Aquatic & Water Snakes in New Jersey 2022 (ID + Pictures)


Pond Informer is supported by its readers. We may earn commission at no extra cost to you if you buy through a link on this page. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Aquatic Snakes, Semi-Aquatic Snakes & Water Snakes in New Jersey

The Great Falls, New Jersey
New Jersey has 4 distinctive regions and is home to 1 aquatic snake species and 4 semi-aquatic snake species! Steven Charles Photography, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Snakes have lived on the earth for over 100,000,000 years. There are more than 3,000 species of snakes found everywhere except in Greenland, Iceland, New Zealand, and Antarctica. In New Jersey, there are 23 species of snakes. However, herpetologists believe the queen snake, a non-venomous snake, is extirpated. There are 22 snake species found throughout the Garden State – 20 non-venomous and 2 venomous.

The anatomy of snakes is incredible. Since snakes do not have grinding teeth to chew their food, they evolved flexible jaws that can unhinge and stretch to 160 degrees. These jaws sometimes contain venomous fangs that paralyze their prey and sometimes kill. To overcome the absence of limbs, snakes developed four locomotion methods.

Terrestrial, semi-aquatic, and aquatic snakes are categorized under the four locomotion method, but each has a slight difference in movement. For instance, during an aquatic lateral undulation, the lateral bending and muscle activity change with the snake length, which is unseen in terrestrial snakes. Locomotion is possible through the snake’s elongated vertebral column consisting of the precaudal (body) and caudal (tail). There are 100 – 450 vertebrae in the body and 10 – 205 vertebrae in the tail, which allows complete control of their bodies. There is a correlation between the body and activity level, where heavier species live sedentary lives and slender species move all the time.

There is one species of aquatic snake, along with four species of semi-aquatic snakes, in New Jersey. N.J. has four distinctive regions: the Ridge and Valley of the northwest, the Highlands in the south, central Piedmont, and the Atlantic Coastal Plain.

NOTE: The terms ‘semi-aquatic’ and ‘aquatic’ snake are used in this article interchangeably to refer to snakes predominately hunting in aquatic habitats, though no snake on this list is truly aquatic (all spend some time on land). The term ‘water snake’ refers to a specific genus, Nerodia.

1) Northern water snake (Non-venomous)

Northern water snake on log
Northern water snakes are primarily solitary creatures and can often be found swimming along a river, pond, or lake. Jacob Saucier / CC BY 4.0

Family: Colubridae

Scientific name: Nerodia sipedon sipedon

Nerodia is derived from the Greek word “neros” which means flowing or liquid, and “dia” means “through.” Sipedon is derived from the Greek word sepedon which means “a serpent whose bite causes mortification.” Its vernacular names are banded water snake, black water snake, spotted water adder, spotted water snake, water adder, and water viper.

Appearance:

The northern water snake is 61 – 140 cm (24 – 55 in) long. Their colors vary from brown, gray, to tan. They also have alternative square blotches on their back and sides. Northern water snakes are sometimes killed because they are mistaken for the venomous cottonmouth. 

Activity and hibernation:

Northern water snakes can be found throughout New Jersey. They are typically found swimming along a river, stream, across a pond, or lake. When they are not in the water, they are seen basking in the sun near the water’s edge. Northern water snakes are primarily solitary creatures, and while they are non-venomous, they can be aggressive if disturbed.

As the temperature drops, the northern water snake will group together to brumate. Unlike snakes that sleep during hibernation, brumating snakes are awake but inactive. This grouping of snakes is called an aggregation. Northern water snakes will typically leave their dens around April. The mating season begins April – June, and females will give birth between August and October to live young (ovoviviparous). Their lifespan is nine years, but it is unknown in the wild.

Prey and predators:

Northern water snakes feed on small mammals, birds, frogs, fish, freshwater crustaceans, turtles, large insects, and other snakes. They help regulate the rodent population. Northern water snakes are also prey to otters, skunks, minks, herons, bitterns rails, hawks, other snakes, and large fish.

Current threats, status, and conservation:

They are in the least concern category.  However, all 22 snake species in N.J. are experiencing population declines due to habitat loss. Under the N.J. Endangered and Nongame Species Conservation Act, it is illegal for anyone to collect, kill, or harass native snake species.

