Tennessee Water Snakes

By Snaketracks / April 13, 2020
Tennessee Water Snakes
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Tennessee Water Snakes

Tennessee Water snakes are non-venomous, carnivorous and ovoviviparous snakes that, true to their name, like to spend time in or around water, even if they also venture on land and eventually climb trees.

Quick Reference Section

Table of Contents

Tennessee Water Snake Species

There are 5 recognized species of the so-called water snakes in Tennessee:

  • the Northern Watersnake (with two sub-species  the Midland Water Snake and the Common Watersnake);
  • the Mississippi Green Watersnake;
  • the Plain-bellied Watersnake (with two sub-species, the Yellow-bellied Water Snake and Copper-bellied Water Snake).
  • the Broad-banded Water Snake (that is, in fact, a subspecies of the Southern Watersnake and occurs at Reelfoot Lake and counties that border the Mississippi River)
  • the  Northern Diamond-backed Watersnake (that is a subspecies of the Diamond-backed Watersnake and occurs in the Mississippi and Tennessee River drainages in West Tennessee, and also known from the Cumberland River drainage in Stewart and Montgomery counties in Middle Tennessee). According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Northern Watersnake is the most common in Tennessee and it occurs statewide.
  • Even if Tennessee Water Snakes are harmless some find death in hands of people that often confuse them with the extremely venomous Water Moccasin snakes (also called Cottonmouths).

Interesting Facts About Water-Snakes:

Having said water snakes are non-venomous, we can not disregard the recent LiveScience report that indicates that at least some species of water snake produce venom-like proteins in their saliva.

One type of protein is an anticoagulant, which makes wounds bleed more profusely. Although these proteins pose little risk to humans, they present a significant threat to small-bodied prey, as they allow the water snake to follow its prey trail of blood if it escapes.

Water snakes are known to be aggressive. If they feel threatened, they could bite and/or expel a musky secretion (from glands near their tail). Water snakes are also known to defecate and vomit when threatened or agitated.

As follows here are the basics of the above referenced Tennessee Water Snake species:

1. Northern Water Snake

Midland water snake
Midland Water Snake (Nerodia Sipedon pleuralis)
Common water snake
Common Water Snake (Nerodia Sipedon sipedon)

Quick Reference Section

  • Scientific Name: Nerodia Sipedon
  • Subspecies: Midland Water Snake (Nerodia Sipedon pleuralis) Common Water Snake (Nerodia Sipedon sipedon)
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Average Length: 150cm
  • Diet: carnivorous
  • Reproduction: ovoviviparous
  • Venom: non-venomous

Interesting Facts About Northern Water Snakes

When threatened,  Northern Watersnakes will make a silent retreat. However, they are aggressive when captured: they will flatten their head and neck, try to strike, and discharge a foul-smelling musk from glands at the base of their tail.

What Does The Northern Water Snake Look Like?

Northern Water Snakes have large and heavy bodies showing keeled scales.

They are highly variable in color and their body may be grayish to brown (almost black in older specimens) with dark brown to reddish-brown crossbands on the front third of the body becoming broken into 3 rows of alternating blotches.

Midland Water Snakes have less than 30 crossbands and blotches, and the light spaces between the dark lateral markings are more than 2½ scale rows wide. They also exhibit a yellow belly distinctly marked with 2 rows of half-moons.

Common Water Snakes have more than 30 crossbands and light spaces are less than 2½ scale rows wide. The half-moon markings in the Common subspecies are broken up or not clear.

What Kind Of Habitats Do Northern Water Snakes Live In?

Northern Water Snakes can be found in every type of water body, even if they prefer quiet waters.

They are frequently found around edges of ponds or lakes, basking on rocks, or on vegetation overhanging water.

What Does The Northern Water Snake Eat?

Northern Water Snakes eat non-game fish; also amphibians and other small aquatic animals.

How Do Northern Water Snakes Breed?

Males begin locating through chemical attraction and mating with females during the spring.

Northern Water Snakes are ovoviviparous meaning the females retain their eggs in the oviduct during the development of the young. Thus, young are born “live”.

