“What kinds of water snakes can you find in Delaware?“
Is it just me, or do you also find water snakes fascinating? There’s something about the way they move across the water that is incredibly interesting. Whenever I am near a pond, marsh, or other body of water, I make sure to look for any water snakes moving about.
Today, you are going to learn about 5 water snakes that live in Delaware.
The species below are considered either aquatic or semi-aquatic, which means that it’s very likely that you will see them actively swimming or extremely close to water, such as sunning themselves on a bank.
#1. Northern Water Snake
- Nerodia sipedon sipedon
- Adults range from 24 to 55 inches in length.
- Coloration is pale grey to dark brown with reddish-brown to black bands.
- Large adults become darker with age and appear almost plain black or dark brown.
- Females tend to be larger than males, and coloration is most vivid in juvenile and wet individuals.
This species is the most common water snake in Delaware!
Northern Watersnakes prefer slow-moving or standing water such as ponds, lakes, vernal pools, marshes, and slow-moving rivers and streams. They’re most often seen basking on rocks or logs in or near the water.
Common Watersnake Range Map (Northern Water Snakes are subspecies)
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
These water snakes primarily feed on fish and amphibians by hunting during the day along the water’s edge and shallow water. They grab their prey and quickly swallow while it’s still alive!
When disturbed, Northern Watersnakes flee into the water to escape. However, if grabbed or captured, they’re quick to defend themselves. They will release a foul-smelling musk from glands near the base of their tale, flatten their body, and strike the attacker.
While non-venomous, they can deliver a painful bite!
Their saliva contains a mild anticoagulant that can cause bites to bleed, making the injury appear worse. These important defense mechanisms help water snakes survive predators such as raccoons, snapping turtles, foxes, opossums, other snakes, and birds of prey.
Northern Watersnake populations are considered to be stable in Delaware. However, like many other water snakes, this species faces habitat loss and degradation. Unfortunately, they are also commonly killed by people out of fear.
#2. Plain-bellied Watersnake
- Nerodia erythrogaster
- Adults have a thick body and range from 24 to 40 inches in length.
- Solid coloration of gray, brown, olive, or black.
- As the name suggests, they have a plain unmarked underside varying from red to yellow.
- Also called Redbelly, Yellowbelly, Copperbelly, or Blotched Watersnake.
The Plain-bellied Watersnake can be found near various water sources, including rivers, floodplains, lakes, ponds, and wetlands. This species spends an unusual amount of time on land compared with other water snakes found in Delaware. Especially during hot, humid weather, they can be found in woodlands quite far from a water source.
Plain-bellied Watersnake Range Map
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
They feed on BOTH aquatic and terrestrial prey, including crayfish, fish, salamanders, frogs, and other amphibians. Another unusual feature of this species is that they will sit and wait to ambush their prey, especially on land. Almost all other water snakes actively hunt and chase their victims!
The females give birth in August or September to live young. Litters average 18 young, but one of 55 has been reported! These unique water snakes can also produce offspring via parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction in which an embryo develops without fertilization by sperm.
If captured, they release a foul-smelling musk and are not afraid to bite! Plain-bellied Watersnakes are eaten by largemouth bass, egrets, hawks, and sometimes other larger snakes.
#3. Queen Snake
- Adults are generally around 24 inches in length though individuals up to 36 inches have been reported.
- Coloration is drab brown or olive green with two lighter stripes down the sides.
- The underside is yellow or tan and also has four dark stripes that run the length of their belly. No other similar species has this feature!
Queen Snakes prefer moving water and are generally found near streams and rivers with rocky bottoms. They have highly permeable skin, making them susceptible to evaporative water loss. As you can imagine, they are rarely spotted far from water.
Queen Snake Range Map
Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society
Queen Snakes are considered to be less secretive than other water snakes in Delaware.
They are primarily diurnal and can be spotted basking on rocks, overhanging branches, or vegetation near the water’s edge. They often take refuge under rocks along the edges of streams. If you’re lucky, you may see them swimming.
These water snakes are specialist predators that primarily feed on crayfish. They almost exclusively prey on newly molted crayfish, which have soft bodies and can’t use their pinchers yet. They hunt by probing under rocks and other submerged objects for crayfish.
If disturbed, their first instinct is to flee into the water and dive below the surface. They typically will hide near the bottom briefly or swim down the shoreline before re-emerging. If cornered or captured, they will flatten themselves and may release a foul-smelling musk from glands at the base of their tail. Unlike other water snakes found in Delaware, they don’t typically bite.
#4. Eastern Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis
- Adults typically range from 18 to 26 inches in length.
- Coloration varies and can be mixtures of green, brown, or black. Look for a distinct yellow or whitish stripe down the center of their back.
- Some individuals may exhibit a checkered body pattern.
- Subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.
Look for these snakes in Delaware basking in the sun in grassy areas near freshwater.
In fact, they are typically the snake species that people come across the most. They’re well-adapted to living around people and can often be found in city parks, farmland, cemeteries, and suburban lawns and gardens. Though not required, they prefer grassy environments near freshwater sources such as ponds, marshes, lakes, ditches, and streams.
Eastern Garter Snakes protect themselves when they are cornered or feel threatened. For example, if you capture or continually disturb one, it will defecate and release a foul-smelling musk from its glands. It’s also common for them to bite as a last resort!
The Eastern Garter Snake most commonly preys on toads, frogs, slugs, salamanders, fish, and worms. However, they are very opportunistic and will eat other insects and small animals they can overpower. They’re active during both the day and night, depending on the temperature.
#5. Eastern Ribbon Snake
- Thamnophis saurita
- Adults typically range from 18 to 26 inches in length. A slender snake with a long tail!
- Coloration is brown to nearly black with three bright yellow to cream stripes; one down the back and one down each side.
- Snout and entire head are brownish, lips and underneath head are white.
Did you see a long, slender snake in Delaware near freshwater?
If so, it was probably an Eastern Ribbon Snake!
This species is semi-aquatic and RARELY found far from a source of water. Look for them in a wide variety of habitats, including marshes, grassy floodplains, streams, ditches with grass, wet areas in meadows, and woodlands adjacent to wetlands. Ribbon snakes are even found in suburban areas that match these conditions.
You might spot these snakes basking on branches of trees, bushes, or grasses overhanging the water. They typically hunt in the water and prey on amphibians, fish, and invertebrates.
When disturbed, these snakes quickly flee into water, grass, or brushy areas. If caught, they are not aggressive and rarely bite. But you can expect them to defecate and spray musk onto your hands. In the wild, Eastern Ribbon Snakes rely on blending into their surroundings to escape predators.
Do you need additional help identifying a water snake?
Try this field guide!
Which of these water snakes have you seen in Delaware?
Leave a comment below!