The Potomac River, which flows just about 400 miles, is one of the most historically important rivers in the United States. Its waters straddle the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. There are many snakes in the Potomac River, only a few of which pose any danger to humans. Other than snakes, the waters of the Potomac abound with fish and amphibians and provide vital resources for all manner of creatures, including white-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, and even humans.
Here, we’ll learn about six snakes of the Potomac River. We’ll discover where they live, what they look like, and whether or not their scaly mouths contain venom. By the end, you’ll know a little bit more about some of the snakes that call this East Coast river their home.
1. Timber Rattlesnake
Timber rattlesnakes are among the deadliest snakes of the Potomac River. These pit vipers grow up to five feet long, and they have heavy bodies that terminate in conspicuous rattles. Their base color is tan or light brown, with darker, hexagonal bands striping their bodies from head to tail. Like all rattlesnakes, these snakes have wide, triangular heads complete with heat sensing pits, vertically elliptical eyes (like cat eyes), large fangs, and venom glands.
Timber rattlesnakes have potent neurotoxic venom; any bite from one of these snakes requires immediate medical attention. These snakes use their venom to hunt other snakes, birds, frogs, rats, moles, mice, and other small mammals. They spend their days basking in the sun and their winters brumating in abandoned rodent burrows.
2. Plain-bellied Water Snake
Plain-bellied water snakes of the Potomac River have thick bodies and grow up to 3.5 feet long. As their name suggests, their bellies are pale in color and lack any markings. Their sides and backs are generally dark brown-gray with some indistinct blotches. These snakes lack venom and spend most of their time either in or near sources of fresh water, including the Potomac itself.
Plain-bellied water snakes primarily hunt in the water. Their favorite prey items include frogs, toads, salamanders, tadpoles, crayfish, and small fish. They rely on constriction to kill their prey and may hunt both during the day and at night. Since they have no venom, these snakes are not considered dangerous to humans.
Copperheads are among the most easily recognized snakes of the Potomac River. They have heavy bodies and grow up to three feet long. Though they bear a superficial resemblance to rattlesnakes, copperheads are the only snakes with their unique hourglass pattern. They’re typically orange-brown, with copper-colored heads and darker hourglass markings along their bodies. These snakes also have vertically elliptical eyes, pointed snouts, and leaf-shaped heads.
Copperheads are habitat generalists who prey on a wide range of creatures. They eat everything from spiders and scorpions to small mammals, lizards, and snakes. They’re often encountered by humans but only bite in self-defense. Though copperhead bites rarely lead to serious complications, they still warrant immediate medical attention.
4. Common Watersnake
As their name suggests, common watersnakes are among the most prevalent snakes in the Potomac River. They grow up to 4.5 feet long and have slender bodies designed for life in the water. They’re generally light tan or gray-brown in color, with indistinct darker bands and blotches. Unfortunately, these snakes are often mistaken for venomous cottonmouths and killed by fearful humans. They have narrow heads and round pupils, unlike their more dangerous cousins.
Common watersnakes are non-venomous and pose no threat to humans. They hunt mostly fish and amphibians, and they never stray too far from permanent sources of fresh water.
5. Eastern Ribbon Snake
Eastern ribbon snakes of the Potomac River are among several subspecies of ribbon snakes. They grow up to three feet long and have very thin bodies. These snakes are easily recognizable by the alternating dark gray-black and pale yellow stripes that run from their heads to their tails.
Given their small size, eastern ribbon snakes are restricted to relatively small prey. These include small fish, frogs, tadpoles, insects, and salamanders. They lack venom and rely instead on ambush, attacking their prey in and near the water.
6. Queen Snake
Like ribbon snakes, queen snakes of the Potomac River are semiaquatic. They grow up to two feet long and have slightly thicker bodies than those of ribbon snakes. However, like ribbon snakes, queen snakes have alternating dark and light stripes running the length of their bodies. These snakes are nonvenomous and have round pupils and long, narrow heads adapted for catching one species in particular.
Queen snakes live near permanent sources of freshwater and eat mainly crayfish. They also eat some frogs, snails, tadpoles, and newts. These snakes are not venomous and pose no threat to humans. If attacked, they may release musk or repeatedly bite in self-defense.
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