Northern Watersnake: Often A Case of Mistaken Identity

Let’s Go Fishing:

As I often do, I like to go down to the lake to go fishing. When I go I am not the only one fishing there. Yesterday I met a grandpa fishing with his five year old grandson. It was fun to see the little guy reel in a few bluegill. Soon we discovered we we not the only ones fishing there. While casting out my line I saw the grandpa taking a quick step back from the edge of the lake startled that he might be seeing a poisonous snake.

At first sight one might think “water moccasin!” But that would be a wrong assessment and might endanger the snake more than the one trying to make the identification. This is a Northern Watersnake: Norodia sipedon. It is not poisonous and poses little threat to man. Many times these snakes are wantonly killed by those who think they are doing everybody else a favor by removing an unwelcome visitor.

Actually A Great Benefit:

Rather than being harmful, these snakes are an important part of the ecosystem. As you can see in these pictures it has an appetite for fish. It also eats frogs, salamanders and toads, as well as other small creatures along the shoreline. If you are not familiar with the group of fishes to which this bluegill belongs, they are known to release chemicals into the water that regulate the growth patterns of other fish of its species. This mechanism is designed to help the overall population to have enough food to go around. I remember fishing a lake in California where the bluegill were over-populated. All of the fish were about 2-3 inches long. There were so many you could catch them with a bare black fishing hook. Though you could easily catch fish there wasn’t much good in the effort since they were all so small. The best way to rectify the problem would be to remove many of the fish. This would allow the remaining fish to grow larger. In a similar way snakes also keep other species in check.

 

Watersnakes, birds, and many other predators help naturally regulate the number of species in lakeside communities. By killing snakes you can quickly upset the balance with lasting consequences.

Fun to Watch:

If you have a natural fear of snakes you might be missing out on a lot of fun! Snakes are actually very beautiful animals with many interesting behaviors. As an example, these snakes often find homes in muskrat holes along the shore where they hide in the sticks and leaves inside. They often can be seen lurking along the shoreline seeking out minnows and larger fish. As you can see in these pictures, many times their prey is even larger than the size of the snake’s head. No problem for the snake, however, since its jaws can expand to allow the whole fish to slide in. A muscle action pushes the fish down where it is eventually digested. It’s fun to see a snake just after swallowing a large meal. It reminds me of the many cartoons I’ve seen of snakes.

Food for Other Animals:

Not only do these snakes help in the ways mentioned above, they also provide food for many other animals. Raccoon, Skunks, Eagles, Herons, Egrets, and large fish prey on watersnakes. I guess it’s fair play for a large fish to return the favor after the snake has consumed many of her young. The majority of the snakes eaten are the young. Fortunately watersnakes can produce quite a few babies. They also bear their young alive. A mother can produce up to 30 young in one birthing though more commonly far less. I remember watching as about fifteen newly born little watersnakes swam by one day while I was fishing. I bet that very few of them made it to adulthood.

Can You Tell The Difference? Heads or Tails, You win!

The poisonous snakes with which watersnakes are confused actually have several distinguishing characteristics. One is the much broader body shape. They also have elliptical pupils whereas the Watersnake has round pupils. Another feature found on the poisonous snakes are the heat-sensing pits on their heads. These are found below and between the eyes and nose. If you look at the other end of the snake you will find that watersnakes have long slender tails whereas water moccasins have short and thicker tails.

Overcoming Fear:

One helpful way to overcome your fears is to face them. In many cases just acknowledging your fears can lead to solutions. Learning the facts about what you fear can also help alleviate a lot of the tension. Find someone knowledgeable and they can help answer your questions. You will find that after conquering your fears you will enjoy the outdoors to a much greater extent. Do some research, talk to an expert. Don’t let your fears ruin your life.

A Bigger Purpose:

While you are spending time outdoors experiencing God’s Creation consider the part you play in His overall plan. We can learn a lot about ourselves and our Creator by exploring His Handiwork. If He has a purpose for watersnakes He surely has a purpose for your life and He has created all things for you to enjoy.

Here Are Some Good Sources for Further Research:

National Wildlife Federation

Tennessee Watchable Wildlife

Wikipedia

Virginia Herpetological Society


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