Hiker stopped to photograph a venomous snake. Then one snake became four snakes

The photo Nylia Laney took while hiking at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. The snakes are juveniles. Nylia Laney photo
The photo Nylia Laney took while hiking at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. The snakes are juveniles. Nylia Laney photo

A Virginia hiker who stopped to photograph a suspected cottonmouth got an unnerving lesson in how easily the venomous snakes camouflage themselves: The one viper was surrounded by three others.

Nylia Laney says it happened at Virginia’s Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, along the North Carolina border, and the potentially deadly snakes were hiding in plain sight.

“I was excited to see the first juvenile, then I saw another, then another and finally the fourth,” she told the Charlotte Observer.

“You could walk right by them and really not see them, even though they were only a foot from the trail. I saw many people walk by them and even the larger cottonmouths without noticing them.”

Laney, who lives in Virginia Beach, says she lingered for 15 minutes taking photos, but made sure “not to invade their space.” She said a naturalist identified the snakes as cottonmouths, which look remarkably like venomous copperheads as juveniles.

It wasn’t the first time Laney has seen a suspected cottonmouth, also known as water moccasins, at the refuge near Virginia Beach. She is a hobbyist photographer who seeks out the site’s creepier residents with her Nikon.

But this snake encounter was different than the others, she says.

“The water at the refuge was unusually high, which brought the snakes closer to the trail,” she said.

Her photo was posted Tuesday on Facebook by the neighboring Lago Mar on the Back Bay community. It referred to the image as “amazing,” even for a community that is accustomed to seeing venomous snakes.

Social media comments ranged from discomfort to an ongoing debate about whether the snakes are actually copperheads, another venomous snake common to the region. (Both tend to look alike while young, but cottonmouths get darker as they age, according to

“Foliage full of Nopes from Nopeville! Nope, nope, nope!” posted Amber Breeden Turner on Facebook.

“I would have a heart attack,” wrote Betsy Settell.

Cottonmouths earn their name from the milky white interior of their mouths....seen when they open their jaws to bite.

They are largely found near water and are known to grow up to four feet in length, says the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

“If approached, some cottonmouths will retreat but others are defensive and will stand their ground. They often coil, vibrate their tail and open their mouth to reveal the white inner lining,” according to

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Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.