The water moccasin (a.k.a. cottonmouth; Agkistrodon piscivorus) is a venomous snake of the American South. The adults come in the dark colors of moss and mud and may reach six feet. They live in water and are so adapted to the aquatic lifestyle that hatchling moccasins use their tails as fishing lures. Moccasins are as viable in salt water as in fresh, and an agricultural drainage ditch will serve almost as well as a lake or river. They bask on floating logs and brush, on the bank, and on rocky ledges uphill from the water. If a water hole dries up, they will migrate to find another. For aquatic animals, they're tolerant of dry weather. When a moccasin isn't hunting on land or in water or basking in the sun, it's often lying quietly in the shade.

People most often get bitten when they step on a moccasin. Occasionally a swimmer gets bitten. Moccasins may frighten attackers (and even people who accidentally come close to them) by yawning wide to show the inside of their pinkish-white mouths. They may, on the other hand, simply bite—in the air or under water. One victim who was bitten near the spine while swimming spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Researchers say half of all moccasin bites result in fingers or toes crippled by gangrene. But deaths are rare.

Big Cats in Shrinking Jungles

Here’s a news report on recent tiger and leopard attacks in India. Note the reference to deforestation as a contributor to animal attacks. This link between environmental damage and direct human-animal conflict has come up often, with everything from chimps to sloth bears. Some scientists have even suggested great white sharks are attacking people more often because we’ve depleted the fish they might otherwise prey on. The link is hard to prove, and I think some of the claims will need a lot more evidence before we take them seriously. But when it comes to deforestation, the links are easy: people have to venture into the forest to cut the trees, and forest animals have smaller areas in which to hide.

The Cricket-Beast Revealed

One of the most frequently asked questions about The Red Hourglass concerns the identity of the “cricket beast.” This mysterious critter, which I found crawling across my driveway after a rain, surprised me with its size, and then with its predatory prowess: it devoured a sizeable mantis, face first, leaving nothing but its wings.

The “cricket beast” was a Mormon cricket. It’s a kind of katydid, and it’s common in the Southwest, though I had seen only a few in Oklahoma—and none so huge. Mormon crickets usually eat plants. Their populations explode into plagues, much like flightless swarms of grasshoppers, and when that happens they devour carrion, other insects, and each other. According to Klauber’s classic work on rattlesnakes, masses of Mormon crickets have been observed eating these reptiles. It’s not clear whether the crickets actually killed the rattlers or simply scavenged them.

According to a Wikipedia entry, swarming Mormon crickets can be a traffic hazard, both by scaring the driver and by coating the road with their slick guts.

Vintage Widow Photo

Here's a shot of a captive Southern black widow (Latrodectus mactans) taking a fly. In the lower left you can see the widow's exoskeleton from a recent molt.
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