Northern water snake

(Mitch Greene, 2018.)

The first time I handled a northern water snake, I was assisting a grad student with her field research. We–and by we, I mean our mentoring professor–had caught two snakes, which needed to be processed separately in case one turned out to have the skin disease we were looking for. The first snake was put into one of those five gallon buckets that wildlife ecologists love so much, and we began the tedious process of weighing and measuring the other.

“Hey, Eva, make sure that one doesn’t push the lid off, okay?”

Anyway, long story short, the snake got away and I will never be allowed to forget about it.

Eek!

Male northern water snake selfie, summer 2018.

If you jumped a little when that heading picture loaded, I don’t blame you. Primates are hardwired to find snakes and spiders scary–and it makes sense that our monkey brains needed to know from birth that they shouldn’t touch the brightly colored, hissing, biting noodle. I certainly didn’t come into this world loving snakes–when I write about garter snakes I will share the story of my very first snake encounter at age nine–but I’ve somehow developed a huge soft spot for them.

By the time you are old enough to read, you should know that snakes are not naturally slimy. Water snakes are often wet, for obvious reasons, but the only time a snake will be slimy is if something slimed it. (Nickelodeon, call me. I have a new show idea.) You will most likely see a snake when it is basking, or warming itself, in a conspicuous spot. In this position it will be dry and pleasantly warm to the touch, and likely very annoyed with you for disturbing it. (Note: a warm snake is a fast, energetic snake.)

Here are some other reasons you might find snakes in general–and northern water snakes specifically–interesting:

Cottonmouth showing off its namesake. Note that the coloring pattern forms bands rather than blotches as in the northern water snake. (June McDaniels, 2018)
  • For locals–if you have ever been to Huntley Meadows Park you have definitely seen one.
  • Water snakes will often flatten their heads when threatened, mimicking the appearance of the similarly patterned cottonmouth (also called a water moccasin).
  • They are social in cooler weather, curling up together under rocks at night, overwintering in groups, or basking together during the day.
  • Females don’t lay eggs! They mate in the spring and give live birth after around five months. Babies are about a foot long and immediately independent. Bigger females have bigger litters, but usually there are 15 to 30 young.

Northern water snakes are not venomous as we typically understand the word. However, they will inject an anticoagulant when they bite, so wounds will bleed for longer than you might expect. Bites may also itch a little, but ultimately are as harmless as any other minor scrape. Important note: unless you are working with a wildlife professional or are one yourself, you should see a doctor about your snake bite, even if you are fairly sure it was harmless! Do not rely on amateur knowledge to identify a snake and treat injuries resulting from it.

Appearance

The scientific name for northern water snakes is Nerodia sipedon. Because our samples were labeled by first two letters each of genus and specific epithet, the grad student I worked with and I affectionately call them “NeSi”. NeSi is described in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians (2018) as:

22-53″ (55.9-134.6 cm). Reddish, brown, or gray to brownish-black, with dark crossbands on neck region, and alternating dark blotches on back and sides at midbody. Pattern darkens with age, becoming black. Belly white, yellow, or gray, with reddish-brown or black crescent-shaped spots. No dark line from eye to corner of mouth. Juveniles more vivid. Scales keeled, in 21-25 rows. Anal plate divided.

Let’s translate that into plain English. These snakes are certainly large enough to make Indiana Jones turn white, but are probably smaller than the big ball python your weird college roommate got a few years ago. They’re just the right size to loop twice around your forearm while resting their heads on the back of your hand–something I don’t recommend you try unless you’re a professional, because they can be extremely grumpy when disturbed.

Snakebites are discussed a little later on in this post, but it’s worth emphasizing that these snakes have an Attitude and will be Extremely Unhappy if you invade their personal space. I highly recommend that you admire these animals from a respectful distance.

The color pattern is easier to see than to explain:

These images show the striking pattern visible in juveniles. The snakes get darker as they age, and it is easier to see their patterning when they are wet. Adult, dry northern water snakes will look more like this:

From the guide to herpetofauna of California, non-native species section. (Gary Nafis)

Moving along, what does it mean that their scales are “keeled”? Take another look at the header image at the very top of this post and note the ridge running along each scale. Much like the keel of a boat, these ridges help the snake remain stable while it swims. Snake species may have varying degrees of keeled scales depending on how much time they spend in the water.

Finally, “anal plate divided.” [Editor’s note: For the last time, you are not allowed to make anal plate divided jokes, your future employers might read this.] This refers to the appearance of the ventral (belly) side scale just anterior (towards the head) of the cloaca. You most likely do not want to be close enough to look at this, because that’s right where the snake emits musk, or foul-smelling oils, to deter predators. (Also, it’s where they poop.) They are also known to defecate and/or vomit when handled.

Range

Orange records native range. Maroon records sightings where it is considered an alien species. (From the U.S. Geological Survey.)

Snakebites

A very important note: Reading about identifying features does not make you an expert on identifying species. In general, you should not handle wildlife. If you must handle wildlife, never handle animals that you cannot conclusively identify. A field guide, published online or in print, may not be enough to help you confidently identify something, especially when it has similarly patterned venomous cousins.

The best way to handle a snake is: don’t.

Again for the people in the back:

The best way to handle a snake is: don’t.

If you find one in your yard, leave it alone. Keep your pets away from it, for both their safety and the snake’s. (And don’t panic about your dogs–about 95% will survive a rattlesnake bite. And most dogs are smart enough to follow instinct and leave snakes alone.) Venomous snakes bites tend to occur when people try to kill or move the animal–your safest course of action is to leave it alone, and the snake will soon depart without incident.

Agricultural workers and children are most frequent victims of snakebites. If you or your employees work outside, the CDC has published guidelines to help minimize your risk of snakebite. Tell your children not to touch or approach wildlife! Also, because kids often don’t listen to directions, teach them how to identify your local venomous snakes.

Here’s a great post by a wildlife removal professional about what to do if you are determined to kill a snake that has inconvenienced you.

Smiley face featuring my dirty gloves. It’s possible that this is one of Bertha’s children. (Lauren Fuchs, 2018)

I’ve been bit by several snakes, including NeSi. It’s unpleasant but I can’t blame the snakes any more than I could blame a bramble bush for scratching me as I walked through it. Every wild snake I’ve handled has calmed down once it realized it was not in danger; very few bit me more than once. None tried to strike me before I was within a few inches of picking them up, and even then, only when they were cornered with no chance of escape.

(There is a notable exception to this: Bertha the northern water snake made no effort to hide or musk, just waited for us to reach for her. I can only conclude that she was having a terrible day and looking for a fight; she emanated the same energy as a middle-aged woman walking towards the returns counter at Walmart. She left a piece of fang in my ring finger that I did not discover for two weeks. I love her.)

Fantastic noodles and where to find them

Northern water snakes are very common in Virginia and Maryland. You’re most likely to see one:

  • when it’s warm (think a pleasant late spring day) and the sun is out,
  • if you are near a body of water like a river, lake, or even a large drainage ditch,
  • hiding among rocks along the water’s edge,
  • basking on branches hanging near or over the water,
  • in the spring and early summer.

Happy snake spotting!

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