Nerodia erythrogasterPlainbelly Water Snake

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Geographic Range

Nerodia erythrogaster is divided into a number of subspecies. Nerodia erythrogaster erythrogaster, found from southeastern Virginia through western North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, with the exception of the northwest corner, northern Florida and southeastern Alabama with disjunct populations in Maryland and Delaware. Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster is found in Alabama, northwestern Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, Arkansas and areas surrounding the junction between the borders of Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. Nerodia erythrogaster transversa is found in western Missouri through Kansas (except northwestern Oklahoma), Texas, southwestern New Mexico and a disjunct population in northeastern Mexico. Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta is found in southwestern Indiana and the border areas of adjacent states, with disjunct populations in southern Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and western Ohio. Nerodia erythrogaster bogerti is found in Durango, Mexico. Nerodia erythrogaster alta is found in Zacatecas, Mexico. Nerodia erythrogaster is Nearctic in distribution. (Conant and Collins, 1998; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004)

Habitat

Plain-bellied water snakes are semi-aquatic snakes, using both terrestrial and freshwater aquatic habitats. Most subspecies are found in warm temperate regions, but the range of Mexican subspecies extends into tropical climates. Terrestrial habitats used include forests, grasslands, and scrublands. Terrestrial habitats are used as travel corridors, aestivation sites, hibernation sites and occasional feeding sites. Aquatic habitats include ephemeral ponds or temporary pools, permanent lakes and ponds, swamps, bogs, marshes, small rivers, and riverine sloughs. Hibernation primarily occurs in crayfish burrows near wetlands. Feeding primarily occurs in or near ephemeral wetlands, where frogs and toads are abundant. Subspecies of Nerodia erythrogaster do not vary significantly in habitat preferences. Plain-bellied water snakes travel farther from water and use a greater variety of cover types than most other water snakes. Individuals have been found several hundred meters from the nearest water source. Upland corridors are critical travel areas. Use of these corridors has brought this species into agricultural and suburban areas where mortality can be high. Loss of wetlands and terrestrial corridors has put many populations under severe stress. ("Northern Population of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan", 2008; Aldridge, et al., 1995; Conant and Collins, 1998; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004; Harding, 2006; Roe, et al., 2003)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • temporary pools
  • Average depth
    Often hibernates just above water table m
    ft

Physical Description

Plain-bellied water snakes are large, typically solid-colored water snakes. Dorsal coloration varies among black, gray, olive-gray, brown, and pink. Some specimens show faint crossbars and lighter colored snakes can exhibit dark dorsal blotches. Plain-bellied water snakes can be distinguished from other species by the near-uniform coloration of the dorsum and both the ventral and subcaudal scales (except in some specimens of N. e. neglecta).

Nerodia e. erythrogaster is a uniform shade of brown dorsally that can be tinted with red, gray or green. The venter ranges from orange to pink. Nerodia e. flavigaster is gray to olive-gray dorsally and ventrally ranges from orange-yellow to a very pale yellow or white. Nerodia e. neglecta is dorsally black or dark brown and the venter ranges from yellowish-orange to orange-red or scarlet. The dark dorsal coloration can extend to the ventral scales, especially in the posterior region. Nerodia e. transversa ranges from gray to brown dorsally and often shows a blotchy pattern. The venter is yellow to yellow orange. Nerodia e. alta is dorsally olive-brown sometimes with dark blotches. The venter ranges from pale yellow to orange. Nerodia e. bogerti is dorsally pink to pink-brown sometimes with dark blotches. The venter varies from yellow to pink-yellow. (Conant and Collins, 1998; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004)

Juveniles of all subspecies exhibit mid-dorsal blotches alternating with lateral blotches. Dorsal coloration is lighter than that of adults. The venter is uniformally colored. (Conant and Collins, 1998; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004)

Other species of the genus Nerodia often have ventral spotting or other markings, a heavier dorsal pattern, and smaller eyes than Nerodia erythrogaster. (Conant and Collins, 1998; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004)

Average adult mass is 286 g for males and 516 g for females. Average length of adults is 76 to 122 cm. The record length to date for this species is 163.6 cm (total length). This species is sexually dimorphic, with the female growing to a larger size. Plain-bellied water snakes are ectothermic. (Conant and Collins, 1998; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004; Michigan Natural Features Inventory, 2007)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Average mass
    Male 286; Female 516 g
    oz
  • Range length
    76 to 163 cm
    29.92 to 64.17 in
  • Average length
    76-122 cm
    in

Development

Plain-bellied water snakes are viviparous, fertilization is internal, and sex is determined genetically. One study found a significant relationship between amount of food consumption and growth rate from birth to seven months of age. (Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004)

