To the rest of the world, New York is a bustling metropolis, a place of sophisticated energy and towering skyscrapers. But beneath the glitzy veneer lies another side to this great state– a wild and mysterious one that’s home to the most beautiful water snake in North America – the Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon).
While this is the only true snake that exists in this state, there are other semi-aquatic species lurking in the shadows. Eastern Ribbon Snake, the Short-headed Garter Snake, and the Queen Snake can also be found slithering around ponds, streams, and marshes.
This post will take a closer look at these species and provide some interesting facts about them. Keep reading to learn more about the fascinating world of New York’s water snakes!
Water Snakes in New York
From the deep waters of Lake Champlain to the cascading brooks of upstate New York, let’s look at the only water snake species that calls this state home, as well as a few other aquatic snakes.
Northern Water snake
- Scientific name: Nerodia sipedon
- Length: Can grow up to 4 ft 5 inches
- Diet: Mainly aquatic prey such as small fish and frogs
- Range/Habitat: Found in freshwater lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, and ponds throughout New York.
- Interesting Fact: Northern Water snakes are excellent swimmers and can often be found resting on the water surface.
A large and intimidating-looking creature, the Northern Water snake is easily identifiable by its bright yellowish-brown coloration and patterning along its back. These distinctive patterns look like black or dark-brown round bands that are quite conspicuous on their light-colored gray or yellowish bodies. They also have a unique pattern around their neck and head, which helps to distinguish them from other species of snakes in the area.
Also known as the common water snake, this species of nonvenomous semi-aquatic snake can grow up to 4 feet 5 inches in length and is often found in abundance throughout the state of New York.
Northern Water snakes are found in a variety of aquatic habitats, often residing in slow-moving waters or on the edges of aquatic habitats, including lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams.
They are active during the day and are known for their aggressive behavior, often flattening their bodies and vibrating their tails when threatened. Despite this behavior, Northern Water snakes are harmless to humans and play an important role in controlling populations of small rodents, fish, and amphibians.
Breeding season for Northern Water snakes occurs in the spring, with females laying clutches of up to 30 eggs in the summer. Hatchlings emerge in the fall and are independent from birth.
Semi-Aquatic Snakes of New York
Because there is only one true water snake in New York, we will also cover some of the other semi-aquatic species found in this state. These include:
1. Eastern Ribbon Snake
- Scientific name: Thamnophis sauritus sauritus
- Length: Measures between 7.1 and 33.9 in
- Diet: Eats tadpoles, small frogs, small fish, toads, and salamanders.
- Range/Habitat: Often found around wetlands or near streams and pond edges.
- Interesting fact: Female ribbon snakes have been observed eating their young ones after birth.
The Eastern Ribbon Snake, also known as the common ribbon snake, is a nonvenomous species of snake found in eastern North America, primarily in the United States. This elegant and agile viper is among the four sub-species of ribbon snakes found in the U.S. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, these snakes have been sighted in most counties throughout the state of New York.
As its name suggests, the Eastern Ribbon snake is a slender, graceful snake with a distinctive color pattern that includes two or three light-colored stripes down its back, bordered by two dark stripes.
It typically measures between 7.1 and 33.9 inches, with females generally larger than males. As a semi-aquatic snake, the eastern ribbon snake is adapted to both water and terrestrial environments, often jumping into the water when frightened.
Unlike other water snakes, they don’t dive headfast into the water. Instead, they glide on the water’s surface. These graceful reptiles spend much of their time hiding among vegetation, where they hunt for an array of prey early in the morning or late evening. Once the snake spots its prey, it quickly slithers forward to catch it and swallows it whole.
2. Short-headed Garter Snake
- Scientific name: Thamnophis brachystoma
- Length: Adults can range between 10 and 22 inches in length.
- Diet: In the wild, they feed exclusively on earthworms. But in captivity, these garter snakes can consume leeches, frogs, small fish, and salamanders.
- Range/Habitat: Exclusively found in Southwest New York in fields and meadows
- Interesting fact: It has a distinct sexual dimorphism, as the females are noticeably larger than the males.
The Short-headed Garter Snake, also known as the Short-head, is one of the smallest water snakes in New York. The name “Garter” was derived from its pattern, which resembles a garter snake belt. It has three yellow stripes that run along its back and sides, standing out from its olive or olive-green dorsal side.
And as its name suggests, it has a short head compared to other species in the Garter Snake family. This is an evolutionary adaptation designed to help the snake burrow through soil to find prey. It also helps them blend better with their surroundings for camouflage purposes.
Short-head garter snakes are also known for their calm nature, making them popular among snake keepers. In fact, they are considered one of the most suitable pet snakes for beginners because they are easy to care for and have minimal feeding and housing requirements.
Despite their size, these snakes can be surprisingly active in captivity and enjoy exploring new places. They make great escape artists too, so it’s important to keep your enclosure secure.
Interestingly, short-headed Garter Snakes have an incredibly long lifespan compared to other species of water snakes in North America. They can live up to 10 years or more if given proper care and nutrition, especially when domesticated.
When threatened, the Short-headed Garter Snake may attempt to flee or release a foul-smelling musk as a defensive mechanism. However, like many Garter Snakes, it is not venomous and poses little threat to humans.
3. Queen Snake
- Scientific name: Regina septemvittata
- Length: Ranges from 1.2 to 3 ft
- Diet: They only eat soft, newly molted crayfish
- Range/Habitat: Fount around running water sources like rivers and streams,
- Interesting fact: While they are aquatic snakes, they are less secretive and shy than other crayfish snakes in their family.
The queen Snakes are mid-sized, slender aquatic snakes that can grow up to 3 ft in length. They have a grayish body and may have three faint darker stripes running along it. On either side of the snake are two lighter stripes – usually whitish or yellowish – while the underneath is yellowish with four dark brown stripes. The scales also have ridges, or “keels,” that give the snake a rough texture.
In this species, the females are larger than the males, with adult females reaching lengths of up to 33.9 inches while males rarely exceed 29.5 inches in length. However, they lack the distinctive “bug-eyed” look of other crayfish snakes.
Queen Snakes have been recorded in the southwest part of New York state, thriving near running water such as streams and rivers. They are often found basking on streamside vegetation or on the rocks, in most cases next to the northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon).
These snakes feed predominantly on soft-shelled crayfish and tend to be active during the day. They mate in spring, and the female gives birth in late summer. Their litter consists of 5 to 23 live offspring.
While in the past queen snakes were quite common in their range, there have been minimal observations suggesting a decline in population in some areas. This is largely due to the siltation and channelization of small streams, which have destroyed the habitat of many aquatic organisms.