Water Snake Facts You Were Never Taught in School
What type of snakes love to spend time in or near water? You guessed it – the water snake. The snakes in this group are non-venomous, meaning they’re harmless to humans.
There are numerous species of water snakes, and they each have their own distinctive appearance.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common species, and learn more about these unique creatures.
Table of Contents
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- Water snake species
- Basic facts about the water snake
- Conservation status
- Other fun facts about the water snake
- There are other species of water snakes
Water snake species
1. Northern water snake
The Northern water snake is one of the most common types of water snakes, and they also happen to be one of the largest. Female Northern water snakes can grow to be five feet in length. These guys are normally found in northern parts of the U.S. as well as Ontario. But they can also be found as far down south as Georgia and Mississippi.
Because of their large size and appearance, these are the water snakes that are most commonly confused with water moccasins.
Northern water snakes are tan, brown or gray with dark blotches.
When hunting, these snakes like to herd tadpoles or fish to the edge of the waterbed, where they’ll gorge their dinner.
There are several subspecies of the Northern water snake, with the midland water snake being one of the most common.
Northern water snakes can live up to nine years in captivity, but their lifespan in the wild is still unknown.
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2. Banded (or Southern) water snake
The banded water snake is medium-sized and found along the southeastern coast of the U.S. Their colors vary greatly from tan to black, and many have dark-colored crossbands along their backs and sides.
These snakes have a dark stripe that extends all the way from their eyes to their mouths. And they tend to have square markings on their bellies and sides.
3. Brown water snake
Brown watersnakes are also found in the southeastern U.S. These snakes have distinctive heads, which are a bit wider than other types of water snakes. Their heads also have a diamond-like marking.
As you may have guessed, brown water snakes are brown. They can be any shade of brown, and they usually have dark brown square splotches on their backs. Some brown water snakes are so dark, you can’t even see the splotches.
Brown water snakes have yellow bellies with crescent or black markings.
The females can grow to be quite large – up to five feet. The males are a bit smaller at around 2.5 feet long.
These snakes love spending time up in the trees.
4. Yellow-bellied water snake
Yellow-bellied water snakes have no markings on their bellies and sparse patterns on their backs. They’re usually dark in color with green, gray or black patterns. Just as their name suggests, they have yellow undersides.
Female snakes grow to be about four feet in length.
Yellow bellies live mostly along the Gulf Coast.
5. Red-bellied water snake
Similarly to yellow-bellied water snakes, red-bellied water snakes have a reddish underside. Some have orange bellies, while others have a light yellow-red belly.
These snakes have either gray or black backs with sparse markings. Young snakes have more distinctive markings.
Red-bellied water snakes spend a lot of time on land.
6. Lake Erie water snake
The Lake Erie water snake was once a threatened species, but populations have bounced back. You’ll find these snakes along the islands and shores of Lake Erie.
Female Lake Eries grow to be about 3.5 feet in length. They have a soft gray color with partial band patterns.
The Lake Erie water snake dines on goby fish and some native fish in the lake.
Basic facts about the water snake
1. Appearance and size
Like we said before, water snakes have different colors and patterns, depending on the species. But most are some variation of gray, brown, red or dark green. Most water snakes have dark bands or splotches on their backs.
When they’re wet, water snakes can appear to be solid brown or black.
Water snake scales can feel rough, and their pupils are round.
Water snakes can grow to be quite large. Some are as long as five feet, but many species average around three feet in length.
2. Hunting and diet/feeding
There’s a reason water snakes hang out near water: that’s where the food is. These snakes feed either in or near water. And they prefer a diet of fish, frogs, toads, salamanders and other amphibians.
According to a study from Ecology, smaller water snakes prefer to eat slow-moving fish. But once they get to be about 1.5 feet in length, their food preferences change to larger amphibians. Water snakes typically do not dine on game fish.
Water snakes swallow their prey whole and while they’re still alive. They hang out in shallow water with their mouths open, waiting for their prey to pass by. At just the right time, they snap their jaws around their prey and devour it.
While they prefer to hunt in shallow water, water snakes will venture to the bottom of a lake or river to hunt for food under flat rocks and logs, in crevices and under branches.
Recent studies have shown that some water snakes actually produce a venom-like protein in their saliva that makes wounds bleed profusely. This anti-coagulant effect allows the snake to find and follow its prey if it escapes.
Thankfully, these proteins have little effect on humans and other large animals, but they can be deadly to small prey.