Reproduction

In the United States, mating reportedly takes place from April through early June and usually occurs once per year for females, though they may be able to store viable sperm for almost two years. Courtship often takes place in "cords," or groups. Cords typically include one adult female and several males (4 to 7 in one study), though it is unclear if more than one male is normally able to successfully fertilize the female. Courtship involves much tongue flicking and following of the female by males. Males then align with a female to match positions of the head and tail. The snakes then often coil around each other with tails entwined. Mating cords were observed in flooded forest wetlands with less than 15 cm of standing water. Another instance of mating took place in a pond near the shoreline. Woody debris was observed near the breeding site. (Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Harding, 2006; Lacki, et al., 2005; Michigan Natural Features Inventory, 2007)

After mating, the gestation period in this viviparous species is typically 3 to 4 months. Copulation occurs between May and June and births occur from August through October. The average number of offspring produced is 17.8 and can range from 2 to 55. Litter size is often significantly smaller in Mexican (tropical) subspecies. Mass at birth ranges from 3.5 g to 10.9 g with an mean mass of 6.4 g. Neonates measure 18 to 30 cm in total length. Males and females reach sexual maturity at between 3 to 4 years of age. (Aldridge, et al., 1995; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004; Harding, 2006)

  • Breeding interval
    Nerodia erythrogaster females probably breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Copulation occurs in May and June; Births occur from August through October
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 55
  • Average number of offspring
    17.7
  • Range gestation period
    4 to 7 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 to 4 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 to 4 years

There is no post-parturition parental care. However, females supply embryonic nutrients in the form of yolk and perhaps directly through the bloodstream (established for some natricine snakes). Viviparity is an evolutionary method of protecting offspring which involves provisioning and sacrifice. During gestation the female may be less capable of feeding and maintaining full mobility and therefore may be more susceptible to predators. (Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Vitt and Caldwell, 2009)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Captive individuals of Nerodia erythrogaster have been found to live about 8 to 15 years. ("An Age Database: Nerodia erythrogaster", 2009; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Harding, 2006)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    unreported years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    8 to 15 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    unknown years

Behavior

Plain-bellied water snakes are semi-aquatic snakes that are active during the day. They are mostly solitary, although mating can occur in groups of one female with several males. The active period over most of their range in the United States is from March to early November. In the southern parts of their range, they have longer seasonal activity periods than in the north. Plain-bellied water snakes travel through upland areas seeking prey near ephemeral wetlands, permanent wetlands, and rivers. Hibernation primarily occurs in animal burrows, stream banks, rock piles, or (especially in N. e. neglecta) abandoned crayfish burrows. During high water periods these snakes may become almost entirely submerged. Some individuals will hibernate in upland areas. Upland areas are also used for aestivation. Resource partitioning with other water snakes (Nerodia) may be the evolutionary reason behind reliance on upland habitats. Evidence of this is seen in the variation of diets between related species with overlapping ranges. ("Northern Population of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan", 2008; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004; Harding, 2006; Kingsbury and Coppola, 2000; Michigan Natural Features Inventory, 2007)

  • Range territory size
    .03 to .5 km^2

Home Range

Plain-bellied water snakes are the most terrestrial and mobile species in the genus Nerodia. In one study these snakes were found to travel between wetlands an average of 9 times in one season. The mean distance moved per shift was 143.1 m. The mean distance that these snakes traveled away from wetlands was 95.9 m, with a maximum distance of several hundred meters. Movements of individuals of various subspecies have been measured and do not vary significantly. These movements within large wetland complexes expose Nerodia erythrogaster to dangers such as human encounters and road crossings. This has been a major factor in population declines, especially for the northern subspecies N. e. neglecta. A minimum recommended territory size is 0.8 km^2. However, territorial area can range from 0.03 km^2 to 0.5 km^2. ("Northern Population of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan", 2008; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004; Roe, et al., 2003)

Communication and Perception

Specific communication systems in Nerodia erythrogaster have not been thoroughly researched. In general, snakes use chemical communication (via the vomeronasal organ) at a distance and tactile signals for close range communications. Skin pheromones produced from the dorsal surface of females have been proven important in reproduction. Cloacal pheremones are used in defense and trailing. This is most likely the source of the odorous musk used when this species is attacked. Most snakes use tactile signaling in courtship. Vitt and Caldwell (2009) identified three phases of courtship that seem to fit the behavior of Nerodia erythrogaster. These are tactile chase, tactile alignment and intromission coitus. Chemical cues may be used when males are identifying each other in order to establish dominance. Snakes are capable of sensing vibrations and airborne acoustical signals (hearing). (Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Vitt and Caldwell, 2009)

