The southeastern United States is home to two very impressive snakes—the kingsnake, and the cottonmouth. Both species live around sources of water, and both have heavy bodies, but that’s about where the similarities stop. There are several species of kingsnake, here we’ll focus on the eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) and how it differs from the cottonmouth snake (Agkistrodon piscivorus). Unlike the cottonmouth, which is also known as a water moccasin, the kingsnake is not a pit viper. Cottonmouths, like rattlesnakes and copperheads, can actually sense body heat and use that sense to hunt.
No matter which species you’re referring two, you should treat them with respect. While only one is venomous, both can deliver vicious bites, but only when threatened. Without exception, the easiest way to get bitten by either a kingsnake or a cottonmouth is to step on it or try to pick it up. Here, we’ll learn why it’s important to leave these incredible snakes alone, and why they’re so important for the environment.
Let’s take a look at the differences and similarities between kingsnakes and cottonmouths, beginning with their looks. After that, we’ll learn more about where each species lives, what they eat, and how they behave. Then, we’ll explore their venom capabilities, and discuss which species you should be more worried about.
Comparing Kingsnakes and Cottonmouths
|Appearance||Often darker with white-on-black stripes, but have more color variation in general||Dark brown with diamond-like patterning|
|Habitat||Live as far north as New Jersey and more terrestrial||Only found in the southeastern portion of the United States and prefer swamps and marshland|
|Reproduction||Lays eggs||Gives birth to live young|
|Diet||Other snakes including venomous snakes, eggs, lizards, birds, rodents||Fish, frogs, rodents, juvenile alligators|
The Key Differences Between Kingsnakes and Kingsnake
The primary difference between kingsnakes and cottonmouths is that cottonmouths are venomous while kingsnakes are not. Kingsnakes will often have an appearance that mimics venomous snakes, but they use constriction to hunt their prey. In addition, cottonmouths prefer aquatic environments while kingsnakes have a range that extends far north of where cottonmouths live.
Let’s dive into their differences in more detail.
Kingsnake Vs Cottonmouth: Appearance
Both kingsnakes and cottonmouths are large snakes. The largest eastern kingsnake on record reached nearly seven feet in length (82 inches), and the largest cottonmouths have reached up to 6 feet, though they’re often closer to four to five feet in length. They have heavy bodies, and, while water moccasins have heavy heads to match, kingsnake heads are relatively short and broad. One of the biggest differences between the two lies in their eyes; cottonmouths have cat-like elliptical pupils, while kingsnakes have rounded pupils set in large eyes.
The differences don’t end there though, kingsnakes are much darker in color than cottonmouths, which tend to darken up as they age. Kingsnakes have very characteristic white-on-black stripes that reach over their backs and connect in a line down each side. In addition, kingsnakes have significantly more variation in their colors when compared to cottonmouths.
Water moccasins, on the other hand, have dark brown diamond-like patterning on gray to yellow bodies. Further, cottonmouths get their name from the cotton-colored interior of their mouths, a characteristic kingsnakes do not share.
Kingsnake Vs Cottonmouth: Habitat
Water moccasins and kingsnakes share many of the same habitats, though only kingsnakes live as far north as New Jersey. Cottonmouths live only as far north as Virginia, though both live as far west as eastern Texas. Further, kingsnakes live inland in states like Kentucky and Tennessee, whereas cottonmouths tend to stick closer to the southeastern coast—they’re largely absent from areas too far inland, or too far from freshwater.
That’s one more thing distinguishing kingsnakes from cottonmouths, their liking for water. While cottonmouths are semi-aquatic, kingsnakes are actually entirely terrestrial, though they’re often found near water. Cottonmouths can be found in wetlands and floodplains, and near rivers and lakes. Kingsnakes, in contrast, live in many more habitats, ranging from forests to the edges of suburban areas. They can also be found in farmland, swamps, and wetlands.
Kingsnake Vs Cottonmouth: Behavior and Reproduction
The biggest behavioral difference between water moccasins and kingsnakes is in how they reproduce. Cottonmouths are ovoviviparous, meaning that females actually keep their eggs inside their bodies while the babies develop. Then, when they’re ready, the snakelings actually hatch in the womb, and the mother gives birth to live young. In contrast, kingsnakes lay their eggs in clutches of 3-24; the young hatch in the fall.
Cottonmouths, no matter their age, hunt at all times of the day and night. They’re semi-aquatic, which means they hunt both on land and in the water. Kingsnakes don’t like the dark though and hunt only in the early morning and daylight hours. Further, kingsnakes are purely terrestrial and don’t look for prey in the water.
Kingsnake Vs Cottonmouth: Diet
While water moccasins eat many things, they don’t generally eat kingsnakes. Kingsnakes, however, are frequent hunters of pit vipers like cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, and copperheads. They’re actually resistant to their venom. In addition to other snakes, kingsnakes also eat turtle eggs, lizards, birds, and rodents.
Cottonmouths are true connoisseurs of the natural world; they’ll eat everything from fish to frogs to rodents to alligators. They’re good swimmers, and make the most out of hunting both on land, and in the water.
Kingsnake Vs Cottonmouth: Venom
It’s true that cottonmouths have reason to fear kingsnakes, but as humans, we have more reason to fear water moccasins than we do kingsnakes. This is because, though the kingsnake is an impressive, snake-eating snake, it possesses no venom glands. As pit vipers, water moccasins come equipped with two hollow fangs at the top front corners of their mouth. These fangs are hollow, and their primary purpose is to inject hemotoxic venom into their prey.
The cottonmouth’s venom is particularly useful when it comes to disabling prey without having to constrict or crush it to death. The water moccasin simply strikes, envenomates, and waits for the unfortunate victim to die. In contrast, kingsnakes constrict their prey to death, since they have no killing venom.
Kingsnake Vs Cottonmouth: Which is More Dangerous?
Both species can deliver nasty bites, but only one can potentially kill a human, and that’s the water moccasin. All in all, kingsnakes are more deadly to other snakes than they are to humans, despite their fearsome looks. But, no matter how deadly the snake is, if you see either a cottonmouth or a kingsnake in the wild, leave it be. Both species are wild animals that are vital to preserving functioning ecosystems, and should not be killed unless absolutely necessary.
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