3. Behavior and habitat
Water snakes are common in the eastern U.S., particularly in the south. You’re likely to find them slithering around in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi. There are also a few species of water snakes found in the Midwest and West.
As you may have guessed, water snakes like to live and hang out around a significant water source. They aren’t too picky about the type of water source either. You’re just as likely to find them near ponds and marshes are you are near lakes and rivers.
Water snakes love to sunbathe, so you’re less likely to find them out in shady areas. And when they’re done soaking up the sun, they slither their way under logs and rocks for shelter.
While these snakes spend most of their time in or near water, they sometimes climb trees. But they never move too far from a water source.
Even though water snakes aren’t venomous, they can be aggressive. There’s a good chance they’ll hiss or bite if you try to handle them.
Some water snakes can be aggressive when approached – even if you don’t touch them.
Like many other animals, water snakes have defense mechanisms to deter predators when they feel scared or agitated. When they feel threatened, these snake will release a pungent secretion from glands near their tail. Some water snakes will defecate or vomit if they feel threatened.
Water snakes are primarily diurnal, meaning they’re most active during the day. While they prefer to fly solo, they can be social just before and after winter hibernation. And by social, we mean sunbathing together.
4. Reproduction and growth cycle
Water snakes mate in the spring after they come out of hibernation. A male water snake will court a female water snake by rubbing his chin along her back, occasionally spasming along the way. Eventually, the two bring their cloacal openings together.
Females typically only mate with one male per season, but some will mate with two.
Males are ready to mate at 21 months old, but females don’t reach sexual maturity until three years of age.
Female water snakes breed every single year. Unlike other species of snakes, water snakes have live births. Females usually give birth to about 20 live snakes at a time. Baby water snakes are about a foot long and completely independent from birth.
Water snakes are ovoviviparous, which means mothers carry their eggs inside their bodies. Gestation lasts about three to five months.
There are two species of water snakes on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. But most types are not endangered.
The Concho water snake and the Brazos River water snake are classified as Near Threatened because their populations are confined to 1,900 square miles of north-central Texas. Still, their populations remain stable.
The copper-bellied water snake is listed as a threatened species and will likely become endangered in the near future. Only a few hundred snakes remain in the northern segment of the population.
Other fun facts about the water snake
1. They look like moccasin snakes
Because they’re similar in appearance, people often confuse water snakes with venomous water moccasins, which have dangerous bites. Unfortunately, many people wind up killing a harmless water snake instead of what they thought was a dangerous moccasin snake.
One way to tell the difference between these two families of snakes is to look at their heads and necks.
- Water snakes have rounder, narrower heads with slender bodies. They don’t have heat-sensitive pits.
- Water moccasins have blocky heads with thick bodies and a distinctive neck. They do have heat-sensitive pits on their faces.
It can be tricky to get close enough to tell whether it’s a water snake or a water moccasin without putting yourself in danger. If you’re not sure, you’re better off leaving the snake alone.
2. They aren’t great pets
Because of their aggressive nature, water snakes aren’t good pets. A more docile species, like the corn snake, is a better option if you want a pet snake.
There are other species of water snakes
Earlier we talked about some of the most common species of water snakes, but there are other, less-common ones as well. These include:
1. Green water snake
The green water snake is olive brown or greenish gray, and can grow to be pretty large. This species spends more time in the water than on land, but on rainy days, it can be found up to 100 meters away from a water source.
When threatened, these snakes will bite and secrete a musky smell.
2. Salt marsh snake
The smallest species of water snakes in the U.S., the salt marsh snake likes to spend its time in salt water. These snakes can grow up to a meter in length and have an unusually distinctive tail that’s compressed rather than rounded.
3. Brazos water snake
The Brazos water snake is quick, slender and small. Their colors vary from brown to gray, and they have four distinctive olive-brown spots.
The Brazos water snake can only be found in North Texas (along the Brazos River), and only grows to be about two feet in length.
4. Concho water snake
Like the Brazos water snake, the Concho water snake can only be found in Texas (along the Concho River) and is also quick-moving.
5. Diamondback water snake
The diamondback water snake is one of the largest and heaviest species of the water snake. These snakes can grow to be four feet in length, although larger specimens have been seen.
6. Eastern green water snake
Also known as the Congo water snake or the Florida water snake, the Eastern green water snake is gray or green in color with a yellow belly. Known for their obnoxious demeanor, these snakes have long teeth and can be quite aggressive.