An estimated 18 species and subspecies of snakes live throughout the state of Delaware. Out of those, there’s one type of snake that prefers to live in or near the water. It’s these snakes that we’re looking at in this article, the water snakes in Delaware.
All snakes are capable of swimming in water. While some rarely visit water, others are considered semi-aquatic. All true water snakes are in the Family Colubridae, in the Genus Nerodia, and are non-venomous.
Water snakes often have large, heavy bodies and are commonly mistaken for venomous snakes. While they can bite if threatened and are even regarded as aggressive in some cases, they are quite harmless if left alone.
With that being said, let’s have a look at Delaware’s two species of water snakes.
What types of water snakes are there in Delaware?
There are currently 10 species of water snakes in this category, and all can be found in the United States. Out of these 10 species just two can be found in Delaware and that’s the northern water snake and the plain-bellied water snake.
1. Common water snake
Scientific name: Nerodia sipedon
Adult size: 4-5 feet
Subspecies: northern water snake, midland water snake, Carolina water snake, Lake Erie water snake
The northern water snake is the subspecies of the common water snake that occurs in Delaware. They come in a variation of colors, including gray, tan, brown and buff. Juveniles are usually more brightly colored than adults. Adults have dark dorsal bands along their back that are present on the anterior portion of the body.
The further down their body you go, the colors change to alternating dorsal and lateral blotches. Their ventral scales, which are on their underbelly, have dark, crescent-moon shaped markings. This is just a guideline for this snake, many other types of water snakes can look very similar!
Northern water snakes range in size from 24 to 55 inches, approximately two feet to four and a half feet. As mentioned, they are fairly dark-colored. Adult females are larger than males most often. Females are live-bearers and breed April through June.
Live-bearing means they do not lay eggs, they produce live snakes, often around 12-36 babies, in the late August to early October time frame.
They are found most anywhere there is water within their range. Specifically, they are easily found throughout the eastern half of the United States, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. They are not endangered and are actually quite a heavily populated snack in their native areas.
Habitats and diet
Northern water snakes are not picky and like a wide variety of aquatic habitats. They do prefer slow-moving or standing water, such as ponds, lakes, and marshes, but can also be found on rivers and basically any wetland area in Delaware and into New England.
These snakes spend their time swimming below the water or basking on rocks in the sun. They prefer areas more directly exposed to the sun, so shady areas should be relatively clear of this snake. The northern water snake can also be found hanging out in trees and laying out on branches.
For their diet, these snakes primarily eat fish and amphibians, swallowing them alive. They commonly eat sunfish, smallmouth bass, minnows, toads, frogs, bullfrog tadpoles, trout, catfish, etc. But they’re not picky eaters, they will eat most any animal they find. This actually makes them quite a beneficial species to have around, as they will clear out pests such as mice and rodents.
2. Plain-bellied Water Snake
Scientific Name: Nerodia erythrogaster
Length: 24-40 inches
Subspecies: Plainbelly water snake, Bogert’s water snake, redbelly water snake, yellbelly water snake, copperbelly water snake, blotched water snake
Plain-bellied water snakes are named for their bellies which are often red or they can also be a very plain color. These snakes and all of the subspecies can be heavy-bodied and their bright underbodies make them stand out of other types of water snakes.
They occur from Texas to North Carolina and along the coastal plain, especially in lakes and swamps but also in rivers. They can be found as far north as Delaware and Maryland along the east coast.
This species is also largely nocturnal, preferring to hunt during the night and spending the whole day basking in the sun. Like other water snakes, they will bite repeatedly to defend themselves, even though they aren’t venomous.
How can you tell water snakes from venomous snakes?
Venomous snakes have a triangular, boxy shaped head that is wide at the base, where their venom is stored. Water snakes have slender heads that are more flattened. You can even look at their whole body. Cottonmouths tend to be very large and thick, while northern water snakes are smaller and thinner.
There are only 2 species of venomous snakes in Delaware, the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake. Out of those two, the copperhead would more easily be mistaken for a water snake and vice versa. However, if you know what to look for they’re pretty easy to tell apart.
Two other ways to tell is that non-venomous water snakes have round pupils, not cat eyes, while venomous species do. Finally, northern water snakes have no heat sensing PIT organ on either of their head between the eye and nostril, while a venomous cottonmouth will. This will basically look like an extra set of nostrils, which will help you tell the snake is poisonous.
If those don’t help, this trick might. Common water snakes prefer to swim underwater with just their head poking out. Cottonmouths, and most venomous snakes, mostly swim on top of the water.