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Northern Water Snakes: Everything You Need to Know About this Common Species

Northern Water Snake

This snake may look dangerous, but it is completely harmless.

Anyone who has spent a great deal of time outdoors near water in North America has probably encountered a northern water snake before. This common species is often seen by fishermen and kayakers  There are many misconceptions about what is a harmless animals.

Sadly, these large snakes are often killed needlessly because they are mistaken for other, venomous snake species.

Today we will tell you how to identify this common snake and what you should do the next time you encounter one in the wild.

What does a northern water snake look like?

Northern Water Snake

The non-venomous northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon), often finds itself in conflict with humans because its appearance and the aquatic habitats where it lives cause people to mistake it for a cottonmouth, copperhead or water moccasin.

This snake normally has a light brown, reddish-brown or gray body. Most of the specimens I have encountered personally here in Michigan have been either a brown or flat gray coloration. The snake is marked by distinctive dark crossbands or blotches. These bands also sometimes cause people to mistake this species for a rattlesnake. The underside of the snake is usually much lighter in color and is covered with a series of half-moons or crescent shapes. These markings are usually red or black, although most people never get the chance to see them. Note that some specimens may not show any distinctive crossbands or other markings. This snake sometimes takes on a near-uniform gray or black coloration. There is not much variation in young snake specimens, although the patterns may be more noticeable. 

Another factor that leads to people mistaking this snake for a more dangerous variety is the head. It is a slightly angular head that bears a resemblance to the triangular heads of many venomous snakes. However, like many non-venomous snake varieties, it is notable that the eyes are rounded instead of vertical slits.

This snake can grow to decent lengths of two to four feet in some cases. For many northern portions of the United States and Canadian provinces like Ontario, that is a large snake, which is another reason this snake has caused unfounded fears in people.

Range, habitat and behaviors.

There are a few different different subspecies of this snake including the common water snake, the Midland watersnake, the Lake Erie watersnake, and the Carolina watersnake. The northern variety is found across much of central North America, especially the Midwestern United States and all along the east coast into North Carolina. Their range extends north through much of New England but starts to peter out a bit in northern Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Their range extends south through much of Alabama, parts of Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. These snakes can also be found as far west as Kansas, Nebraska and parts of Colorado.

As the name implies, the primary habitat for these snakes is near water. They are common by lakes, creeks and rivers. It is not uncommon to see them swimming in the water or basking on floating logs or large rocks on the shoreline. I have personally observed this species many times hanging out in tree branches over the water's surface. The northern water snake is an adaptive species, they can also be found often in manmade ditches and retention ponds. They thrive in wetlands and swamps where food is plentiful.

Speaking of this snake's diet, they are excellent hunters that help control populations of rodents and other small mammals. They have also been documented to eat small fish, salamanders, leeches, crayfish, frogs, tadpoles and other small creatures common in and near the water's edge.

While this snake does not have any venom, it can be aggressive in defense and will strike if cornered by a human. In most instances, this snake is extremely shy and will attempt to flee at the first sight of a human. It does have some natural predators like eagles, hawks and raccoons. When fleeing their attacker fails, they often release a smelly musk as a last-ditch effort to dissuade their attacker.

What to do if you encounter a northern water snake.

This is a snake that is often encountered while fishing, hiking or swimming, making some human-snake encounters inevitable. The best thing you can do if you see one is not panic and simply observe at a distance. If you leave the snake alone, it will leave you alone. Remember that most snakebites, both venomous and non-venomous, tend to happen when someone attempts to capture or kill the animal. The northern water snake is a helpful species that helps bring balance to natural aquatic ecosystems. It is better for both human and snake to simply give them their space. Now that you know all about this species, there will be nothing to fear the next time you encounter one in your outdoor adventures.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels

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Northern Water Snakes: Everything You Need to Know About this Common Species