July 24, 2014 —
With the arrival of warm mid-summer days, many of us are taking advantage of the swimming and fishing opportunities in nearby natural waterways, and many people encounter wildlife of all types while in or on the water. The more interesting descriptions come from encounters with snakes—sometimes heard for example: “I saw a water moccasin on my dock yesterday.” The fact is that in our region, only two venomous snake species are found: the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead. Neither is particularly attracted to aquatic environments. Both are in the pit viper family; they have deep loreal pits between the eye and nostril that are used to detect body heat of their prey. Both species also have a slitted iris, or “cats’ eyes;” non-venomous species in the region have round eyes.
So what of these mysterious snakes that are in the water swimming with us? Chances are the snakes seen in or near the water are northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon sipedon). This is the species most commonly seen near waterways. They feed on small fish, frogs and other amphibians in the aquatic environment. They are patterned with dark brown saddles over light brown bands; older individuals can appear dark brown with indistinguishable patterns. Larger water snakes can grow to around four feet long.
The best course of action to take when encountering a water snake is to do nothing. Water snakes, like most of the snakes in our region for that matter, are non-aggressive. They will retreat, swim off, or hide in the presence of humans. The only time a water snake will bite is if it is handled. They have small teeth, which may draw blood, and washing the bite, followed by applying hydrogen peroxide is usually sufficient. When captured or handled. they also release musk that is harmless but foul smelling.
I tend to believe that all the “swamp” movies we may have watched in the past may have unduly biased us and caused heedless persecution of water snakes and other herps, mainly due to the lack of understanding. Water snakes are one of the wonders that live in our area’s many diverse aquatic habitats. So, enjoy and swim in peace.