Snakes are perhaps the most villianized members of the animal kingdom. Portrayed and thought of as a dangerous slueth, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
There are around 200 species of water snakes found in the world, and 3 of them can be seen in Michigan waterways. Water snakes are differentiated from the other subspecies of snakes because they hunt and feed almost exclusively in aquatic environments.
Water snakes are also set apart from other species by their appearance. Triangular heads, thicker scales, and stouter bodies all evolutions that aid them living in and amongst the water.
Encountering a snake, especially a water snake is a great sign the ecosystem is thriving. If you’re lucky enough to spot one swimming along the water’s edge, turn to this guide to learn about what you’ve seen.
There are a handful of other snakes in Michigan that can be found near the water. However they are non-aquatic, and are not included on this particular list.
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The 3 Different Types of Water Snakes in Michigan
1. Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)
Michigan’s biggest water snake, Noredia sipedon sipedon, ranges from 24 to 55 inches long (61 to 140 centimeters).
Starting at the base of the neck are a series of reddish-brown crossbands that run the length of their bodies. The bands are their defining feature, and contrast their grey bodies, especially when wet.
These bands are what people often cite when they mistake Northern water snakes for the venomous Northern Cottonmouth. Fear not, Northern Cottonmouths do not take up residence in Michigan waters, and no one is likely to ever encounter any venomous water snake in Michigan.
As Northern water snakes spend more time out of the water, their coloring becomes more subtle. This gives them the appearance of a rat snake or a plain-bellied from afar. But, if caught in the light the subtle bands become visible again.
The Northern water snake is the most abundant in the United States, this includes Michigan. these snakes have been documented all over the state apart from the western side of the Upper Penninsula.
As the name suggests, Northern water snakes will typically make their home near stagnant pools of water. Keep your eyes on the rocks surrounding a pond, small lake, or seasonal pool of water for a Northern water snake basking in the sunlight.
Their diet primarily consists of amphibians and small fish they’re able to capture along the shoreline. Northern water snakes are ferocious feeders and will swallow prey whole, and often still alive.
During the fall and spring is when these snakes really come alive. All activity is centered around their overwintering schedule. Fall is dedicated to energy storage for a long dormant winter. In spring when they reemerge the primary focus is on eating and mating.
Like most water snakes, the Northern will give birth to live young. During the fall the mother will give birth to between 12 and 36 pencil sized offspring. The babies are born with sharp enough instincts it is common the mother will abandon them right after birth.
Are They Dangerous?
Although non-venomous, the Northern water snake comes equipped with a couple of effective deterrents to predators. Most obvious is their swimming ability; their first move when spooked is to return to the safety of the water.
However, if this is not an viable, there are a couple more tricks they can pull. One is the foul smell they release from the glands of their tail. The smell of rotten eggs fools predators into thinking this is not be an appetizing meal.
The final defense, and the one humans are most scared of, is the bite. This bite packs quite a punch and they will strike you multiple times if cornered. Their bite isn’t venomous but has anticoagulants that prevent blood from clotting. A trick to fool predators into thinking the bite is a more serious injury.
2. Plain-Bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster)
The Plain-bellied water snake, Nerodia erythogaster, grows 24 to 40 inches long (61 to 102 centimeters).
Their scale-covered bodies are typically a shade of grey to brown-black. They are aptly named for the typically pale, yellow underbelly that contrasts the darker top. Plain-bellied snakes are often called yellow-belly or copper-belly because of the varying shades taken on.
Due to their grey-black coloring, they too can be mistaken for a black rat snake from a distance. If you look closely, they lack the yellow band of a rat snake and their bellies are a different shade of yellow.
The Plain-bellied is not commonly found in Michigan and has only been sighted in the southern tip of the state. It was able to move into the region because of their ability to survive out of water for extended periods.
They don’t like to stray too far, their preferred home is along the banks of rivers, ponds, and lakes. The snakes are safer from predators along the edge of a shoreline. As they stray the risk of attack by hawks and bigger snakes increases. Shoreline risks are far fewer where only smaller snakes are fed on by bass and herons.
The snake on the list with the most ordinary coloring exhibits some of the most unique behavior. Although they consume the same small fish and amphibians as other water snakes, they are the only species that ambush their prey.
Almost all species of snakes hunt and chase prey through the water. Uniquely, plain-bellied water snakes have evolved to hide, stalk and ambush their prey. They opt to hide in the holes of the shoreline and pick off ill-fated frogs and fish passing by.
Plain-bellied water snakes are also capable of one of nature’s most spectacular feats. Able to perform parthenogenesis, the species can reproduce without a mate. In extreme situations where populations are low, like in Michigan, snakes are unable to find a mate.
The phenomenon was first observed in captivity. A female plain-bellied was kept without a mate for 8 years, and was able to give birth twice in that span. Two of the three offspring were able to grow to adulthood as near-exact clones of their mother.
Are They Dangerous?
Docile by nature, there is not much to fear about these snakes. Like most animals, it is more afraid of you and will opt to hide if you walk by. If you’re unlucky enough to step near one and get bit, it won’t be anything some Neosporin won’t be able to take care of.
3. Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata)
The smallest snake on the list, Regina septemvittata, typically grows up to 24 inches long (61 centimeters).
Their drab olive-grey bodies are highlighted by two lighter stripes along the sides. The defining feature of the Queen Snake is the 4 dark brown lines than run the length of the belly. Queen Snakes are the only snakes in the country with this feature, and will catch the eye running along a light tan belly.
The coloring can have them mistaken for a Plain-bellied water snake or a rat snake, they are typically much smaller. The lighter stripes along the sides of the body help to identify the Queen Snake in areas where their range overlaps the Plain-bellied.
Found throughout southern Michigan near moving water, the Queen Snake is the least likely on the list to travel far. Diurnal by nature, you’re most likely to spot one sunning itself on a rock or tree branch near a river.
Their skin is the most permeable of any snake species, requiring a constant intake of moisture. Permeable skin means they are the most susceptible to any chemical impurities in the water. This helps explain their tendency to stay near fast-moving water.
Where the water is running faster, there is less habitat for harmful microorganisms, and Queen Snakes are able to absorb the increased oxygen through their skin. Coming across a Queen Snake on a hike is a clear sign of a healthy ecosystem.
One of few water snakes that do not feed by sight or heat detection, Queen snakes opt to use their tongue to hunt by smell. They will flick their tongue repeatedly to acquire the scent of prey and then draw it back in to identify the smell.
Queen Snakes are expert crayfish hunters. They have been observed diving into rocks to chase and snap up crayfish. Queen Snakes come equipped with extra thick scales on their nose and chin protecting them in times they bang their head on a rock looking for dinner.
When populations of crayfish are abundant, Queen snakes opt to exclusively dine on them. Their expertise is so precise they will actively seek out soft-bodied juveniles. At this point, the crayfish have not developed pincers and make for an easy meal.
Are They Dangerous?
The only water snake in Michigan that is not known to bite. If you happen to disturb a Queen Snake, chances are it will flee to the bottom of the river or between rocks. Down under a rock, their common predators like raccoons cannot reach them.
If you do really spook one and it has nowhere to run, it will probably blast you with its musk. The Queen Snake will express the glands near the base of its tail, and emit an offensive odor.