Notes on Watersnakes

Our pond contains a population of brown banded snakes. I’ve found them at night, swimming about between the reeds. I believe they are watersnakes, genus Nerodia. They could either be Northern (Nerodia sipedon) or Banded (Nerodia fasciata). They are both highly variable in color, but generally stay with plant colors: reds, blacks, grays, browns. On top of the base color is usually a series of creamy or reddish rings, thicker at the belly and thinner along the spine. Bellies are variable, cream with darker red or brownish splotches. The belly splotches may have a pattern, or may be random, or may be sort of half-moon shaped, or may not be sort of half-moon shaped. Oh, and they interbreed. And sometimes they’re just solid black. Grrrrrr………

Nerodia_sipedon

Nerodia sipedon. 1993 Patrick Coin (commons.wikimedia.org)

As near as I can tell, the two big differences are that N. sipedon has a slightly squishier head, looking a bit like a muppet, and N. fasciata has a boxier head, looking like a boxier muppet. They both have blandish heads, with N. fasciata having a stripe near the eye and both have pale lips with dramatic thin stripes. N. fasciata’s bands stay ring like down the body; N. sipedon’s rings lose their organization down the length of the snake until the tail becomes almost checkerboard, like the sides and the back are slowly going out of sync. The local guys are definitely out of sync. My population is most likely the Northern based on species range maps.

Nerodia_fasciata_CDC

Nerodia fasciata. 2005 John Wilson (phil.cdc.gov)

There are two others watersnakes in the state, but they’re a bit easier to distinguish, and my population isn’t either of them. The Redbelly, Nerodia erythrogaster, is, well, red bellied and a darkish usually unpatterned back. The Brown water snake, Nerodia taxispilota, is brown with a darker checkerboard pattern. Mine definitely have bands.

The genus is confined to aquatic habitats in the south eastern half of North America. One species can be found in eastern Mexico. One species can be found in southern Canada. They live in the water (who’da thunk?), hunting through the vegetation for frogs and fish and random water bugs. They run towards a bit bitey and can smear you with a nasty anal secretion. Other than the nips and the anal secretions, they are pretty well harmless although they get mistaken for water moccasins. I’d rather not be bit or secreted on so have left the ones in the pond to get on with their lives. They hatch Septemberish, darkening and becoming dull as they age, living between ten or fifteen years, if they don’t get ate. They get ate a lot. Hence the nipping and the anal secretions, which don’t appear to work on raccoons. Damn raccoons. They (the snakes, not the raccoons) are medium sized and slightly chunky. They don’t migrate much unless they have to and have rather small ranges. Activity is adjusted based on temperature: out on a sunny day, sleeping if it’s cold, diurnal if it doesn’t get too hot and nocturnal if it becomes uncomfortable. Similar to my gardening. It has been too cold lately, so I haven’t seen them, but it’s a good chance the one ones I saw this summer are hiding out, and I’ll see them again in the spring.

References

J. Gibbons and M. Dorcas, North American Watersnakes, a Natural History. 2004. University of Oklahoma Press.

“North American Water Snakes.” Encyclopedia of life, available from http://eol.org/pages/32438/overview. Accessed 5, Jan 2014.

M. Dorcas, editor. “Snakes of North Carolina.” Amphibians and Reptiles of North Carolina, http://www.herpsofnc.oreg/herps_of_NC/snakes/snakes.html. Accessed 5, Jan 2014.

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