Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Legend: An unlucky waterskier topples into a nest of deadly water moccasins.
As horrific as either of these tales are, they couldn't have happened. Water moccasins don't form "nests" in the water. They're solitary creatures, and even their young quickly go their own ways after coming into this world.
This legend casts water moccasins (or cottonmouths, as they're also called) as the villains because these are the only venomous aquatic snakes in the United States. To make this legend work, you need a snake that likes water. And these are the only baddies that do.
According to snake expert William Hutchins:
[Cottonmouths] do not form nests or live in colonies, nor do the ones in our state [Florida] meet in hibernacular dens. They eat a variety of creatures, including their own kind, so they tend to be solitary animals. They bear live young that scatter as soon as they are born, and the babies are afforded no maternal care. They will vigorously defend themselves if molested but are not overly aggressive.Other snake experts point out that water moccasins frequently don't inject venom when striking in an effort to defend themselves. Though anti-venom does exist to treat those bitten by cottonmouths, it's not employed in every case, as the bites are not seen as life-threatening. The wounds will hurt like the dickens, and there's a very real possibility they will permanently damage tissue in the victim, but they are highly unlikely to prove fatal.
Contrary to popular legends, there are no documented cases of anyone suffering multiple snake bites from tumbling into an aggregation or cluster of water moccasins. In fact, human deaths attributed to that species are less than one person per year — out of more than
Barbara "herpet theory, anyway" Mikkelson
Sightings: You'll find the unlucky waterskier legend mentioned in Willie Morris' 1967 novel North Toward Home. The incautious swimmer tale shows up in Lisa Alther's 1976 book Kinflicks. And though it lacks either a foolhardy waterskier or overly-enthusiastic swimmer, Larry McMurtry's 1985 novel Lonesome Dove (made into a television mini-series in 1989) contains a memorable "underwater nest of water moccasins" scene.
Last updated: 29 June 2007
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