Females give live birth to 5-60 young in late summer or early fall.

Larger females produce more young.

2. Mississippi Green Water Snake

mississippi green water snake
Mississippi Green Water Snake (Nerodia cyclopion)

Quick Reference Section

  • Scientific Name: Nerodia cyclopion
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Average Length: 130 cm
  • Diet: carnivorous
  • Reproduction:  ovoviviparous
  • Venom: non-venomous

What does the Mississippi Green Watersnake look like?

The Mississippi Green Water Snake is a  medium-sized snake that has a dark greenish-brown color with small, obscure dark markings.

It has a distinctive row of scales between eye and lip plates. Their belly is dark gray covered with pale yellow half-moons.

Young individuals have more distinct dorsal markings.

What Does The Mississippi Green Water Snake Eat?

The Mississippi Green Water Snake eats fish, frogs, tadpoles, crayfish, and salamanders.

What Kind Of Habitat Do Mississippi Green Water Snakes Live In?

Mississippi Green Water Snakes occurs in the cypress swamps of extreme western Tennessee.

Prefers the quiet waters of swamps, wetlands, river sloughs, and lake edges.

How Does The Mississippi Green Water Snake Breed?

Mississippi Green Water Snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning the females retain their eggs in the oviduct during the development of the young. Thus, young are born “live” and completely developed.

Adults mate in spring.

Females give live birth to 15-25 young in the summer.

What Predators Does The Mississippi Green Water Snake Have?

Adults are eaten by predatory mammals and birds.

Their defenseless newborns are gobbled down by animals ranging from large frogs and fish to other snakes and birds and mammals.

3. Plain-bellied Water Snake

Yellow bellied water snake
Yellow-bellied Water Snake   (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster)
Copper-Bellied Water Snake
Copper-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta)

Quick Reference Section

  • Scientific Name: Nerodia erythrogaster
  • Subespecies recognized in Tennessee: Yellow-bellied Water Snake   (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster) and Copper-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta)
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Average length: 164 cm
  • Diet: carnivorous
  • Reproduction: ovoviviparous
  • Venom: non-venomous

Interesting Facts About The Plain-bellied Water Snake

Unique among water snakes in that it flees onto land instead of diving underwater when approached.

What Does The Plain-bellied Water Snake Look Like?

Plain-bellied Water Snakes are medium-sized snakes with a heavy body and keeled scales (not shiny).

Adults are uniformly reddish-brown to almost black with a grayish or greenish cast on the lower sides.

As the names suggest, bellies are plain yellow (sometimes with orange) in the Yellow-bellied Watersnake and red to orange-red (with brown dorsum color creeping onto belly) in the Copper-bellied Water Snake.

Young individuals are boldly patterned with complete dark crossbands just behind head transitioning into an alternating back and side blotches.

What Kind Of Habitat Does The Plain-bellied Water Snake Live In?

Yellow-bellied Water Snakes are found in south-central and southwestern Tennessee.

The Copper-bellied Water Snake is found in the lower Cumberland River and Tennessee River watersheds of Middle Tennessee.

Both can be found in calm bodies of water such as lakes, cypress swamps, wetlands, ponds, river sloughs, and slow-moving rivers.

What Does The Plain-bellied Water Snake Eat?

They eat frogs, toads, tadpoles, and salamanders;  also fish and crayfish.

How Does The Plain-bellied Water Snake Breed?

Adults court and mate in spring.

Plain-bellied Water Snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning the females retain their eggs in the oviduct during the development of the young. Thus, young are born “live”.

Females give live birth to relatively large litters (2-55) during the summer.

The number of young per litter increases with an increase in the size of the female.

4. Broad-banded Water Snake

Broad-banded Water snake
Broad-banded Water Snake (Nerodia fasciata confluens)

Quick Reference Section

  • Scientific Name: Nerodia fasciata confluens
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Size: 159 cm
  • Diet: carnivorous
  • Reproduction: ovoviviparous
  • Venom: non-venomous

Interesting Facts About The Broad-banded Water Snake

Broad-banded Water Snakes are often called “yellow moccasin” and “pink flamingo snake” by locals due to the rich color variations which the Southern Water Snake exhibits.

