5 Types of Water Snakes Found in Kentucky! (ID Guide)

What kinds of water snakes can you find in Kentucky?

Common ducks in Kentucky

 

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 Kentucky.

 

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.

 

Many other snake species can be found NEAR water habitats but don’t particularly enjoy being IN THE WATER. For the sake of this article, I did NOT include these snakes.

 

5 Types of Water Snakes That Live in Kentucky:

 


#1. Common Water Snake

  • Nerodia sipedon

Types of Water Snakes found in Kentucky

There are two subspecies of the Common Water Snake in Kentucky.

Their coloration varies depending on which one you see!

  • Northern Water Snake (N. s. sipedon): 

    • 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.
  • Midland Water Snake (N. s. pleuralis):

    • Typically light gray in color, but some individuals are reddish.
    • Near the head, they have dark crossbands. As you move down the snake, the crossbands are replaced by dark squarish blotches.

 

This species is the most common water snake in Kentucky!

 

Common Water Snakes 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 Water Snake Range Map

common watersnake range map

Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society

 

When disturbed, Common 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.

 

Common Water Snake populations are considered to be stable in Kentucky. 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

Water Snakes species that live in Kentucky


Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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 Kentucky. Especially during hot, humid weather, they can be found in woodlands quite far from a water source.

 

Plain-bellied Watersnake Range Map

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

  • Regina septemvittata

Common Water Snakes species in Kentucky

Identifying Characteristics:

  • 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

queensnake range map

Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society

 

Queen Snakes are considered to be less secretive than other water snakes in Kentucky.

 

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 Kentucky, they don’t typically bite.

 


#4. Northern Cottonmouth

  • Agkistrodon piscivorus

venomous snake species that are common

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 26 to 35 inches in length. Females are typically smaller than males.
  • Most individuals are dark gray to black with a broad head, heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils, elliptical pupils, and a blunt snout.
  • Some individuals have a brown, gray, tan, or blackish coloration.
  • Also commonly called Water Moccasins, Black Moccasins, or Gapers.

 

Cottonmouths are the ONLY venomous water snake in Kentucky.

 

Be on the lookout for these water snakes near swamps, marshes, ponds, and slow-moving streams and rivers, as well as flooded fields and drainage ditches. But they aren’t limited to just aquatic habitats. Cottonmouths can also be found in palmetto thickets, pine forests, dune areas, and prairies. In Kentucky, you can only find Northern Cottonmouths in an extremely small area in the southwest part of the state.

Northern Cottonmouth Range Map

cottonmouth range map

Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society

 

Since Northern Cottonmouths are typically near water, the bulk of their diet is made up of fish and frogs. But they are opportunistic and will also eat small mammals, birds, turtles, small alligators, and other snakes.

 

These water snakes have several defensive tactics to warn potential threats to stay away! They often vibrate their tail in the leaf litter, pull their heads up and back, and then open their mouth to hiss and expose a white interior. This particular display is what earned them the name “cottonmouth.

 

Since they are venomous, please use extra caution if you come across an unknown water snake. Quite a few species look similar, especially if you just get a glance as one moves across the water.

 

Luckily, receiving a bite from a Northern Cottonmouth is rare. But when it does happen, it is very serious as their venom destroys tissue. It is rare to die from their bite, but it does cause swelling and bruising and can leave scars.

 


#5. Diamond-backed Watersnake

  • Nerodia rhombifer

diamondbacked watersnake

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 30 to 48 inches in length.
  • Coloration is brown, dark brown, yellowish, or olive green. Look for a dark chain-like pattern down the back.
  • Thick body with a yellow belly that has dark half-moons.

The Diamond-backed Watersnake can be found in western Kentucky in a variety of freshwater habitats. They generally prefer slow-moving bodies of water with overhanging vegetation such as ponds and swamps and slow rivers and streams.

 

These water snakes are common in their range and can be spotted on overhanging branches looking for prey, which mainly include frogs and fish. Once they grab their target, they haul it to shore and wait for it to die before consuming it. This behavior is unique as most other water snakes consume their prey alive.

Diamond-backed Watersnake Range Map

diamond backed watersnake range map

Credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior/USGS

 

When disturbed, Diamond-backed Watersnakes will quickly flee into the water and dive below the surface to swim away. If captured, they will bite and release a foul-smelling musk from glands near the base of their tail.

 

They are relatively common and aren’t considered a threatened species. Unfortunately, they are sometimes killed out of ignorance. People often mistake them for venomous cottonmouths and rattlesnakes.

 


Do you need additional help identifying a water snake?

Try this field guide!

 


Which of these water snakes have you seen in Kentucky?

 

Leave a comment below!

 

One Comment

  1. It was either the northern cotton mouth or the diamond back water snake. This one looked like a copper head with a triangle shaped head but it didn’t have a blunt tail like copperheads normally do and they are a darker more red than copper colored also there’s a black one that looks identical to it but black. They are very aggressive snakes and their habitat is near a small stream with lots of frogs to eat

Leave a Reply