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FIELD GUIDE

Make way for the feisty northern water snake

The author, Don Lyman, holding a northern water snake in the Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsboro State Forest in 2007. Lyman and fellow biologist, Tim Beaulieu, freed the snake after finding it tangled in the netting of a turtle trap.Tim Beaulieu

Over the Fourth of July weekend last summer, I drove down to Washington to visit my cousin, Matt. Two of our friends – Jie and Ben – joined us from Pittsburgh and Brooklyn, respectively, and we headed down I-95 to Marine Corps Base Quantico, in northern Virginia, about 35 miles south of Washington.

We spent a few days on the base hiking and herping – looking for reptiles and amphibians. As a military base, Quantico has restricted access, but because my father is a retired Marine, he was able to book us a room at the hotel on the base.

I lived at Quantico for about five years as a boy, when my father was stationed there as a Marine. Quantico is where I developed an interest in nature and wildlife, and in herpetology – the study of reptiles and amphibians – and I’ve been back there many times as an adult to explore the woods and creeks of my boyhood, where I still find snakes, lizards, and other herps.

While we were hiking along a firebreak in the woods, I spotted a 3-foot-long northern water snake basking in the sun about 10 feet from a small creek.

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Ben Jaffe, who is a herpetologist and science teacher, has lots of experience catching and handling snakes, and decided he wanted to try to catch the water snake. As he started to sneak up behind the thick-bodied serpent, I positioned myself about 6 feet off to the side and readied my snake tongs to grab the snake if Jaffe was unable to capture it.

Suddenly the snake bolted toward the creek. I quickly reached out and grasped the fleeing serpent by the middle of its body with the tongs. Jaffe wanted to hold the water snake before we photographed it and turned it loose.

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Snakes will often bite to defend themselves if handled, and water snakes are particularly aggressive when threatened. When Jaffe took the snake from the tongs it promptly latched onto his hand.

He winced in pain and said, “Ow! That really hurts! … That’s the worst water snake bite I’ve ever gotten.”

The snake actually appeared to be chewing on Jaffe’s hand for about five seconds before it let go and settled down. (See the video here.)

“Sometimes water snakes’ teeth get caught on the skin and it takes a few moments for them to let go,” said Whit Gibbons, herpetologist and Professor Emeritus of Ecology at the University of Georgia, who co-authored the book “North American Watersnakes: A Natural History.” “Anyone who has ever caught a big water snake probably has stories of a bloody, horseshoe-shaped bite, and being covered with a foul-smelling musk.”

Water snakes, like many snake species, will release a strong, musky odor from scent glands in their cloaca — an opening used for reproduction and excretion located near the base of the tail — when they are threatened or handled. So, in addition to the bite wound on his hand, Jaffe smelled a bit like a skunk. Talk about adding insult to injury.

And although water snakes are not venomous, their saliva contains a mild anti-coagulant, said Gibbons, which, in my experience, can cause water snake bites to bleed for about 10 minutes or so.

Not unexpectedly, Jaffe’s hand was dripping with blood after he released the snake unharmed into the creek. We rinsed his hand off with bottled water, cleaned the bite with hand sanitizer, then continued looking for snakes and other herps.

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Northern water snakes are common and are found in freshwater wetlands including streams, ponds, and swamps throughout Massachusetts, as well as from southern Canada to the Gulf Coast, and west to eastern Colorado.

Juvenile northern water snakes usually have prominent bands along the length of their body that vary in color from reddish brown to black, against a background color of gray or brown. The bands tend to fade as water snakes grow, and older water snakes are usually a solid brown or black color.

Northern water snakes range in size from 24 to 55 inches in length, and adult females tend to be larger than adult males, according to the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory website.

The largest northern water snakes I’ve ever seen were a pair at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, that looked to be at least 4 feet long.

Gibbons said northern water snakes have been known to live up to nine years in captivity.

Northern water snakes feed mostly on fish and amphibians, such as frogs, said Gibbons, but have also been documented eating lizards, shrews, crayfish, earthworms, insects, and even other northern water snakes.

Northern water snakes themselves are eaten by a wide variety of predators, including minks and otters, hawks, herons, and large fish, such as pike and bass, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Snakes of Connecticut webpage. Gibbons added raccoons, snapping turtles, and cottonmouths (a venomous snake found in the southern US) to the list of animals that have been documented to prey on northern water snakes.

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The UMass Amherst Snakes of Massachusetts webpage said northern water snakes typically mate in May and June, and give birth to 20 to 40 young in August and September.

Northern water snakes often group together in winter den sites, including muskrat burrows and beaver lodges, to brumate — the reptile equivalent of hibernation — according to the Snakes of Connecticut webpage.

Sadly, water snakes are sometimes killed by people who mistake the aquatic serpents for venomous cottonmouths, Gibbons said.

“Water snakes are often killed as cottonmouths, even in regions where cottonmouths do not occur,” said Gibbons.

Unlike water snakes, cottonmouths have large, chunky, triangular-shaped heads, elliptical pupils, and tend to swim on the surface of the water, whereas water snakes usually dive beneath the water or swim with just their head above water. Also, cottonmouths do not occur in New England — they are only found as far north as southern Virginia, the Snakes of Connecticut webpage said.

Some people simply kill water snakes because they are snakes, and they may have been brought up to think that snakes are bad, Gibbons added.

Snakes are part of the biodiversity of the natural world, and as both predators and prey, snakes are an important component of the food web in the ecosystems they inhabit.

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“Snakes are part of our natural heritage,” said Gibbons. “Northern water snakes are a much-to-be-admired reptile because of their dogged persistence in a world of humans, and because of their beauty.”

Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to donlymannature@gmail.com.

Biologist Ben Jaffe being bitten by a northern water snake at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, in northern Virginia, July 2021.Matthew Lyman