What Does The Broad-banded Water Snake Look Like?

Broad-banded Water Snakes are medium-sized snakes with broad brown, red-brown, or black crossbands separated by yellow to grayish bands.

The belly is yellow patterned with bold, square, black markings.

A faint black line runs from the corner of the eye diagonally to the corner of the mouth.

Young are more brightly colored.

What Kind Of Habitat Does The Broad-banded Water Snake Live In?

The Broad-banded Water Snake is found at Reelfoot Lake and counties that border the Mississippi River.

They prefer cypress swamps, marshes, river sloughs, and shallow lakes.

Broad-banded Water Snakes can frequently be found among thick vegetation, basking on logs, or on branches overhanging the water.

What Does The Broad-banded Water Snake Eat?

Broad-banded Water Snakes eat fish, frogs, toads, tadpoles and occasionally salamanders and crayfish.

How Does The Mississippi Green Water Snake Breed?

Courtship and mating occur in spring.

Mississippi Green Water Snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning females retain their eggs in the oviduct during the development of the young. Thus, young are born “live”.

Females give live birth to 7-40 brightly colored young during the summer.

5. Northern Diamond-backed Water Snake

Northern Diamondback Water Snake
Northern Diamond-backed Water Snake (Nerodia rhombifer rhombifer)

Quick Reference Section

  • Scientific Name: Nerodia rhombifer rhombifer
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Average length: 175 cm
  • Diet: carnivorous
  • Reproduction: ovoviviparous
  • Venom: non-venomous

Interesting Facts About Northern Diamond-backed Water Snakes

Northern Diamond-backed Water Snakes become more nocturnal as the weather becomes warmer.

What Does The Northern Diamond-backed Water Snake Look Like?

Northern Diamond-backed Water Snakes have a large, keel-scaled, heavy-body.

They have light patterns on the back that somewhat resemble diamond shapes. These diamonds are created by dark brown chainlike markings extending over the body on a light brown or yellowish ground color.

The belly is yellow with irregular rows of black “half-moons.”

Males have small raised bumps (papillae) under the chin.

Juveniles are strongly patterned and have bright orange on their bellies.

What Kind Of Habitat Does The Northern Diamond-backed Water Snake Live In?

Northern Diamond-backed Water Snakes are found in the Mississippi and Tennessee River drainages in West Tennessee. They can be found in a variety of aquatic habitats, but usually in oxbow lakes, rivers, cypress swamps, marshes, and sloughs.

What Does The Northern Diamond-backed Water Snake Eat?

Diamond-backed Water Snakes eat slow-moving fish, frogs, toads, and salamanders.

How Does The Northern Diamond-backed Water Snake Breed?

Courtship and breeding occur in the spring.

Males rub the small raised bumps under their chin along the backs of receptive females during courtship.

Northern Diamond-backed Water Snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning the females retain their eggs in the oviduct during the development of the young. Thus, young are born “live”.

Females give birth to 13-62 live young during the late summer or fall.

Is It Legal To Have Water Snakes As A Pet?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates over the pets Americans can own. But individual states have their laws, too As a general rule, non-venomous snakes can be kept without permission, and water snakes are all non-venomous.

However, among the species listed in this article, there are 2 that require special consideration:

a) the Mississippi Green Water Snake is listed as “In Need of Management” by TWRA, and is considered extremely rare and critically imperiled by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Populations have been drastically impacted by the loss of native cypress swamps.

b) the Copper-bellied Water Snake (one of the two subspecies of the Plain-bellied Water Snake) is considered “rare to very rare and vulnerable to extirpation” by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Conclusion

From the list Tennessee water snakes provided above, 2 snakes are in fact considered in danger: the Mississippi Green Water Snake and the Copper-bellied Water Snake.  

Even if water snakes are non-venomous, they are often killed because of their similarity with the very venomous Water Moccasins.

Paradoxically, this similarity may be an evolutionary adaptation of the water snakes to avoid predation.

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