It was immediately clear to hiker Kathy Sykes that the venomous cottonmouth in her way was not like most seen in the Carolinas.
She was at historic Brunswick Town in eastern North Carolina when two frightened women rushed by, warning her a rattlesnake was ahead on the trail.
Being an amateur photographer, Sykes rushed to see it with her cellphone camera at the ready.
But it turned out the rattlesnake was actually a partially coiled and very angry eastern cottonmouth, and Sykes noticed immediately there was something unusual about its appearance.
“He was shaking his tail like a rattlesnake, as well as gaping (jaws open),” said Sykes, a registered nurse. “But I also noticed he was very bright, absolutely gorgeous and his eyes were lighter. Cottonmouths are dark and muddy looking.”
What Sykes quickly realized was that she had found the 3-foot snake just after it had shed, and its colors were explosively bright.
Her photos of the moment, three of which were posted on Facebook, have been praised for capturing a rare moment of beauty for a pit viper that is better known for being dark and rusty. The cottonmouth, a mostly aquatic snake, is seen with its cottony mouth open to strike, but its fangs tucked.
“It had shed its skin so recently that its eyes were still sensitive to sunlight,” said Sykes, who lives in Boiling Springs, N.C. “It stayed in gape position for quite a few minutes. ... I stayed out of the strike zone.”
Cottonmouths, also known as water moccasins, shed their outer skin as many as four times a year, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources says.
“The outer layer of a snake’s skin does not grow. So, as the snake grows, it periodically sheds this outer layer,” according to the department’s website. “The frequency of shedding relates to the rate of growth.”
Eastern cottonmouths grow an average of 3 to 4 feet in length in North Carolina, “but are known to reach 6 feet,” according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.