I remember back in the day when I used to see what looked like a black mamba in my local stream. Was that a water snake? Well, it's very wrong to assume that any snake seen in water is a water snake. Some of these reptiles are only found in water during a hunting expedition, as a matter of fact.
Water snakes, also known as Nerodia snakes, are snakes which spend most of their time in or around water bodies, and they are nonvenomous in nature. This family of snakes is not to be mistaken for cottonmouths, otherwise known as water moccasin. The latter has poisonous venom, which makes it dangerous.
Note: Like any other reptile, a Nerodia snake breathes air, but it can stay under water for up to an hour or so.
Physical Characteristics of Nerodia Snakes
Most Nerodia snakes are either reddish, olive green, gray, or brown in color, with dark bands or blotches on the back. The color and marks vary from one Nerodia species to another. There are species which appear solid black or white. Most Nerodia snakes have round eye pupils and have a rough body, thanks to their keeled scales. When it comes to size, male snakes tend to be lighter and shorter than females. Depending on the species, a water snake can reach 1.5 meters long, with the northern Nerodia snake coming out on top.
Species of Water Snakes
There are hundreds of Nerodia snake species in existence today. In Canada and the US, you will find 10 or so of these species. Find below some of the most common Nerodia species.
- Brown water snake
- Northern water snake
- Diamond back water snake
- Concho water snake
- Green water snake
- Southern water snake
- Plain-bellied water snake
- Salt marsh water snake
Some of these species contain multiple subspecies. Northern water snake, for instance, contains up to four subspecies snakes.
Note: Nerodia snake species are not synonymous with sea snakes. As the name suggests, sea snakes live in the sea, and they are known to have deadly venom.
How Nerodia Snakes Behave
In contrast to the general misconception, Nerodia snakes are not aggressive. However, they can bite in defense. But with their bite being harmless, that shouldn't be a big concern. The snakes tend to first secrete musk to deal with any threat. In some cases, these snakes may vomit or defecate. The bite will usually act as the last and final "bullet."
Talking of climbing, the snakes are good climbers, so you may find them resting on tree branches along the river banks. Any slight disturbance would cause the snake to quickly seek refuge in water; you will see them dropping in the river, pond, or any other water body that is readily available. Are they social reptiles? Most Nerodia snakes prefer being alone. Nonetheless, the snakes may socialize immediately before and after brumation. So, if you see them basking together, don't conclude that they are not water snakes.
Where They Live
Nerodia snakes are native to Asia, Europe, and North America, and they are known to live in aquatic habitats, such as marshes, ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers; hence, the name water snakes. As revealed by researchers at the University of Michigan, Nerodia snakes prefer still water rather than moving water. A thing to note is that these snakes don't live in water throughout. They will usually come out of water to enjoy the sun. In so doing, however, they are never very far from a water body.
What do Nerodia snakes eat? Turtles, tadpoles, frogs, and fish, just to name but a few. Crayfish and leeches are part of the diet too and so are insects. Small snakes, mice, and birds are covered as well. Being non-constrictors, water snakes swallow live preys. Like any other animal, these snakes help in balancing the ecosystem.
How They Hunt
Nerodia snakes hunt mostly in the daytime, given that they are diurnal animals, although hunting at night is also an option. Slow-moving fish is usually their preference. However, the allegiance shifts slowly to amphibians such as frogs and tadpoles and large preys (e.g. toads and salamanders) as the snake grows. These reptiles hunt for preys under the rocks, on tree branches, on water body bottoms, and many other areas where they can find food. When hunting in the water, the snake will usually stay with its mouth wide open, as it patiently waits for its prey. As the prey passes by, the snake will quickly close its jaws to hold the prey, before swallowing it whole.
As research reveals (check the Journal of Herpetology), female and male water snakes become ready for reproduction at 3 years and 21 months respectively. The females can give birth to multiple live youngs, 20 or so, at a time, and this can happen every year. Although rarely, females can breed up to 100 snakes at once. Nerodia snakes usually mate during spring.
Nerodia Snakes in Texas
In Texas, and especially Fort Worth, Nerodia snakes are a common phenomenon. You will see them around ponds, swamps, lakes, creeks, and other water bodies. Examples of Nerodia snakes found in Texas include diamond back water snake, broad-banded water snake, and blotched water snake. Of course, there could be other snakes of the same family in Texas, but these three are the most common ones. Thus, if you're around Dallas and you see a snake near a river, then it's probably a Nerodia snake.
Water Snakes as Pets
If you've been wondering if a Nerodia snake can be a good pet, then you're not alone. Having grown up upcountry near a stream where Nerodia snakes were so common, I have always wondered whether taking such a snake home as a pet would be a good idea. Besides, snake keeping in my locality is unheard of. But after meeting a snake expert, I came to realize that many snakes can make good pets, including water snakes. To answer the above question, Nerodia snakes can make good pets. As a matter of fact, many snake pet keepers believe that these species of snakes are the best when it comes to keeping. Let's understand why.
Non-venomous: Let's for a moment forget the myths and misconceptions we here about these aquatic reptiles and focus on real facts. While Nerodia snakes do bite, their bites don't carry any venom. For pet lovers like me, this truth takes worry and stress out of the equation. And with my little Daniel and Chris fond of turning virtually everything they find into a toy, there is very little to be concerned about. They can play with the pet while I accomplish my own tasks. Additionally, these snakes are known to be docile when in captivity.
That said, keep in mind that Nerodia snakes, like most snakes, don't like too much handling. If handled too much, they may develop stress, and this can trigger bites, which while not venomous, they cause pain. I just can't fathom fangs sinking into my flesh or the flesh of my little Daniel. Thus, if you want to handle your snake, do it sparingly. Just a few minutes would be enough and good for both parties. This way, your snake will slowly adapt to handling and will not become agitated that easily. As a reminder, snakes have small brains, and they can forget their caretaker so easily.
Feeding them is easy: Simply catch a tadpole, a frog, or a rodent, such as a mouse and your snake will have a good meal. As a rule of thumb, avoid giving your pet live preys. The prey may hurt your snake in the process of fighting back. This is something you don't want to happen to your precious pet.
Low bills: Nerodia snakes will typically thrive at low temperatures as compared to other pet snakes. That can only leave you with low heating bills; hence, less spending.
Some of the best Nerodia snakes to keep as pets include the following:
- Red-bellied water snakes
- False water cobras
- Brown water snakes
- Banded water snakes
- Northern water snakes
- Diamondback water snakes
- Green water snakes
Nerodia snakes are snakes that live around water bodies, and they are nonvenomous in nature. They can hold their breath while in water for long, despite the fact that they breathe air. These should not be confused with sea snakes, which are known to be extremely venomous and dangerous. For pet enthusiasts, these snakes can make great pets, thanks to their docile and non-venomous nature.