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Are There Water Snakes in Vermont?

Vermont is known for its majestic mountains, lush green forests, picturesque lakes, and winding mountain roads, but there’s more to this New England state than meets the eye. The hidden depths of Vermont are home to a unique species that has been living in harmony with humans for centuries – water snakes. For those who have never encountered these fascinating creatures, they can be found in lakes, ponds, and rivers within the state. While they may appear intimidating at first glance, these gentle reptiles are actually quite docile and pose no threat to humans or other animals.

In this article, we’ll explore the wonders of water snakes in Vermont, from their natural habitats to their behavior around humans. We’ll also uncover some interesting facts about these remarkable creatures. So come along on an adventure as we dive into the mysterious world of water snakes in Vermont.

Water snakes in Vermont

There is only one species of water snake in Vermont: the Common Water Snake, scientific name Nerodia sipedon. Until 2012 this snake was also referred to as the Northern Water snake.

Appearance

Northern water snake basking
Northern water snake basking | image by via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The Common Water snake is a recognizable species due to its distinctive coloring and patterning. The hatchlings of this species have reddish-brown to brownish-black crossbands on their necks and similarly colored blotches on the rest of their bodies against a cream-colored background. As the snake matures, the color darkens, and the pattern becomes more obscure, with some snakes eventually becoming almost entirely black.

The underside of the snake has red crescents on a white-yellow background, and the head features dark vertical stripes on the lips. The Common Water Snake has heavily keeled scales, which gives them a rough, ridged appearance.

On average, they have 23 rows of scales at the mid-body, and their anal plate is divided. Adults usually measure from 36 to 48 inches in length, but the longest documented specimen was 52 inches. Females are typically larger than males and can weigh 0.9 pounds.

Mating and reproduction

The Common Water snake is ovoviviparous, and the mating season in Vermont typically occurs between May and June, although it may also occur in the fall.

The gestation period for these species is 9 to 12 weeks, and the neonates, or baby snakes, are typically born in late August or September. The number of neonates varies depending on the age and size of the female, but they usually range from 6 to 99, with an average of 27.

The neonates range in size from 6.3 – 11.8 inches in total length, average being 8.7 inches. The hatchlings are relatively slender and marked much like the adults but of lighter coloration. After a short waiting period, the young snakes disperse and begin to hunt on their own.

It is important to note that ovoviviparous means that the eggs develop and hatch within the female’s body, and the neonates are born live. This is different from other species of snakes, which lay eggs, and the young hatch from the eggs externally.

Behavior

Northern water snake on log
Northern water snake on log | image by Peter Paplanus via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The Common Water snake is a diurnal species, meaning they are most active during the day. They prefer to stay near the water’s edge and are often found basking on rocks or logs.

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Common water snakes usually try to flee the area or hide when disturbed. If they are cornered or unable to escape, they may strike repeatedly. Even though they do not have venomous fangs, their mouths are lined with rows of sharp, backward-curving teeth, and a bite from these snakes can be painful. Just before they strike, they usually flatten their heads and jaws, making them look larger and more intimidating.

Additionally, these snakes can release a musk-like scent from their cloacal glands as a form of defense. This smell is very unpleasant but harmless to humans. Despite their aggressive behavior, these animals pose no threat to humans.

Diet and Hunting

The Common Water snake feeds mainly on small fish, frogs, crayfish, tadpoles, and other aquatic prey. Given that they are neither constrictors nor venomous, they swallow their prey alive and whole.

These reptiles are excellent swimmers and hunt by ambush. They prefer to stay near shorelines and wait for prey to come close before striking. And even though they are not venomous, their saliva contains anticoagulant proteins that can cause wounds to bleed more profusely. If prey manages to flee, they can track it by following the blood trail.

Common water snakes can also be found looking for food behind rocks, logs, and other debris near the water’s edge.

Habitat and Range

Northern water snake basking
Northern water snake basking

These snakes can be found in nearly any freshwater wetland habitat, including rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, swamps, and marshes.  Juveniles are more often found in lower-order streams, which helps them avoid predators such as fish and turtles.

In Vermont, the common water snake inhabits marshes with rocky shores at low elevations in the Lake Champlain Basin.

Predators

Common water snakes are preyed upon by various animals, including raptors, herons, raccoons, foxes, snapping turtles, humans, and other snakes. They also have a number of natural defenses at their disposal, such as musk glands that secrete an unpleasant-smelling fluid and their ability to swim away quickly from potential predators. When captured, these snakes are known to bite repeatedly in self-defense.

Conservation status

In Vermont, the common water snake has a state natural heritage rank of S3. This means that despite its vulnerability due to limited populations or occurrences (usually fewer than 80), a restricted range, and current widespread drops in numbers, the species is still considered secure within this state. However, Vermont’s Wildlife Action Plan does list this species as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (medium priority) in the state.

Mistaken identity

Coiled cottonmouth snake
Coiled cottonmouth snake | image by smashtonlee05 via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Because of their shape and coloration, Common Water Snakes can easily be mistaken for the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) or the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) — both of which are venomous. This has led to many of these harmless snakes being killed out of fear or misunderstanding. To help avoid this, it is important to observe the behavior and markings of a snake before attempting to handle it.

Common water snakes, for instance, usually try to flee when disturbed, while venomous snakes are more likely to hold their ground. Furthermore, the cottonmouth and copperhead have darker coloration and a triangular-shaped head that is noticeably wider than the neck. And finally, common water snakes have round pupils and no heat-sensing pits, while cottonmouths have cat-like pupils with heat-sensing pits between the eyes and nostrils.