of water rather than flee across land. Give them ample space rather than risk being bitten by a defensive snake.

Water Moccasin Bite Treatment

Water moccasin venom is hemotoxic, destructive to tissues and blood cells. Their bite can cause severe pain and swelling, necrosis around the wound, bruising, bleeding issues, and occasionally even shock or unconsciousness in severe envenomations. Deaths are rare with proper medical treatment but do occasionally occur.

If bitten, immediately seek emergency medical care and follow these steps:

  • Remain calm but act swiftly. Move safely beyond the snake’s striking distance if outdoors.
  • Clean and immobilize the wound, keeping it below heart level to reduce venom flow. Apply a light wrap. Avoid tourniquets.
  • Remove any jewelry or restrictive clothing as swelling can spread rapidly.
  • Note the time of the bite and watch for signs of progressive symptoms like pain, numbness, nausea, and blurred vision.
  • Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Transport by ambulance if available and approved by medical professionals.
  • Follow first aid recommendations provided by medical responders. Supportive care and antivenom can prevent severe injury and save lives.

Water moccasin bites are medical emergencies requiring rapid treatment. Staying calm, seeking immediate care, and following medical guidance can help mitigate bite effects. Avoiding interactions with water moccasins in the first place is the safest approach for the public.

How Do Water Moccasins Breed in Virginia?

Water moccasins breed over late summer and give birth to live young the following spring or early summer after a gestation of approximately 6 months. Here is an overview of their reproductive biology in Virginia:

  • Breeding season – July to September, with males courting females and engaging in combat rituals.
  • Viviparous birth – Unlike most snakes, water moccasins do not lay eggs. About 6 months after mating, the female gives birth to 6-30 live young.
  • Typical litter size – Around 10-20 offspring per brood, with larger females producing more young.
  • Newborns are independent – Babies average 8-10 inches long at birth and must fend for themselves right away.
  • Maturity reached in 2-3 years – Young moccasins grow rapidly but don’t begin breeding until mature at age 2-3 years.
  • 3-4 year birthing cycle – Females likely only give birth every 3-4 years once sexually mature.
  • Lifespan around 8-10 years – Water moccasins live roughly 8-10 years in the wild based on studies of marked snakes.

Water moccasins are prolific, viviparous snakes with females birthing live litters every few years. This reproductive strategy contributes to their abundance in suitable wetland habitats across the southeastern U.S.

Key Facts on Water Moccasins in Virginia

  • Found only in southeastern Virginia concentrated along major river drainages.
  • Unique among Virginia’s snakes for being venomous and viviparous.
  • Bite symptoms include severe pain, swelling, tissue damage, bruising, and bleeding problems.
  • Primarily eat fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and occasionally birds.
  • Most active at night and rarely found far from water.
  • Tend to stand their ground when threatened rather than fleeing.
  • Utilize a variety of aquatic habitats from cypress swamps to marshes, ponds, and sluggish streams.
  • Young are born live in groups of 6-30 each litter after a 6 month gestation.

Water moccasins are fascinating semi-aquatic pit vipers specialized for life in and around Virginia’s swamps, marshes, and slow moving waters. Being able to identify them and understanding their habits and habitat can help avoid unwanted snake encounters.


In conclusion, water moccasins are definitively present in Virginia but primarily limited to the southeastern region of the state. Their range centers around extensive wetlands near the North Carolina border but also includes smaller, isolated populations in central and eastern counties. Sightings are concentrated along the Chowan River basin but span south to the cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. Swamps, marshes, streams, ponds, lakes, and drainage ditches provide prime cottonmouth habitat.

Water moccasins can be identified by their thick, blocky bodies, triangular heads, keeled scales, brown or black coloration, and distinctive white mouth lining. They are often closely associated with water and possess several interesting adaptations for their semi-aquatic lifestyle including live birth of young. Bites, although rare, can be severe and necessitate immediate medical treatment. Being able to recognize water moccasins and give them appropriate space is key to coexistence with this unique pit viper species in Virginia.

This exhaustive guide covers everything readers need to know about water moccasin distribution, identification, behavior, reproduction, habitat preferences, and bite dangers in Virginia. Those spending time in southeastern Virginia, especially near wetlands, will benefit from learning how to identify cottonmouths and avoid negative encounters. This knowledge contributes to safely appreciating Virginia’s rich biodiversity and these fascinating but potentially hazardous pit vipers.


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