Water Snakes in South Texas
Ro Wauer, August 1, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004
Water snakes, those that live primarily in and adjecent water, are not often seen in most of South Texas. So, when I recently encountered two individuals of a species I had not previously seen, it awakened my interest in these water-loving creatures. This new find was especially well marked with broad yellow-orange bands across its black body and an orange head pattern. Both individuals were about three feet in length. It took me only a few minutes to identify it as a broad-banded water snake once I got home and looked through my various reptile books.
The location, Palmetto State Park in Gonzales County, where I found these serpents represents the western edge of its range, according to my three reference books: Roger Conant's "A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America," Werler and Dixon's "Texas Snakes," and Alan Tennant's "A Field Guide to Texas Snakes." The latter two contain excellent photographs of this colorful snake, and all three describe its normal range extending eastward along the Gulf Coast and within the lower reaches of the Mississippi River Valley. They also point out that broad-banded water snakes prefer fresh water sites, although the species also occurs in marshes of Chambers and Jefferson counties, some of which lie along salt water margins.
There seems to be a difference in this water snake's taxonomy. Werler and Tennant (published in 2000 and 1999, respectively) refer to the broad-banded species as Nerodia fasciata confluens, while Conant (1975) uses the genus Natrix. But to most of us it matters little whether it is Nerodia or Natrix; the common name remains the same in this case. They all agree it is live bearing, broods number about 15 young, and it preys primarily on fish, frogs, toads, salamanders, and crayfish. It feeds both at night and during the daylights hours, foraging mainly along the shoreline.
At least four additional species of water snakes occur in South Texas: diamondback, blotched, gulf salt marsh, and Mississippi green. Diamondback water snake (N. rhombifer) inhabits much of Texas, including the coastal plain where it can be abundant. It has blackish-brown lines that form a diamond-shaped network across its dark olive to grayish-brown back. Blotched water snake (N. erythrograster) also occurs throughout most of Texas. It is gray-brown with a hint of olive color with pale dorsal lines bordered with black. Gulf salt marsh water snake (N. clarkii) is restricted in Texas to a coastal fringe south to about Corpus Christi. It has a pair of dark brown stripes against a paler, grayish ground color. Mississippi green water snake (N. cyclopion) is also restricted to the coastal plain, but it does occur further inland than the gulf salt marsh species. It is poorly marked, but is blackish with faint paler markings.
None of the Nerodia/Natrix water snakes are poisonous. All will attempt to escape when cornered, and will bite only as a last resort. There are several more snake species that spend considerable time in and around water areas, in both fresh and salt water. Several of the garter snakes (genus Thamnophis), a few occur in South Texas, are good examples. And several of the poisonous snakes also frequent water areas. The best known of these includes the western cottonmouth and a number of the rattlesnakes.
Snakes are fascinating creatures, and the encounter of one not previously seen was something special!