Fun fact:

Northern water snakes can escape predators by diving underwater and anchoring themselves to the bottom. They can hold their breath for 90 minutes!


2) Queen snake (Non-venomous)

Queen snake wrapped around branch
The queen snake is a non-venomous species that is believed to be extirpated in New Jersey. Anna Hess / CC BY 4.0

Family: Colubridae

Scientific name: Regina septemvitatta

Regina is derived from the Latin word regius, meaning “queen.” Septemvittata is derived from the Latin word septum meaning “sever” and vitta meaning “stripe”. Its vernacular names are banded water snake, diamond-back water snake, seven-banded snake, yellow-bellied snake, willow snake, pale snake, and crayfish snake.

Appearance:

The queen snake is 61 cm (24 in). They are grayish in coloration, but they can also appear dark green to light brown with three faint stripes running down their body and two stripes down their sides. The underside of the belly is yellowish with four brown stripes and two faint light stripes on the center of its back. Its scales are keeled, and its anal plate is divided.

This species does not have the bug-eyed appearance of glossy and striped crayfish snakes. Female queen snakes are usually larger than males. They are commonly confused with garter snakes. However, unlike garter snakes, the queen snake has a divided anal plate and lacks the lighter-colored dorsal stripe.

Activity and hibernation:

The queen snake is uncommon to find in New Jersey and is believed to be extirpated from New Jersey. However, if they were to be found, this aquatic and adept swimmer would be found in rivers and streams. Queen snakes are diurnal but move and hunt at night if it is too hot during the day. They are typically found basking in the sun and perching over branches or roots close to the water’s edge. They are very alert and will go into the water if disturbed.

During the winter, they enter a period of brumation near water and share the hibernaculum (hibernation site) with other snakes, amphibians, and even crayfish. The queen snake will mate in May. Mating can occur during the autumn months, and females will delay the birth until spring, where they will store energy during brumation to give birth. Queen snake females carry eggs within their bodies and give birth to live young (ovoviviparous).

Prey and predators:

Queen snakes primarily feed on freshwater crayfish. Their diet also includes fairy shrimp, newts, minnows, frogs, and snails. The queen snake is prey to herons, raccoons, larger snakes, hawks, otters, large frogs, and mink.

Current threats, status, and conservation:

As mentioned, the queen snake is very rare in N.J. They have a narrow range along the Delaware River from Hunterdon County to Gloucester County. Experts believe the decline in the crayfish population is correlated with the decline of queen snakes. Other factors include water pollution, canalization of streams and rivers, and stream bank erosion.

Fun fact:

Queen snakes have armor-like scales on top of their head and tough scales under their chin to keep their head safe when crawling under heavy rocks and rough surfaces.


3) Eastern garter snake (Non-venomous)

Eastern garter snake
Eastern garter snakes release a bad-smelling musk when they feel threatened to try and ward off predators. Alexis Williams / CC BY 4.0

Family: Colubridae

Scientific name: Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis

Thamnophis is derived from the Greek words thamnos, which means “bush” and ophio, meaning “snake”. Sirtalis is a Latin word meaning “like a garter”. Its vernacular names are adder, brown snake, Churchill’s garter snake, dusky garter snake, grass garter snake, green spotted garter snake, and hooped snake.

Appearance:

Garter snakes are 45.7 – 66 cm (18 – 26 in) long but can reach 124 cm (49 in). They are distinguished by the presence of three yellow longitudinal stripes down their dark body. Its body can vary from dark green to gray, blue, and reddish. Males generally have longer and thicker tails than females.

They are sometimes confused with ribbon snakes, but ribbon snakes are more slender, and garter snakes have a vertical black line on their lip scales. Garter snakes have a lateral yellow line on scales 2 and 3 whereas ribbon snakes have it on scales rows 3 and 4.

Activity and hibernation:

They are found throughout New Jersey in meadows, marshes, woodlands, hillsides, lakes, ponds, streams, and suburban areas. While eastern garter snakes are known as solitary, researchers recently discovered that they are actually social outside of their breeding period. Not only do the snakes spend time with each other, but they also develop friendships and cliques. This research may not pertain to snakes in the wild, but this gives insight into the complexity of snake behavior and how humans may overlook such behaviors because of historical misconceptions.

