Midland Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis)
This species is generally a light brown or tan with darker brown or even reddish bands. The bands connect on the neck and become a more alternating pattern between the back and the sides from the middle part of the body to the tail. The head has smooth, medium sized scales. The eyes have round pupils. The lower lip is white with brown vertical bars (which is one way to distinguish this species from similar-looking venomous snakes in our range). Its scales are keeled. The belly scales are usually white with red, brown and black blotches. The caudal scales are divided.
Two subspecies, the Midland Watersnake (N. s. pleuralis) and Common Watersnake (N. s. sipedon), intergrade in the state.
Distinguishing this species from other nonvenomous watersnakes and, more importantly, from the venomous Cottonmouth takes a discerning eye that must be trained. Refer to each species account to learn the subtle differences.
This species can be found in and around lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, and is also common in drainage ditches. It prefers areas with wood debris, rocks, or anywhere else there is plenty of hiding available.
This species seems to utilize a wider variety of aquatic habitats than other watersnakes and Cottonmouth. It may be the only aquatic serpent found in places such as mountainous spring-fed streams, dribbling run-offs, or decorative ponds at apartment buildings!
This species can be observed during daylight hours basking along the banks of water. It is known to bask in branches and vines overhanging the water. (Cottonmouth are not known to exhibit this same tree-basking behavior.) Although this species may occasionally forage during the day, it is usually more active at night. The seasonal activity of this species correlates with the temperature of water and, to a lesser extent, ambient temperature. When the water and ambient temperatures reach their highs in late summer, this is also when you can expect the most activity from watersnakes.
This species breeds in early spring. In early fall, females will give birth to live young.
This species preys upon small fish, frogs, crayfish, and baby turtles. Occasionally, it will capture less aquatic prey, such as lizards and even other snakes.
This species relies upon its stealth and ability to remain submerged for long periods of time to catch its prey. It will actively search through underwater rock crevices and vegetation for its prey, lunging after what it can grasp. A successful bite usually hooks the fin of a fish or foot of a frog. Larger prey is dragged out of the water and eaten on the bank. If, after the prey has stopped struggling, the snake decides to seek out the head--it goes down easier!--a carefully timed flop or jump can leave the snake without a meal.
Careful observation of fish behavior can reveal which rocks are likely to have snakes underneath foraging, even before they are seen!
After eating large prey items, this species may take to hiding until the prey is digested.
When first approached, this species will try to flee with great haste. It may dive under the water, hide under a rock, or dart into a hole near the water's edge. It will go to great lengths to avoid conflict with humans.
If it is unable to escape, it will defend itself by flattening its head, hissing, biting, releasing a foul-smelling musk. I find the musk of watersnakes more "foul" than most other snakes. Due to its aggressive defensive behavior, it is commonly mistaken for the venomous Cottonmouth.
Many people mistake this species for a Cottonmouth and kill it on sight. This is especially true at rural farm ponds and fish farms where people try to "protect" their fish stock. Despite persecution, populations of this species appear secure.