CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If North Carolina has such a thing as celebrity wildlife, it would include a group of 100-plus venomous cottonmouths living in a secret spot near the coast.
This bunch of pit vipers are the stars of their own Facebook page — Cottonmouth Acres. The page has nearly 1,500 followers and a bold approach to the things shared online.
Nothing is held back. Posts in recent months have included the snakes engaging in “combat wrestling,” stuffing food in their mouths, giving birth and flirting.
One man is behind the mud-drenched posts: Frederick Boyce, a herpetologist with the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
He is so protective of the snakes that he refuses to say exactly where they live.
“The more time I spend with them, the more I understand them, and the more I admire and like them,” Boyce told McClatchy News.
“I am hoping that this will give me a much better opportunity to show these fascinating animals to more people as I have come to know them, which is very much at odds with the widespread myths and misconceptions that have plagued them for centuries.”
Among his recent posts: A “coming out party” of cottonmouths piled atop each other to enjoy the sun and a video of two males wrestling.
“Male cottonmouths will engage in combat wrestling not only for females, but also for other reasons, such as access to food resources,” Boyce noted in one video.
Another video shows one cottonmouth as it crams another (dead) cottonmouth down its throat.
“By far the largest and most ambitious gastronomic undertaking of any I have yet seen,” Boyce noted in one of several videos devoted to the meal.
Boyce estimates the snake’s 25-acre home includes about 100 adults and their offspring, plus additional “transients” that pass through to forage. That comes out to 4-plus venomous snakes per acre.
Cottonmouths, also known as the water moccasin, grow to 4 feet on average, though the record in North Carolina is just over 6 feet, the state says. Their venom is known to cause swelling, bruising, vomiting and temporary loss of movement abilities, according to a 2019 report published by Clinical Toxicity.
Three subspecies are spread across the Southeast, from southern Virginia to Central Texas, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Boyce says he discovered his study subjects “by chance” in 2017 during a wetland restoration project, and he launched the Facebook page in late 2019 to share his research.
“I was expecting it (the Facebook page) to have a pretty limited appeal to mostly fellow snake scientists and enthusiasts and perhaps other naturalists. But it seems to be catching on quite well and unexpectedly, with a much wider audience, which is very gratifying to see,” he says.
“These secretive and wary animals can be extremely difficult to locate in their natural habitats. Most encounters are opportunistic and nearly impossible to plan or anticipate.”
Cottonmouth Acres is made up of “wetland and swamp forest intersected by a network of drainage ditches,” which experts say is like Disneyland for semiaquatic snakes. It also is home to a lot of biting insects and poison ivy, which keeps people out, Boyce says.
Only once in the past four years — last June — has a cottonmouth been “induced to strike,” despite the fact Boyce says he has accidentally stepped on a few.
This led him to conclude cottonmouths have an undeserved reputation for being aggressive.
“While snakes are possibly the most misunderstood and misjudged of all the vertebrate animals, cottonmouths are perhaps the most misunderstood and wrongfully maligned of all snakes, at least in North America,” Boyce says.
“I have experimentally and very gently placed objects into their open mouths, and instead of snapping their jaws shut, as one might expect, the snakes only seem confused. … I have stepped all around gaping cottonmouths, taking photos at very close range and practically inserting the lens of my camera into their mouths without eliciting any sort of strike, though I am careful to never actually touch them.”
Boyce says the information gathered by his observations will eventually be included in a research paper.