Food Habits

Plain-bellied water snakes are carnivores that feed extensively on ectotherms. Northern populations are more specialized predators on frogs and toads, whereas southern populations are sometimes more piscivorous. Crustaceans and carrion make up a small part of the diet. Confirmed prey includes species in the following families: Catostomidae, Centrarchidae, Cyprinidae, Esocidae, Fundulidae, Ictaluridae, Percidae, Poeciliidae, Ambystomatidae, Amphiumidae, Sirenidae, Bufonidae, Hylidae, Ranidae. These snakes travel long distances to reach prey in ephemeral wetlands. They will pursue prey if escape is attempted. (Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004; Harding, 2006)

  • Animal Foods
  • amphibians
  • fish
  • carrion
  • aquatic crustaceans

Predation

Snakes in the genus Nerodia will flatten themselves or flee when detected. If cornered, they will strike fiercely. When attacked they will discharge an odorous musk in self defense. They are preyed on by a large number of medium to large aquatic, terrestrial, and avian predators. (Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Harding, 2006)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Plain-bellied water snakes are prey items for many kinds of birds, mammals, turtles, snakes, and fish. They are predators that feed on frogs and toads, insects, and fish, thus helping to keep prey populations in balance. They undoubtedly act as hosts to various internal and external parasites. (Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2004)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Plain-bellied water snakes are important members of the ecosystems they inhabit. Since northern populations (particularly N. e. neglecta) are in decline and listed as threatened or endangered, research activities and wildlife viewing are in high demand. ("Northern Population of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan", 2008; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

  • Positive Impacts
  • ecotourism
  • research and education
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no adverse effects of plain-bellied water snakes on humans. In areas where they are threatened, certain individuals, such as land developers, may see Nerodia erythrogaster as an economic liability due to their protected status. Special permits and assessments may be necessary in some areas. If handled, these snakes will bite, but are no danger to people who leave them alone. ("Northern Population of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan", 2008; Harding, 2006)

Conservation Status

Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta is listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and endangered in the states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. (Michigan Natural Features Inventory, 2007)

Other Comments

An area for further research is to determine the effectiveness of wildlife underpasses. This could be a solution to one of the major causes of mortality, which is road crossings. When mitigation is required, the focus should be on construction of ephemeral wetlands as opposed to the traditional large deep water wetlands. Land acquisitions to protect this species should be large in size, preferably several hundred acres, and should contain a diversity of wetland types and travel corridors. Wetlands should be < 200 m apart and should be surrounded by a buffer area. ("Northern Population of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan", 2008; Roe, et al., 2006; Roe, et al., 2003)

Contributors

Shawn Duke (author), Michigan State University, James Harding (editor, instructor), Michigan State University, Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bog

a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

hibernation

the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

polyandrous

Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

threatened

The term is used in the 1994 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Endangered (E), Vulnerable (V), Rare (R), Indeterminate (I), or Insufficiently Known (K) and in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), or Vulnerable (VU).

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

2009. "An Age Database: Nerodia erythrogaster" (On-line). AnAge Database. Accessed December 03, 2009 at http://genomics.senescence.info/species/query.php?search=nerodia+erythrogaster.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Northern Population of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan. Fort Snelling, MN: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2008. Accessed October 01, 2009 at http://www.fws.gov/endangered.

Aldridge, R., W. Flanagan, J. Swarthout. 1995. Reproductive Biology of the Water Snake Nerodia rhombifer from Veracruz, Mexico, with Comparisons of Tropical and Temperate Snakes. Herpetologica, 51/2: 182-192.

Conant, R., J. Collins. 1998. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Third Edition, Expanded. United States of America: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Ernst, C., E. Ernst. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Books.

Gibbons, J., M. Dorcas. 2004. North American Watersnakes. United States of America: University of Oklahoma.

Harding, J. 2006. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. United States of America: The University of Michigan Press.

Kingsbury, B., C. Coppola. 2000. Hibernacula of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) in Southern Indiana and Kentucky. Journal of Herpetology, 34/2: 294-298.

Lacki, M., J. Hummer, J. Fitzgerald. 2005. Population Patterns of Copperbelly Water Snakes (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) in a Riparian Corridor Impacted by Mining and Reclamation. American Midland Naturalist, 153/2: 357-369.

Michigan Natural Features Inventory, 2007. "MNFI Rare Species Explorer" (On-line). Accessed November 13, 2009 at http://web4.msue.msu.edu/mnfi/explorer.

Roe, J., J. Gibson, B. Kingsbury. 2006. Beyond the wetland border: Estimating the impact of roads for two species of water snakes. Biological Conservation, 130: 161-168.

Roe, J., B. Kingsbury, N. Herbert. 2003. Wetland and Upland Use Patterns in Semi-Aquatic Snakes: Implications for Wetland Conservation. Wetlands, 23/4: 1003-1014.

Vitt, L., J. Caldwell. 2009. Herpetology, Third Edition. United States of America: Elsevier Incorporated.