| Jun 18, 2009

Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - June 18, 2009 Northern Water Snakeby Lorraine Julien Yikes! Have you ever gone swimming and thought you saw something else swimming near you? I have and it can be quite startling. The creature in the water turned out to be a Northern Water Snake. This has happened on only a few rare occasions – thank goodness. The snake appeared to be black but it can appear blackish under the water and I’ve learned that the normally blotchy pattern on water snakes fades somewhat with age.

Northern Water Snakes have a nice overall pattern with reddish brown squarish blotches down the back and a row of alternating blotches along each side. On older individuals (such as I’ve seen) the blotches may be obscured and, of course, these snakes appear black when in the water. The belly is a cream colour with irregular half moon crescents. This is a moderately long snake at about 2 – 4 feet - the record length being almost 6 feet. I was surprised to learn that these snakes have a lifespan up to seven years.

On land Northern Water Snakes may be mistaken for the Massassauga rattlesnake, Ontario’s only venomous snake. Though once common, the Massassauga is now quite rare and, in fact, seldom attacks humans. Their poison may cause swelling and discolouration but rarely death. Rattlers were granted protected status in the early 1990’s and now the Northern Water Snake is also protected. It is illegal to kill or capture either of them.

The Northern Water Snake glides quickly and smoothly in the water swimming just below the surface and appearing much scarier than it really is. The main thing to remember about this native snake is that it is not venomous and it would seldom attack a large mammal or human in the water. Little consolation if you happen to meet one eye to eye!

If cornered or threatened in any way though, water snakes can be very aggressive. They will attempt to strike repeatedly and can inflict a painful bite. Rather than fangs, they have four rows of 30 to 40 sharp teeth which curve inward to hold slippery prey such as minnows, fish, frogs and crayfish. Occasionally they may catch mice or shrews when near the shore.

Water snakes do not eat their prey in the water and prefer to drag the food onto the shore where they may hide and digest the food over several days. On sunny days, they like to bask in the sun on rocks or stumps near the shore or on overhanging branches. Keep a lookout the next time you are canoeing near a tree lined shore!

Unlike most other snakes, when water snakes bite, they rip their victim’s flesh when they remove their teeth. The bite injects an anticoagulant that makes bleeding hard to stop.

In late August or September, a litter of up to 20 or so live young are born. When born, the baby snakes are 5-6” long and are left to fend for themselves. Winter hibernation is spent beneath the water or in rock crevices. In fact one of their favourite habitats is an old beaver lodge where they can hide among the sticks and mud.

Predators include great blue herons, minks, raccoons, foxes, red-shouldered hawks, gulls, various large fish such as pike and bass and the occasional turtle. When threatened by these predators, Northern Water Snakes flatten themselves to appear bigger and release a stinky fluid from their glands if caught. You definitely want to leave these fellows alone!

Turtle Reminder – Please watch for turtles crossing the road at this time of year. Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve seen many small turtles that have been run over by cars. If you see a live turtle and you’re not sure which type it is, there’s a turtle identification section and other turtle information at www.torontozoo.com/adoptapond

Please feel free to report any observations to Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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