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The northern water snake is stout-bodied and can be brown, gray, reddish, or brownish-black. It has dark cross-bands on the neck and dark blotches on the rest of the body, often leading to misidentification as a cottonmouth or copperhead by novices. As the snake ages, the color darkens, and the pattern becomes obscure.
The northern water snake is non-venomous and harmless to humans, but since it resembles the venomous cottonmouth and is often killed unnecessarily as a result of this mistaken identity. The two can be very easily distinguished by these traits: the common water snake has a longer, more slender body and a flattened head the same width as the neck, round pupils, and no heat-sensing pits. The cottonmouth has a fatter body, a wedge-shaped head with prominent venom glands that are wider than the neck, cat-like pupils, and heat-sensing pits between the eyes and the nostrils.
This snake can reach up to 42 inches.
The northern water snake tends to feed in or near water. They prefer slow-moving fish. Once they reach about 1.5 feet in length, their food preference changes from fish to frogs and other larger animals like salamanders and toads. Water snakes swallow their prey alive. In shallow waters, they wait with their mouths open wide for prey to pass by, and then they snap their jaws around it. They also search for prey on the lake or river bottom, investigating under rocks, branches and in crevices for hiding prey.
Distribution And Habitat
According to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web (ADW), the northern water snake is happy to be near any type of significant water source, such as rivers, lakes, ponds and marshes, although they prefer more quiet, relaxed, waters. They enjoy basking in the sun so seek areas that are not overly shaded. When they’re done with the sun, water snakes take refuge under flat rocks and logs.
Water snakes spend a lot of time swimming or basking in shallows, but they also venture on land and climb trees. They are very wary and, never far from a water source, when disturbed, drop into the water and disappear quickly.
Mating occurs April through June. Northern water snakes are ovoviviparous, which means that eggs are fertilized within the female’s body, develop, and then and hatch within her. Females give birth in late summer or the fall to anywhere from 4 to 20 live young. Once the young are born, there is no parental care.
Water snakes usually flee from man, but when grabbed they are almost always extremely aggressive. Large ones are capable of producing painful, deep lacerations. When picked up, they invariably secrete an obnoxious smelling substance from their musk glands.
An individual northern water snake may look different in water than on land. As its scales dry, the colors appear more uniform and it can be harder to see the snake’s bands of color.