Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cottonmouth Moccasins: Adapting to the Beach and Beyond

Could some pit vipers evolve the capacity to invade the world’s oceans?

Last Thursday, while doing some fieldwork in Levy County, I came across this Florida cottonmouth as it was sunning itself after an early morning swim:

The warning behavior being demonstrated in the last photo is how the ‘cottonmouth’ earned its common name; trespassers and would be predators can be caught off-guard and intimidated when the snake curtly flashes the white interior of its mouth. The warning was certainly well received by me – I’ll take being startled over enduring a venomous bite any day of the week!

The Florida cottonmouth Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti is one of three subspecies of water moccasin native to the United States; the other two varieties include the Eastern cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) and the Western cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma). These three subspecies of semi-aquatic pit vipers are renowned for their exceptional swimming ability and their associated preference for habitats in and around the freshwater lakes, streams and swamps of the Southeast U.S. They have adapted to be masters of wetlands; well, masters of freshwater wetlands anyway…

Even though their preferred range places them in proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, the conquest of marine ecosystems by the cottonmouths has been - as it has with most aquatically inclined reptiles - blockaded. The physiological demands of maintaining adequate hydration in a high-saline environment has constrained the Agkistrodon genus to a landward life. But things could change.

Could cottonmouths evolve to live in the sea, like kraits or sea snakes?

As mentioned previously, the above images show a cottonmouth from Levy County, Florida. Levy County is located in West Central Florida and boasts an impressive coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. The coastline even has barrier islands. In fact, one such barrier island, called Seahorse Key, has its very own population of cottonmouths - cottonmouths that have found a niche in the intertidal zone.

Generally considered opportunistic carnivores, the bulk of the average cottonmouth’s diet is derived through consumption of its wetland neighbors - frogs and fish - however, they have been known to occasionally snack on insects, lizards, birds, rats, or even other moccasins. The cottonmouths of Seahorse Key have taken their tastes for fish from the freshwater to the saltwater; there they eat marine fish scavenged from the intertidal zone or haphazardly dropped from the Key’s bird rookeries. In addition to marine fish, the cottonmouths of Seahorse Key will even eat SEAWEED if it has the odor of fish on its leaves.

So, the cottonmouths of Seahorse Key have a proven ability to eat, digest and process marine food resources. They posses elongate lungs to provide buoyancy and streamlined bodies capable of eel-like swimming locomotion. As with other pit vipers they have venom to aid in capture of fast moving fish. And, in regards to reproduction, cottonmouths give birth to live young, so there’s no need to go to shore to lay eggs…

It seems that the only other major factor restricting the cottonmouths’ sea-ward invasion is a limited tolerance for high-salinity…

If only there was a selective pressure for improved salt water tolerance; for instance, a selective pressure something like being stuck on an island that is subject to rising sea levels. What are the chances of that happening?

The behavioral and physiological adaptations required in order for a land animal to successfully undertake a conquest of the sea are undoubtedly both varied and numerous; but, with sufficient selection pressure, ample time, and an incremental, step-wise process it can and has happened.

For example, consider all of the behavioral and physiological changes that must have occurred in order for a few Devonian lobe-finned fish to find their way to shore as fully terrestrial tetrapods! Or, viewing the scenario in reverse, imagine the adaptations that permitted Eocene land mammals to re-enter the sea as a line of cetaceans!

Subtle cumulative changes over time can alter a lineage’s dietary preferences, reproductive rituals and even bodily mechanics.

Lillywhite, H., Sheehy, C., & Zaidan, F. (2008). Pitviper Scavenging at the Intertidal Zone: An Evolutionary Scenario for Invasion of the Sea BioScience, 58 (10) DOI: 10.1641/B581008


  1. I also read a journal article describing how moray eels will come out of the water and slither along the intertidal from rock pool to rock pool. Having an eel or snake-like body shape seems to make them perfectly adapted to going and getting prey out of rockpools that they have no escape from.

  2. Cool, I haven’t seen that one.

    I guess that there’s no need to waste time and resources adapting flippers or legs to a new environment if you don’t even need appendages to get around!

    Thanks Daniel.

  3. For gosh sakes Rich... don't get so close. Wonderful pictures.