Northern Water Snake:
NOT a Cottonmouth Moccasin

By William T. Hathaway

Northern Water Snake

As a serious student of local reptiles, I feel confident that my experience with snake identification is somewhat reliable. Therefore, I feel justified in venting my frustration concerning our common northern water snake. It is the only true water snake found within Pittsylvania County and adjacent counties. Hardly a creek, river, or older pond exists without the ever-present northern water snake. However, there are still many hikers and fishermen who maintain that this northern water snake is really a cottonmouth moccasin. “Whatever,” they say, “it should be crushed.”

Juvenile northern water snakes have brightly colored patterns that are obscured by dark brown or black as they become large adults. The record length of large adults is about four feet. Although not as lengthy as an adult black rat snake, adult northern water snakes may have a body thickness about the size of a human arm. A sudden sighting of such a large snake strikes fear and consternation in most of us. The specimen in my picture was basking in the springtime warmth of a woodland edge. Ecologists believe the northern water snakes are not harmful to fish populations. It is believed that they may contribute to better fishing by eating stunted and diseased fish; hereby, allowing the healthier fish a better chance of survival.

(See also other snakes.)