When threatened, garter snakes give off a bad-smelling musk to ward off predators. When they bite humans defending themselves, it causes minor swelling or itching. The bite should be cleaned thoroughly, but it is not life-threatening because they are not venomous.

Garter snakes brumate from late October through March or April but can be found basking on rocks during the mild winter days. They congregate in large numbers during winter to maintain a minimum body temperature for survival. Males are the first to emerge from brumation to become active and ready to mate. Two weeks after, females emerge, and males quickly move to her to mate.

In many instances, many males will get to the female and create a mating ball to push other males aside and have their chance to mate. This dangerous mating method lasts until the female safely stops releasing her pheromones. The female holds the fertilized eggs and gives birth to live young (ovoviviparous). They can sometimes give birth to more than 50 babies!

Prey and predators:

Eastern garter snakes feed on toads, frogs, worms, slugs, salamanders, tadpoles, and fish. They are prey to herons, crows, foxes, cats, mink, bullfrogs, large fish, owls, hawks, bittern, turkeys, rails, jays, robins, dogs, otters, skunks, shrews, and opossums.

Current threats, status, and conservation:

The eastern garter snake is on the least-concern list since it can adapt to suburban areas.

Fun fact:

Garter snakes hibernate in communities, sometimes consisting of hundreds of snakes between October to April.


4) Eastern ribbon snake (Non-venomous)

Man holding ribbon snake
Ribbon snakes are slender and have 3 light yellow stripes that run along their dark-colored body. John Baur / CC BY 4.0

Family: Colubridae

Subspecies: Thamnophis proximus, Thamnophis sauritus nitae, Thamnophis saurita sackenii, Thamnophis saurita septentrionalis

Scientific name: Thamnophis saurita

Thamnophis is derived from the Greek words thamnos, which means “bush” and ophio, meaning “snake.” Saurita is a Latin word that means “lizard-like.” Its vernacular names are ribbon snake, blue-striped ribbon snake, and common ribbon snake.

Appearance:

Ribbon snakes are 41 – 71 cm (16 – 28 in) long. They are slender with three light yellow stripes (two on the sides and one on the back) against a dark-colored body. There is a brown lateral stripe between the yellow lateral stripes and belly. They have a plain yellow belly and keeled scales.

They are commonly confused with the eastern garter snake. As mentioned previously, ribbon snakes are more slender and have unpatterned lip scales. The lateral stripes are found on scale rows 3 and 4, while garter snakes are on rows 2 and 3.

Activity and hibernation:

Eastern ribbon snakes are found throughout New Jersey. They are found at the edges of lakes, salt marshes, and bogs. They are active during the day, hunting for food or basking in the sun. Eastern ribbon snakes adopted a special method to capture their prey; they thrust their bodies forward, similar to a strike, to disturb frogs and find their location. Once its location is found, this fast-slithering snake will catch the frog.

When disturbed, they use their speed to escape. They will also dive into the water to escape if it is close by. When approached, ribbon snakes will flee or go into the water, relying on their speed and agility to avoid capture. If they are grabbed or pinned, they will thrash about and release a musk from a gland in the base of their tails. Eastern ribbon snakes rarely bite to defend themselves. They are docile and not aggressive. They prefer to avoid contact with humans and pets.

They hibernate in rocky crevices or spaces, ant mounds, crawfish tunnels, or the burrows of voles, muskrats, and other small mammals. They share their hibernacula with other snake species such as garter snakes, green snakes, red-bellied snakes, and American water snakes. Mating occurs after hibernation, and sometimes earlier in the fall. Live young (ovoviviparous) are born in late summer. The litter sizes range from 4 – 27 young, with 12 being the average.

Prey and predators:

Eastern ribbon snakes prey on frogs, fish, and salamanders. Ribbon snakes are prey to large fish, raptors, weasels, eastern hognose snakes, cottonmouth snakes, and rattlesnakes.

Current threats, status, and conservation:

There are no major threats facing ribbon snakes at present. However, locally they suffer from the loss of wetland habitat, pollution, road mortality, and illegal collection.

Fun fact:

When eastern ribbon snakes are frightened, they can glide across the water surface.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.