Species: Northern water snake
Scientific name: Nerodia sipedon sipedon
Nicknames: Common water snake, banded water snake
Claim to fame: The northern water snake is the most commonly seen water snake in Missouri. Unfortunately for this non-venomous snake, this also means it’s one of the snakes that’s most frequently misidentified as a cottonmouth and needlessly killed.
Species status: Northern water snakes are found throughout much of Missouri. Populations seem to be relatively stable, but mankind’s inherent fear of snakes and ongoing changes in habitat are constant threats to this reptile.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the northern water snake was written by the famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758.
Family matters: The northern water snake is a member of reptile family Colubridae, a group otherwise known as the non-venomous snakes. Within this group, northern water snakes belong to the genus Nerodia, a grouping often referred to as “the water snakes.” The northern water snake can be found throughout much of the state. In the southern part of Missouri, its range overlaps with another sub-species; the midland water snake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis).
Length: 24 to 42 inches; females tend to be longer than males
Diet: Small fish and amphibians make up a large portion of the northern water snake’s diet. Some anglers think the snake’s feeding habits hurt sportfish populations. However, studies have shown that the snake’s hunting habits benefit an area’s fish population by removing the diseased and dying fish. They also are a population control factor in areas where over-population can stunt the growth of sportfish species.
Weight: not available
Distinguishing characteristics: Body color ranges from gray to reddish brown. This coloration is overlaid with numerous darker brown bands along the anterior (upper) third of the body; the bands transform into blotches on the lower portion of the body. The color of the belly varies, but generally it is a combination of a cream or yellow color and irregularly spaced spots of orange or red. (Cottonmouths are usually darker in color and have crossing bands that are nearly indistinguishable except upon close examination.) Although non-venomous, northern water snakes aggressively defend themselves and are prone to strike if you try to grab them. Another self-defense mechanism is to release a strong-smelling musk. Northern water snakes can swim, but so can virtually all species of snakes.
Life span: Northern water snakes have been known to live up to nine years in the wild.
Habitat: Northern water snakes can be found at creeks, rivers, sloughs, ponds, lakes and swamps. During much of the summer, individuals can be found basking on logs or rocks during the water’s edge.
Life cycle: Courtship and mating occurs during the spring. Gestation lasts three to four months. Northern water snakes do not lay eggs, they are live-bearers. One litter may contain more than 60 newborn snakes, but the average litter size is 20 to 25. As is the case with virtually all reptiles, no parental care is provided after birth and newborn northern water snakes are left to fend for themselves.