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What is a Northern Water Snake?

DM Gutierrez
DM Gutierrez

The northern water snake, or Nerodia sipedon, is a large water-dwelling snake that inhabits the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. Its resemblance to some venomous snakes often leads to its destruction. Northern water snakes are not poisonous, but their bite can be painful and leave the victim susceptible to infection. These snakes are essential to environmental balance since they prey on several forms of vermin and are food for a variety of predators.

Northern water snakes come in several colors, but most have a dark band across their necks, splotches along their bodies, and crescent-shaped markings in contrasting colors. Their backs are typically brown, red, black, or gray, and their undersides are shades of gray, buff, or white. Northern water snakes grow to over 4 feet (122 cm) in length. They are sometimes mistaken for cottonmouth or copperhead snakes and killed, although they are not dangerous to humans.

Raccoons hunt the northern water snake.
Raccoons hunt the northern water snake.

These snakes live in North American waterways such as rivers, ponds, lakes, and streams. The northern water snakes are both nocturnal and diurnal, hunting at night and in the daytime. During the day, the northern water snake searches for food away from shore. At night, these snakes patrol the banks of the water they swim in, looking for minnows in vegetation. Northern water snakes also hunt on land, preying on small mammals.

Northern water snakes commonly live in cattails.
Northern water snakes commonly live in cattails.

The northern water snake’s diet is extremely varied—they eat amphibians, other reptiles, small mammals, fish, and birds. These aquatic snakes hide near beaver lodges and in plants such as cattails, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy, lying in wait for frogs, turtles, and leeches. The northern water snake can leap high into the air to snatch low-flying birds such as mallards.

Predators of the northern water snake typically include sizable mammals such as raccoons, opossums, and foxes. Other snakes such as copperheads and rat snakes prey on northern water snakes. Large birds such as herons, cormorants, and owls include northern water snakes in their diets.

When grasped by a human or animal, the northern water snake attacks in return, repeatedly biting and releasing a musky odor along with excrement. Although the bite is not poisonous, northern water snakes do inject an anticoagulant that causes the wound to continue bleeding. In some cases, this bite can lead to bacterial infection.

The northern water snake generally thrives in its aquatic habitat and assists in keeping ecological balance by consuming the vermin that would otherwise overrun its habitat. This natural instinct is usually a benefit to humans since the voles, mice, and rats this snake preys upon are both disease vectors and damaging to gardens and crop fields.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Northern Water Snake?

The Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) is a non-venomous, freshwater species native to North America. It thrives in aquatic habitats like rivers, lakes, and ponds. This snake is often mistaken for venomous species but is harmless to humans. It plays a crucial role in controlling amphibian and fish populations in its ecosystem.

How can you identify a Northern Water Snake?

Identification of a Northern Water Snake involves observing its physical characteristics. It has a stout body, with a pattern of dark bands on a lighter background that can be brown, tan, or grayish. Juveniles are more vividly patterned than adults. Their belly is usually light with dark half-moon spots, and they can grow up to 55 inches long.

What do Northern Water Snakes eat?

Northern Water Snakes are carnivorous and have a diet primarily consisting of fish and amphibians. They are skilled hunters, capturing prey with their sharp teeth and then swallowing it whole. Their diet helps maintain a healthy balance in their aquatic habitats by controlling the populations of their prey species.

Where can you find Northern Water Snakes?

These snakes are widely distributed across the northeastern and central United States, extending into southern Ontario in Canada. They are commonly found near bodies of freshwater such as streams, lakes, and wetlands. They prefer habitats with abundant vegetation and sun-exposed sites for basking.

Are Northern Water Snakes dangerous to humans?

While Northern Water Snakes are not venomous, they can be defensive if threatened, possibly biting to protect themselves. However, their bite is not harmful to humans beyond the potential for minor wounds and infection if not properly cleaned. It's best to observe these snakes from a distance and respect their space in the wild.

How do Northern Water Snakes reproduce, and when?

Northern Water Snakes mate in the spring after emerging from hibernation. They are ovoviviparous, meaning females give birth to live young in late summer or early fall. A single litter can contain 20 to 30 offspring. The young are independent from birth and receive no parental care, immediately starting to hunt and fend for themselves.

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    • Raccoons hunt the northern water snake.
      By: marburg
      Raccoons hunt the northern water snake.
    • Northern water snakes commonly live in cattails.
      By: Jim Mills
      Northern water snakes commonly live in cattails.