Nop Paothong lay belly-down on the forest floor, trying hard not to irritate the large and quite venomous cottonmouth coiled 3 feet in front of him. It was mid-March, and the bluff overlooking Mingo National Wildlife Refuge was slithering with enough snakes to film an Indiana Jones movie.
Most snakes flee when humans creep too close. Western cottonmouths, also called water moccasins, often hold their ground. When scared, they spread their jaws to expose the cotton-white lining of their mouths. This behavior, called gaping, is a way to say, “Don’t mess with me.”
When Nop saw the snake in front of him gape, he shot several quick photos. Nop’s sudden movement made the snake strike. It was a bluff—the snake barely moved—but Nop still flinched.
This cranky attitude gives cottonmouths a bad rap for being aggressive. Although Nop doesn’t advise getting close to a cottonmouth, he says nothing could be further from the truth.
“Cottonmouths don’t want to waste venom on something they can’t eat,” Nop says. “They’re wellequipped to defend themselves, but they just want to be left alone.”
Nichole Leclair Terrill