Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)

Hanging out at college creek (the local “beach”) after exams turned out to be a great idea. No, not because of the sand and sun, but because of the snakes! A fine day turned into a great day when I spied a snake swimming on the water’s edge. After I IDed it to not be a cottonmouth, I quickly caught it.

It was a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)! Nerodia sipedon range from Maine to Florida and go as far west as Colorado. After researching this species a bit, I discovered there are three subspecies: the northern water snake N. s. sipedon, the midland water snake N. s. pleuralis, and the Carolina water snake N. s. williamengelsi. In Virginia only N. s. sipedon is in residence, so the one I found was the northern subspecies. Fascinatingly, the Carolina subspecies exists only on the Outer Banks.

This species is found near any body of water and eat over 80 species of fish and 30 species of amphibians. Fishermen and wildlife agents often kill northern water snakes, believing they eat game fish and make a significant impact on fishing success. This is a false belief according to Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons, two widely published herpetologists. Humans will also kill water snakes thinking they are cottonmouths. This too is a false belief.

These snakes breed from April to June and can lay up to 100 eggs; though typical clutch size ranges from 20 to 30. Juveniles look exactly the same as adults, but are more vibrant in color. Northern water snakes have dark bands on the upper half of their body that turn into square splotches further down, and their scales are keeled.

Interestingly, N. sipedon have quite the reputation of aggression. The latin word sipedon translates to “nasty bite”. However, the individual I caught was pretty chill. Didn’t bite or struggle. In the picture below, you can see it lying still in my hands. I’ve only ever caught one, so this guy might be an oddity behavior wise.

N. s. sipedon photographed by Matthew Anthony
N. s. sipedon photographed by Matthew Anthony

Thank you for reading! I used “Snakes of the Southeast” by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas and “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Published by

Erin Chapman

Erin is a Virginia Master Naturalist and has two associate degrees in Science and General Education from Piedmont Virginia Community College. She is currently pursuing a chemistry major and environmental science minor at the College of William and Mary. Her life long goal is to be a veterinarian working with exotics and wildlife with a focus on herpetology and ornithology.

3 thoughts on “Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)”

  1. It’s not that odd, behavior-wise. I own and breed several species of Nerodia, including this one, and I’ve caught hundreds of Water Snakes over the decades. I have not found them to be any more “aggressive” or prone to biting than species like Corn Snakes, if handled gently. Many people grab the snake from above to capture it, which mimics a predator’s attack, so naturally the snake is going to try and defend itself. Lifting them from underneath and supporting their body while letting the snake glide over your hands is much less stressful on the snake and not as likely to earn you a bite. Water Snakes tame down remarkably fast, and even the ones that do bite, seldom attempt to bite again once they realize that you aren’t going to hurt them.

  2. I’m an undergraduate in a lab, and this month I’m in charge of handling a dozen of these guys. To be honest, I hate them and they terrify me. These tips were helpful, do you have any other suggestions? They seem to leap right at me every time I stick a hand in their cage!

    1. The most important thing to remember when handling any animal is that you are comfortable otherwise you risk injury to yourself and to the animal. The comfort will come with practice. I suggest watching someone else grab first, then being observed as you grab, then trying it on your own. I’ve been bitten by snakes before and it’s more the anticipation of being bit that makes you nervous. The actual bite doesn’t hurt. I would talk to the lab manager about your concerns. I put a link in the article to a video of me catching a water snake (notice the hyperlink on the word “caught”). You really just have to commit to picking them up and don’t hesitate. I hope this helped.

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