Recognized Subspecies in VA: Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)
Size: 24 - 42 inches
Status: Least Concern
The Northern Watersnake is probably the snake the most people kill in this state in confusion with the venomous snakes of Virginia. Keep in mind too that this species will splay its head to look triangular when threatened. These snakes are feisty, but harmless and will bite and musk when grabbed. That said, do not bother these snakes, and they will not bother you. People also kill these snakes because “they eat all of the fish”... This is false. Yes, they eat fish, but they can only feed on smaller fish, and prefer to take the weaker ones. This means they are taking the sickly animals the most, leaving less competition and more space for the stronger fish to grow. In addition to fish, these snakes will feed on frogs and salamanders. The best way to find Northern Watersnakes is to scan basking areas (such as log jams, rock piles, and low hanging limbs) near water, and flipping boards and boats near ponds, lakes, rivers, and streams. Almost any body of water larger than a puddle likely has a Northern Watersnake somewhere. Sometimes one may find a random Watersnake in the road, in their yard, or just swimming around their habitat.
Northern Watersnakes are quite variable, but are usually brown. They have a lighter brown base, with darker patterns down their backs. The first third to half of the body is normally bands that are wider towards the mid-dorsal and narrower towards the belly. Farther down the back, they become square blotches down the mid dorsal with more down the flanks that are often highlighted with a more reddish color. Oftentimes though, depending on the snake’s shed cycle and how dry the animal is, watersnakes can appear patternless. Northern Watersnakes have a unique belly pattern, with several small “triangles'' pointing down the body. These snakes also have heavily keeled scales that make ridges down the tail.
Similar Species: This species is often mistaken for the Eastern Copperhead, which has hourglass-shaped bands and a shorter tail. The Northern Cottonmouth has a clear eye-mask, a huge head, and very pixelated, hourglass-shaped bands but also can appear patternless.
Maps and External Sources
Herping Virginia encourages all naturalists to practice ethical, safe, and sustainable herping. The use of proper herping methods and techniques is beneficial to both wildlife and herpers. Visit the links below for more information.