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Do water moccasins have a red belly?

Water moccasins, also known as cottonmouths, are a species of venomous snake found in the southeastern United States. They are pit vipers, like rattlesnakes and copperheads. Water moccasins get their name from their typically dark, patterned skin that can look like moccasin shoes. One of the distinctive features of water moccasins is their white or yellow-white colored mouth lining that they often show when threatened. This has led to their “cottonmouth” name. However, there is a common myth that water moccasins can be identified by having a red or orange belly. So do water moccasins actually have a red belly?

Water Moccasin Coloration

The typical color pattern of an adult water moccasin consists of a brown, gray, olive, or black body with 10-15 darker crossbands down the length of the body. The head is a darker color than the body and the belly is a light tan, yellowish, or cream color with dark mottling or spots.

Water moccasin hatchlings start out with more vivid patterns of reddish, brown, or yellow bands or blotches down the back and a yellow-marked tip on the tail. As the snakes mature, their patterns fade to the more muted adult coloration.

Where the Red Belly Myth Comes From

So if water moccasins do not actually have red bellies, where does this common myth come from? There are a few possible explanations:

Confusing Water Moccasins with Scarlet Snakes

One is that people are confusing juvenile water moccasins with scarlet snakes. Scarlet snakes are a small, nonvenomous species that are found in the same geographical range as water moccasins. They have brightly colored red bands or blotches down their backs. Their bellies can also appear reddish-orange. If a glimpsed juvenile water moccasin is mistaken for a scarlet snake, it may lead to the mistaken observation that “water moccasins have red bellies.”

Seeing the Red Inside of the Mouth

Another possibility is people are seeing the red color inside of an aggravated water moccasin’s mouth when it opens its mouth to show its white cottonmouth lining. This flash of red may lead to the mistaken assumption that red on the outside of the belly is also present.

Misidentifying Copperheads

There is also a chance that copperheads are sometimes misidentified as water moccasins. Copperheads have hourglass shaped darker crossbands down their lighter brown bodies. Their bellies are often reddish or pinkish in color, which could be mistaken as a “red belly” if the snake is incorrectly assumed to be a water moccasin.

Key Ways to Identify Water Moccasins

Since water moccasins do not actually have red bellies, here are some key features you can look for to help properly identify them:


Water moccasins are only found near water sources in the southeastern United States. This includes states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. They also extend into the southern parts of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Iowa along major rivers. If you are outside of this habitat range, the snake you see is not a water moccasin.

Head Shape

Water moccasins have a very distinctive, blocky, chunky head with a neck barely wider than the head. This gives them a more triangular shaped head compared to other snakes. Nonvenomous water snakes found in the same areas have a long, oval-shaped head that is clearly distinct from the thicker neck.

Body Patterns

As discussed earlier, water moccasin patterning consists of brown, gray, olive, or black bodies with 10-15 dark crossbands. The bands are often faint in adults. Juveniles have more vivid banding or blotches. There are no lengthwise stripes or speckled banding typical of some nonvenomous species. The belly color is light with mottled dark spots, not solid red.


Water moccasins tend to sit still when approached, opening their white-lined cottonmouths to threaten predators. They may coil up and vibrate their tails. In contrast, harmless water snakes will quickly flee to water to escape when threatened. If a snake rapidly retreats to the water, it is not a water moccasin.

Water Moccasin Nonvenomous Water Snake
Chunky, triangular head Thinner, oval-shaped head
Brown, gray, olive, or black body Brown, reddish, or dark body with stripes/speckles
10-15 faint dark crossbands Distinct pattern of stripes, blotches, speckles
Light belly with dark mottling Solid lighter underside
Often stays still or coils when threatened Quickly flees to water for safety


In summary, while water moccasins are venomous and can be dangerous, they do not actually have red or orange bellies. The myth likely comes from cases of mistaken identity or only seeing flashes of the inside of the snake’s mouth. With proper identification, water moccasins can be easily distinguished from harmless water snake species by their distinctive head shape, body patterns, belly colors, and defensive behaviors. So while it’s important to give any wild snake space, you don’t have to worry about every water snake in the Southeast being a deadly cottonmouth if it doesn’t have a red belly. Just be observant and look for the key identifying features of water moccasins before deciding a snake poses a threat.