Meet 12 Snakes of the Mississippi River

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Updated: February 11, 2023
© Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points:
  • The Northern water snake can be found living and swimming along the banks of the Mississippi River. It uses its long body to circle around small fish and tadpoles in the river and then eats them all in one bite.
  • The timber rattlesnake, or canebreak rattlesnake, is a venomous snake that inhabits areas along the Mississippi River from Minnesota on down to the Gulf of Mexico. This heavy-bodied snake is the largest venomous snake in many states.
  • The Eastern hognose snake is also known as a “puff adder” because it can puff out its head and neck to give it the appearance of a cobra. Another defense it has against predators is to play dead.

The Mississippi River runs from Minnesota down the center of the country, 2,350 miles, to Louisiana where it pours into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a major commercial waterway for people and home to many species of wildlife that live in and around the river habitat. Fish are plentiful, like largemouth bass, walleye and catfish (big ones!), and so are waterfowl like wood ducks, Canadian geese and Sandhill cranes. What about snakes? What kind of snakes make their home around the Mississippi River?

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There is one species that spends most of its time in the river, another species that plays dead when threatened and, yes, there are poisonous snakes that live around the Mississippi. Let’s meet 12 snakes of the Mississippi River!

Snakes of the Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is 2,350 miles long from Minnesota down to the Gulf of Mexico, and there are a number of snakes that live along it.

©iStock.com/Willard

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1)Northern Watersnake

Snakes of the Mississippi River
You can find Northern watersnakes sunning themselves on rocks next to the Mississippi River.

©jmarino/Shutterstock.com

The Northern watersnake is one of the snakes that lives in the Mississippi River. It can be found swimming along the shoreline and slithering through the brush along the river. They are a thick-bodied non-venomous snake, about 2-3 feet long. They are a variety of colors but the most common ones have a dark brown or gray base color with small thin reddish-brown bands. Their bellies are lighter in color. Northern watersnakes can use their long bodies to circle around small fish and tadpoles in the Mississippi and then eat them all in one bite.

2) Plains Hognose Snake (Western Hognose Snake)

Snakes of the Mississippi River
Plains hognose (Western hognose) snakes have a turned up nose used for digging and burrowing.

©Amanda Guercio/Shutterstock.com

The plains hognose snake is a unique snake of the Mississippi River area that plays dead when threatened. They actually have a dramatic series of cards to play if they feel threatened. First they will rise up and act tough, hissing and lurching, if that doesn’t work, they will literally play dead! They lie on their backs with the black belly exposed, throw their head back and even let their tongue dangle out the side of their mouth! Very dramatic. These are nonvenomous snakes that can get to be 1-3 feet long and have a base color of tan with distinct dark brown blotches along the back. They get their name from the turned up nose that they use for digging in the soil along the Mississippi River banks.

3) Eastern Hognose Snake

Snakes of the Mississippi River
The eastern hognose snake will flatten its head and neck to make it look like a cobra!

©IHX/Shutterstock.com

The eastern hognose is similar to the western hognose with a slightly different range. Theses snakes are also known as “puff adder” because they can puff out their head and neck to make them look like they have the collar of a cobra! If their impressive cobra impression is not threatening enough they will try the “play dead” strategy like the western hognose. These heavy-bodied snakes are about the same size as the western hognose, 1-3 feet long.The eastern hognose has a larger range, found in the eastern half of the United States, including along the Mississippi River.

4) Bullsnake

Snakes of the Mississippi River
When threatened, the Bullsnake rears up in an S-shape, hisses and shakes its tail to look like a venomous rattlesnake.

©Markparker1983/Shutterstock.com

The bullsnake is a thick-bodied, long snake that can get to be 8 feet long. They have a base color that is cream colored with dark brown markings along its back. West of the Mississippi, these snakes are sometimes called gopher snakes. Bull snakes have some acting skills as well and will pretend to be rattlesnakes! They will coil their body, puff out their head to make it look triangular and rattle their tail against loose rocks or dirt to make a noise like a rattle. If you see a bullsnake it is best to slowly back away because they are an aggressive snake and will bite. Their bites will hurt, but they are not poisonous.

5) Eastern Milksnake

What Do Kingsnakes Eat - Eastern
Harmless and small, the Eastern milksnake looks similar to a variety of other potentially dangerous snakes on the Mississippi River.

©iStock.com/mynewturtle

Eastern milksnakes are 2-3 feet long and a thinner snake around the size of a garden hose. They have unique patterned scales in shades of tan, gray, black, and orange or red, and prefer to be left alone. While they are not particularly dangerous, they can appear similar to a variety of other potentially poisonous snakes.

6) Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer

snakes of the mississippi river
Although they are called Eastern yellow-bellied racers they are found west of the Mississippi River, mostly in Missouri with the River being the most eastern edge of their range.

©Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com

Eastern yellow-bellied racers do not try to act or look like other snakes. If they are threatened they run (technically they slither)! These thin snakes are fast, like other racer snakes. Although they are called Eastern yellow-bellied racers they are found west of the Mississippi River, mostly in Missouri with the River being the most eastern edge of their range. Western yellow-bellied racers live along the coast of California, up to Cananda and as far east as the edge of Montana and Wyoming. These snakes are all one color usually, olive green to gray with a…you guessed it…yellow belly. They are a thinner snake that grows to 2 ½ – 4 feet.

7) Northern Redbelly Snake

snakes of the mississippi river
Northern Redbelly snakes that live along the banks of the Mississippi are only 8-10 inches long!

