Water Snakes Are the Ones
To Watch Out For

by Shaun Kane


     The summer of '03 will go down in the record books as one of the wettest ever with all the rain that fell.  In our yard there has been a bumper crop of frogs living in the grass.  Hundreds of leopard frogs are everywhere you step.  The frogs are providing an inland smorgasbord for many creatures around the marsh including the Red Belly Water Snake.  I saw a pretty big one slithering away as I was cleaning up in the tall grass and low brush around an old shed out back.  I decided to look them up on the internet and found out that the water snakes around Knotts Island may be responsible for the poor reputation of the water moccasins they share the marsh with.  Besides the Red Belly, there are two other varieties of water snakes that came up and each behaves in ways that explained a few of the stories I've heard from the locals.

     The Red Belly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) is the most common of the water snakes on Knotts Island.  It usually is seen in the ditches and swampy areas but will come up the the drier areas in search of food.  It eats frogs and other amphibians mostly but also preys on small rodents and fish.  This is a year that he'll be seen nearer to our homes as he takes advantage of the large numbers of frogs created by the heavy rains.  Commonly referred to as a Red Belly, he shouldn't be confused with the smaller and more docile snake of that same name.  The red belly water snake is very aggressive and will bite if handled, with no exceptions. 

     Here is the culprit behind the myth of the "cottonmouth that swam to the boat and tried to attack us."  Like all snakes in the Nerodia family, the Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) is very aggressive and also very territorial.  This one will defend its hunting grounds vigorously and with markings similar to a cottonmouth's, he can easily be confused for one.  He will also bite repeatedly, which is uncharacteristic of a water moccasin.  The wound from a bite (or bites) from this fellow will bleed profusely as his saliva has anti-coagulant properties.

     The Brown Water Snake (Nerodia Taxispilotia) is a large water snake who frequents the tree limbs over water.  I finally found the solution to the mystery of the air assaults reportedly committed by cottonmouths.  These guys like to bask in tree limbs and if they are startled by the commotion of boats and fishermen on the water below them, they will drop from the branches in an attempt to escape possible danger.  This often results in a landing aboard somebody's boat.  Whether they were invited aboard or not, these snakes are extremely aggressive and will immediately become belligerent to the boats' occupants. 

     It turns out that the water snakes may be the reason that people are so worried about attacks from the relatively non-aggressive water moccasin.  They are marked like the moccasin and can be seen swimming like one but that where the similarity stops.  If you see a snake swimming toward you or your boat, try to notice if he's on top of the water or not.  A moccasin will float completely out of the water and the non-venomous water snakes swim with the most of their bodies submerged.  Also note the head.  The moccasin has a distinctly triangular shape to his head where the water snakes have a head that isn't much wider than its body.  For more information on the water moccasin and his mostly defensive nature, see this page.  <Water Moccasins>  In the mean time, enjoy your activities on the water around Knotts Island and keep a careful eye on the water snakes.  The cottonmouths will keep a careful eye on you.

Back to the Nature Page

Back to Knotts Island