A Word on Water Snakes

There are a lot of snakes in South Carolina! About 38 species or so. Trying to keep them sorted out takes a lot of studying.  The water snakes seem to be the most confusing of the bunch. I finally figured one out, I think.

Most people just look at a snake in the water and with reflex proclaim it a ‘water moccasin’ or cottonmouth. While it is difficult to tell the difference, there are a handful of harmless, beneficial snakes that occur near water bodies that are not venomous.

Let me clearly explain three things from that last paragraph.

Harmless does not mean these snakes will not bite.  While generally not life-threatening, bites should be treated properly.

• Venomous, not poisonous. Poisons are things you ingest, or swallow, while vemon is injected, or inserted into the body in some manner, like spider and snake bites, jellyfish stings, etc.

• And the most important: BENEFICIAL.  Sure a snake is creepy looking, not something to be cuddled with, and it never blinks and has no legs, arms, or facial expressions, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good for anything.  Its role in the ecosystem is just as important as any other animal, so the killing of snakes leads to issues like increased rodent populations, overpopulation of birds, fish, and insects, as well as decreased food sources for larger birds, fish, mammals and other reptiles. 

This fellow is a nonvenomous Banded Water Snake [Nerodia fasciata fasciata] from what I can tell.  Like cornsnakes, the coloration varies from snake to snake, with some individuals having visible bands and others being more monochromatic. This one had more of a solid pattern. The best indicator to look for is the dark stripe that runs from the outer corner of the eye to the corner of the mouth. Their prey consists of amphibians, fish, and a few invertebrates.

Most venomous snakes in the United States are distinguished by their pupil slits and triangular-shaped heads, but there are a few harmless snakes that have triangular heads or can flatten their heads to make them take that shape.  It’s also not recommended to stoop down to check out a snake’s pupil, so…where does that leave you when you’ve come across a snake?

Best Answer: Give It Some Room!

Sure, those guys on TV handle snakes all the time, but we all know TV isn’t reality, right? We know that camera crews don’t just mill around a forest for hours on end hoping to pass by a snake. We know those snakes are either caught ahead of time or captively bred as photography props, essentially. We knew that, right? So why try to handle a wild snake? It is a good way to learn its defensive behaviors for starters.

Say you grab a snake and then smell something very foul. You might even look down and find a smear of brown goo on your arm. You’ve just been musked! Lovely, eh?!

If you handle the snake roughly or surprise it, you might find its mouth on your hand or arm. Even the non-venomous snakes have things in their mouths, just teeth, but sometimes LOTS of little teeth. Some snakes have taken fancy to chewing, too. Wherever that mouth has been previous, I am pretty sure I don’t want it on my hand.

But if you do decide to handle snakes for a hobby, please don’t shove one in your poor mother’s face…you might scare the snake!

Check out these two great sites for information about South Carolina Snakes:

Snakes of South Carolina and Georgia

Snakes and Frogs of SC

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6 thoughts on “A Word on Water Snakes

  1. Hey! You must have camped and hiked when you were little. I used to educate people about snakes when I worked as a park ranger…it’s nice to know you appreciate them! By the way – from the photo, it looks like this one has bluish eyes, which means it’s probably about to (or “fixin’ to”, depending on where you’re from) shed. I’m sure you knew that already, but I just had to get my two cents in! I’m glad Amanda referred me to your site…keep it up!

    • Hiked a lot I did. Where did you work as a park ranger? I think you are right that he was about ready to shed; he seemed to have trouble seeing well. You’ve got a very nice blog yourself!

  2. Thanks all for the comments! Only saw one snake this past week on my trip north…guess I wasn’t looking hard enough!

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