©Mike Wilhelm/Shutterstock.com

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first, yes, these snakes do have a red belly. Their base color is a uniformed reddish brown with three dots behind the head. You will not get this snake mixed up with the Red-Bellied Black Snake because of the obvious size difference (and the fact that they are only found in Australia). Red-bellied Black snakes are venomous, medium-bodied and about 4 feet long. Northern Redbelly snakes that live along the banks of the Mississippi are only 8-10 inches long! These little snakes feed on the insects, earthworms and slugs.

8) Western Foxsnake

Snakes of the Mississippi River
The western foxsnake can reach 5 feet in length along the Mississippi River. They can emit a smelly odor that smells like a red fox.

©Psychotic Nature/Shutterstock.com

The western foxsnake doesn’t try to act like other snakes, but it does smell like another animal. It got its name because if it feels threatened or is handled it will release a foul smell that smells like a red fox. They are a thick-bodied snake that can reach 5 feet long. Their base color is tan to light brown and they have distinct dark brown blotches all the way down their back. The head of the western foxsnake is all bronze in color.

9) Texas Brown Snake

Snakes of the Mississippi River
While Texas likes to boast about being the biggest state (in the lower 48) it can’t boast about the size of the Texas Brown Snake.

©Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com

The state of Texas does not border the Mississippi River, but the range of the Texas Brown Snake extends east of Texas across the River. While Texas likes to boast about being the biggest state (in the lower 48) it can’t boast about the size of the Texas Brown Snake. These little snakes don’t get much bigger than 1 foot long and are skinny too. They are all brown, with some being tan or more reddish. If they are threatened they will coil up and strike multiple times. However their mouths are not big enough to bite humans.

10) Plains Gartersnake

Snakes of the Mississippi River
Plains gartersnakes have a long yellow stripe that goes down the length of their back.

©Joe Farah/Shutterstock.com

The Mississippi River cuts through the Great Plains of the US with much of the land surrounding the river used as farmland. The plains gartersnake prefers wet meadows and marshes along the River. They have a base color of olive green with a bright yellow stripe that goes down their back. Plains garter snakes are about 1-2 feet long and a medium thickness. If they are threatened they don’t show it, and they are less likely to bite even when handled. If they did get annoyed and bite, they are not poisonous.

11) Eastern Gartersnake

Snakes of the Mississippi River
Eastern gartersnakes are a little longer than plains gartersnakes.

©K Quinn Ferris/Shutterstock.com

Eastern gartersnakes look very similar to plains gartersnakes with the difference being where their stripes are located. Snakes have rows of scales. Garter snakes have stripes that go all the way down the back and sides. Eastern gartersnakes have their lower stripes closer to the ground. They are also a little longer and skinnier than plains gartersnakes and have a white jawline.

12) Timber Rattlesnake

Snakes of the Mississippi River
Timber Rattlesnakes are the most dangerous of the snakes of the Mississippi River. They are venomous and harmful to humans.

©Frode Jacobsen/Shutterstock.com

Now for the most dangerous snake on our list, the Timber Rattlesnake is poisonous! It has fangs that produce venom (so it is technically venomous) that is harmful to humans. Sometimes called a canebrake, they are a heavy-bodied snake and the largest venomous snake in many states. They are not as big as the eastern diamondback which is the largest venomous snake in America (some being 6 feet long and weighing 15 lbs).

Timber rattlesnakes grow to be 3-5 feet long and have a tan base color with dark brown blotches. As pit vipers they have two small holes (pits) on the side of their head which are used as a sensing tool. They have a triangular head and a rattle at the end of the tail. If threatened they will coil their body, raise the front of their body, rattle their tail and flip down their fangs (they can fold up for “storage”). Although you won’t find Timber Rattlesnakes at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. They don’t live quite that far north, they live in southern Minnesota, along the Mississippi down to the Gulf.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the snakes that inhabit the Mississippi River region. In fact, there are a total of 6 venomous snakes, only one of which we have covered (the timber rattlesnake). Others include: cottonmouth (water moccasin), copperhead, coral snake, pygmy rattlesnake, and eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Of these, the cottonmouth is the only venomous water snake, not only on the Mississippi River, but actually in all of North America.

What Other Animals Live Along the Mississippi River?

alligator
American alligators can be found lurking in swamps close to the Mississippi River

©Ernie Hounshell/Shutterstock.com

Snakes are by no means the only creatures which enjoy living in the Mississippi River’s environs.

Several other animals, birds, mammals, and reptiles included, also call the area home.

They include bull sharks making their way inland all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, American alligators lounging in nearby swamps, beavers which are capable of cutting up to a ton of wood per year, and North American river otters which are thriving once more in spite of nearly being hunted to extinction.

Other denizens include bald eagles, black bears, coyotes, deer, muskrats, peregrine falcons, and spotted sandpipers.

Summary of 12 Snakes of the Mississippi River

Let’s round up the 12 snakes who make their homes on the Mississippi River:

RankSnake
1Northern Watersnake
2Plains Hognose Snake
3Eastern Hognose Snake
4Bullsnake
5Eastern Milksnake
6Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer
7Northern Redbelly Snake
8Western Foxsnake
9Texas Brown Snake
10Plains Gartersnake
11Eastern Gartersnake
12Timber Rattlesnake

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snakes of the mississippi river
© Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share the planet with. I graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in Elementary Education and I am a former teacher. When I am not writing I love going to my kids' soccer games, watching movies, taking on DIY projects and running with our giant Labradoodle "Tango".

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