Meet 6 Snakes of the Ohio River

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Updated: November 13, 2022
© Nathan A Shepard/
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Key Points

  • The Ohio River is home to several reptilian species including semi-aquatic and terrestrial snakes.
  • These include the copper-bellied water snake, northern water snake, and queen snake.
  • In the event of coming across a snake enjoying an afternoon swim, you should remain still, without threatening it, and the reptile will be likely to swim away.

Love or hate them, snakes are definitely one of the more popular animal species, and without a doubt, the Ohio River has its fair share of slithering reptiles. The Ohio River is 981 miles long, making it the 10th longest American river. It runs through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.

This waterway holds great significance to everyone and everything that lives near it. In recent years, the states that share the river basin have joined forces to take on the challenge of restoring and protecting this crucial ecosystem. The Ohio River supplies drinking water to over 5 million people. It also serves as a habitat for the slithering reptiles in this list as well as a vibrant community of aquatic birds, small mammals, and over 160 species of fish.

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Ever wondered just how many snake species you could come across if you swam the entire Ohio River? This article has got you covered. Meet the 6 snakes of the Ohio River.

1. Ribbonsnake (Thamnophis saurita)

Snake fencing
Unlike most snakes, ribbon snakes have pretty good eyesight.


Ribbon snakes are small, nonvenomous colubrid snakes commonly found in many states in the US. On average, they measure 16 to 35 inches long and can either be dark brown or black with bright yellow stripes or white stripes which run along their sides and backs. They may have black heads and white or yellow bellies. Ribbon snakes are classified as garter snakes which are harmless and small-sized.

Unlike most snakes, ribbon snakes have pretty good eyesight, so they don’t rely only on their tongue and Jacobson’s organ when they hunt. Instead, their eyesight, as well as their natural sensitivity to vibrations, helps them prey on small fishes, salamanders, newts, and tadpoles that live in or close to the river. Ribbon snakes also prey on spiders, earthworms, caterpillars, and a large number of insects.

2. Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)

Northern Watersnake Vs Cottonmouth 6 Key Differences Poster Image
On average, northern water snakes measure up to 4.5 feet long.

Northern water snakes are non-venomous colubrid snakes found in Ohio’s waters. On average, they measure 4.5 feet long and weigh up to 19.8 ounces (1.2 pounds). They are much larger than the average garter snake and don’t seem to have the appearance of harmlessness that garter snakes’ usual small sizes give them. Worse still, they are dark snakes with dark blotches that cover their bodies and dark crossbands across their neck, features that they share with the more venomous cottonmouth snake.

Although cottonmouths are shorter and much larger than watersnakes, many people do not wait to double-check before killing these harmless animals for fear of their “venom,” which is non-existent. However, northern water snakes do not make it easy on their attackers and react violently and frantically when picked up. Not only will they release musk, but they also bite repeatedly even though they have no venom.

3. Copper-Bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta)

Copper-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) - Copperbelly Water Snake
Adult copper-bellied water snakes also have a two-toned crossband pattern, copper chins, and lips.

©Mike Wilhelm/

Copper-bellied water snakes are deep-brown or bluish-black snakes with bright orange or copper bellies. They are lengthy and non-venomous colubrids that grow up to 65.5 inches (5.5 feet). Baby copper-bellied snakes measure 6 inches at birth, and by their first year, they are triple that length. Adults also have a two-toned crossband pattern, copper chins, and lips which are key features that can help set the species aside from others.

As a result of their unique colors, these snakes are over-hunted. However, it isn’t easy to catch one because they are rare, reclusive, and secretive. Due to how frequently they are hunted as well as loss of habitat, they are a threatened species in the state of Ohio.

4. Eastern Fox Snake (Pantherophis gloydi)

Eastern Fox Snake (Pantherophis gloydi)

©Ryan M. Bolton/

Eastern fox snakes are nonvenomous rat snakes found in Ohio’s marshes and wetlands. Like all rat snakes, eastern fox snakes often mimic venomous rattlesnakes by shaking their tails as rattles. They are medium-sized snakes and measure from 35.8 to 54.0 inches (3.0 to 4.5 feet). Juvenile snakes have a tan color patterned with deep brown spots.

Adult eastern fox snakes have a tan to pale-yellow background skin with dark blotches, which could be black or deep brown. They also have vertical black bands that spread across their tails. Both adults and juveniles have a yellow belly checked with black spots. Fox snakes feed on small birds, rats, and other small mammals. Despite being nonvenomous, these snakes do not hesitate to bite if threatened and violently defend themselves against predators.

5. Ohio Valley Water Snake (Clonophis kirtlandii) 

The Ohio Valley water snake, also known as Kirtland’s snake, is another threatened snake species found in the Ohio River. It is a nonvenomous colubrid water snake found in only a few American States. On average, these snakes measure 14-28 inches and have grayish-brown to black scales with large black spots that run down their bodies in groups of two. They also have smaller spots along their sides.

Although Ohio Valley water snakes aren’t always found in water, they are never too far from it and are commonly found in forests, wetlands, and marshes. One fun fact about the species is that no human on record has ever been bitten by one. They are known to adopt aggressive stances, hide, and run instead of engaging in fights of any kind.

6. Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata)

A queen snake hiding in the grass
The queen snake has dark brown, olive, or gray ventral scales with peach or yellow stripes that trail down the first scale row.

©Jason Patrick Ross/

Queen snakes are nonvenomous semi-aquatic snakes that are quite picky about their habitats. They are never found in areas without rocky bottoms, watersheds, and clean running streams with a minimum temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Queen snakes are also picky eaters and feed mostly on freshwater crayfish. They have dark brown, olive, or gray ventral scales with peach or yellow stripes that trail down the first scale row. They also have 4 darker-colored ventral stripes and a cream or yellow belly. Queen snakes grow to a maximum of 24 inches (2 feet).

Is It Safe To Swim In The Ohio River?

Certain parts of the Ohio River are safe to swim in. According to the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), some parts of the river pose a level of risk to human health due to the condition of the water. It is important to swim only in places marked as safe by the authorities.   

What Happens If You See a Snake Under Water?

Seeing a snake underwater is very unlikely as they will sense you and do everything to stay away from you. However, if you do see one, stay calm and make light movements in the water without being aggressive. The snake will most likely swim away. Snakes are just as wary of humans as we are of them and will not willingly cross paths with you.

Up Next…

The Ohio River is not the only flowing body of water that is rich with animal life. Check out these other lists that feature creatures who make their home on some of the planet’s most important rivers.

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The Featured Image

Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata)
© Nathan A Shepard/

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