Copper-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta)
One of the larger snakes in Michigan, the copper-bellied water snake can grow to a length of 4-5 feet. Adult snakes are easily identified by their dark brown or black back which contrasts easily with the unmarked reddish-to-orange belly and chin. The young have a blotched pattern which may remain visible in some adult specimens.
This snake is extremely rare in Michigan. Its population is so low that it is listed as an "endangered" species in Michigan. It has also recently been listed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a nationally "threatened" species.
Photo © Jim Harding
The copper-bellied water snake prefers to live near wooded floodplains, shrub wetlands, and adjacent to slow moving rivers. As excellent swimmers, they hunt aquatic species including tadpoles, frogs, salamanders, insect larvae, and crayfish. In the spring, tadpoles seem to be especially tasty to hungry copper-bellied water snakes.
Mating takes place in May, and one to two dozen young are born in September or October. It is one of ten species of snakes that do not lay eggs but bare live young.
Habitat for the copper-bellied water snake has declined dramatically. Wetlands drainage and development in preferred habitat has limited distribution to only a few small populations. It has been found only in the southern third of the Lower Peninsula. Indiscriminate killing of snakes has also been a problem in local areas. It is listed as ENDANGERED by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and is protected by law in the state. Any sightings of adult copperbelly water snakes should be reported to the DNR Wildlife Division in Lansing. Only adults should be reported because young copperbelly water snakes are easily confused with red-bellied snakes. Any sightings should be reported to the DNR Wildlife Division in Lansing.
Keeping this species as part of Michigan's natural heritage will require protection of remaining habitat and management of lowland hardwoods. If you find a copper-bellied water snake, count yourself lucky to be one of a very few to experience this unique heritage species.
Species Profile (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
Nerodia erythrogaster (University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology)