Yellow-Bellied Water Snakes: Are They Dangerous?

Plain-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster)
© Danny Ye/Shutterstock.com

Written by Alan Lemus

Updated: January 8, 2024

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Yellow-bellied water snakes, known by their scientific name Nerodia erythrogaster erythrogaster, are a species of non-venomous snake found in the southeastern United States. 

While they may not be as well-known as other snakes like the venomous rattlesnake or copperhead, it’s still important to understand their potential danger. 

As more people venture into natural areas for outdoor recreation and as urban sprawl encroaches on wild habitats, it becomes increasingly likely that people will encounter yellow-bellied water snakes in their natural habitats. 

By understanding their behavior, potential danger, and the importance of respecting wildlife, we can help ensure safe and enjoyable outdoor experiences for humans and wildlife. 

In this article, we find out whether yellow-bellied water snakes are dangerous.

Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster yellow-bellied water snake

Close-up of the Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster, yellow-bellied water snake.

©Peter Paplanus / Flickr – Original / License

Are They Dangerous?

Yellow-bellied water snakes are not dangerous to humans. They’re generally harmless. But it’s important to understand their behavior and potential risks when encountering them in the wild. 

Non-Venomous Bite

Yellow-bellied water snakes are non-venomous, and their bite is not dangerous to humans. But the bite can still be painful and cause mild skin irritation.

Defensive Behavior

Yellow-bellied water snakes are generally shy creatures and try to avoid humans if possible. However, they may become defensive and strike if they feel threatened or cornered, so giving them space and avoiding approaching them too closely is important.

In some areas, handling or harming yellow-bellied water snakes may be illegal. So before interacting with them, check local laws and regulations to ensure you aren’t breaking them.

What Are Yellow-Bellied Water Snakes?

These are a common species of non-venomous semiaquatic snake found in North America. They’re often found in or near water bodies like rivers, swamps, and marshes.

    They’re known for their distinct yellow bellies. 

    While they are non-venomous, their resemblance to venomous water snakes can lead to confusion and fear, making it important to understand their physical characteristics and behavior.

    Physical Characteristics

    Yellow-bellied water snakes can grow up to 4.5 feet long. They have a distinctive yellow underside, which gives them their name.

    The body is usually dark brown or black. They have keeled scales that help them move through the water.

    Habitat and Distribution

    Yellow-bellied water snakes are semi-aquatic and are typically found near freshwater sources such as rivers, streams, and marshes. This water snake subspecies is native to the southeastern U.S. states including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

    Types of Yellow-Bellied Water Snakes

    While there are many different species of water snakes, the yellow-bellied water snake is perhaps the most well-known.

    There are three recognized subspecies of yellow-bellied water snakes, each with unique characteristics and distribution. Let’s learn more about each.

    Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster

    This subspecies is commonly known as the yellow-bellied water snake.

    They’re found in the southern regions of the United States, including Florida, east Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. They have a yellow belly without markings and their dorsal scales have dark blotches or bands. Their coloration is typically dark brown or gray with dark markings on their back.

    While these subspecies may have slight differences in coloration or distribution, they all share similar characteristics and behaviors. 

    For example, yellow-bellied water snakes are excellent swimmers and often use the water as a means of escape from predators. They are also opportunistic feeders, eating a variety of prey, including:

    • Fish
    • Frogs
    • Small mammals

    In addition, yellow-bellied water snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning they give birth to live young ones instead of laying eggs. After giving birth, the babies stay near their birthplace while they absorb the rest of their yolk, but are fully capable of fending for themselves when they’re born.

    Yellow bellied water snake, Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster

    Yellow bellied water snake, Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster, amidst some fallen leaves in the Shawnee National Forest.

    ©Gerald A. DeBoer/Shutterstock.com

    Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta

    This subspecies is commonly known as the copper belly water snake. 

    They’re found in select regions within the United States, including: 

    • Northwestern Ohio
    • Indiana
    • Southern Michigan
    • Illinois
    • Kentucky

    They are typically black or dark brown with a red or orange-red underside.

    Copper-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta)

    Copper-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta).

    ©Mike Wilhelm/Shutterstock.com

    Nerodia erythrogaster transversa

    This subspecies is commonly known as the blotched water snake.

    They’re found in select regions within the United States, including: 

    • Arkansas
    • Kansas
    • Oklahoma
    • Texas

    They have a greenish-yellow belly, and their dorsal scales have dark blotches or bands. They have a brown or olive-colored body, with some having a reddish tint.

    Yellow-Bellied Water Snakes’ Diet and Behavior

    Let’s find out about yellow-bellied water snakes’ diet and behavior.

    Diet

    Yellow-bellied water snakes are opportunistic predators who target various prey, including:

    • Fish
    • Frogs
    • Small animals that live in or near the water

    Behavior

    Yellow-bellied water snakes are non-aggressive toward humans and typically try to avoid confrontation. But they may become defensive if they feel threatened or cornered. 

    If a yellow-bellied water snake feels threatened, it may inflate its body and hiss to scare off the perceived threat. If that doesn’t work, it may strike with its mouth closed as a warning. 

    As such, it’s important to respect their habitat and not disturb them unnecessarily. If you encounter a yellow-bellied water snake in the wild, it’s best to observe from a distance and let the snake go about its business.

    Predators

    Yellow-bellied water snakes, like all animals, have predators. But, while they’re not at the top of the food chain, they do have several adaptations that help them avoid being eaten. 

    But despite these adaptations, they’re still vulnerable to predation. Here are some of the predators of yellow-bellied water snakes:

    Birds of Prey

    Birds of prey, such as eagles and hawks, are among the most common predators of yellow-bellied water snakes. 

    These birds use their sharp eyesight and keen hunting skills to spot and catch the snakes while basking on rocks or logs near the water’s edge.

    Raccoons

    Raccoons are another common predator of yellow-bellied water snakes. 

    These nocturnal mammals are excellent climbers and swimmers. They can easily catch a snake resting on a branch overhanging the water.

    Larger Snakes

    Larger snakes, such as king snakes and water moccasins, are also known to prey on yellow-bellied water snakes. 

    These snakes have a similar diet and habitat to yellow-bellied water snakes and may see them as competition for resources.

    Do Yellow-Bellied Water Snakes Pose Any Risks?

    Plain-bellied Watersnake - Yellow-bellied Watersnake

    ©Tyler Albertson/Shutterstock.com

    While yellow-bellied water snakes are generally not dangerous to humans, there are some situations where they may pose a risk. 

    Allergic Reactions

    While yellow-bellied water snake bites are generally not dangerous, some people may have an allergic reaction to their venom. 

    If you experience swelling, difficulty breathing, or rapid heartbeat after being bitten, seek medical attention immediately.

    Aggressive Behavior

    While yellow-bellied water snakes are generally shy and non-aggressive, there may be situations where they become defensive and strike. 

    For example, they may lash out if they’re cornered or threatened. So it’s important to give them space and observe them from a safe distance.

    Misidentification

    Yellow-bellied water snakes may be mistaken for venomous snakes such as cottonmouths or copperheads, which can be dangerous. 

    Educating yourself on identifying different snake species in your area is important.

    Captivity

    While yellow-bellied water snakes may be kept as pets, it’s important to understand that they are wild animals and may become aggressive or stressed in captivity. 

    Additionally, some states may have laws prohibiting the ownership of yellow-bellied water snakes as pets.

    The Snakes and Humans

    These snakes may seem intimidating, but they play an important role in the ecosystem and are generally not dangerous to humans. 

    Ecological Importance

    Yellow-bellied water snakes are important predators that help control populations of small animals such as fish and frogs

    Without them, these populations could grow out of control and disrupt the balance of the ecosystem.

    Habitat Destruction

    Like many other species, yellow-bellied water snakes are threatened by habitat destruction caused by human activities such as:

    • Development
    • Pollution
    • Climate change

    It’s important to protect their natural habitats to ensure their survival.

    Respectful Interaction

    When encountering yellow-bellied water snakes in the wild, observe them from a safe distance and avoid disturbing them. 

    If you must handle them for any reason, do so with care and respect for the animal.

    Defense Mechanism Against Predators

    Yellow-bellied water snakes face threats from natural predators and human activities. 

    They have developed various self-defense mechanisms against predators to survive and thrive in their environment. Here is how these snakes protect themselves from harm. 

    Camouflage

    Yellow-bellied water snakes have evolved a remarkable ability to blend in with their surroundings through coloration, which helps them stay hidden from predators.

    • Coloration. The snakes’ unique coloration varies from yellow to light brown on their belly and brownish-gray on their back. This coloration helps them blend in with their environment, making them less visible to predators above and below the water surface.
    • Habitat matching. Yellow-bellied water snakes can match their coloration to their surroundings, which helps them blend in even more effectively. For example, snakes living in sandy-bottomed streams may have a more yellowish tint to their belly, while those living in murky, vegetation-filled water bodies may have a darker, more olive-colored belly.
    • Posture. In addition to their coloration, yellow-bellied water snakes can also alter their posture to further camouflage themselves. Flattening their bodies against the ground or vegetation makes them almost invisible to predators.

    Mimicry

    Another self-defense mechanism that yellow-bellied water snakes have evolved is mimicry. Mimicking other species helps these snakes avoid being detected by predators that might otherwise see them as easy targets.

    • Mimicking poisonous water snakes. The snakes can mimic the cottonmouth, a venomous water snake that shares their habitat. They mimic the triangular shape of the cottonmouth’s head, their open-mouthed defensive posture, and tail-waving behavior, which can fool predators into thinking they are dangerous.
    • Mimicking rattlesnakes. Yellow-bellied water snakes can also mimic the sound of rattlesnakes by shaking their tails rapidly in the water. This behavior produces a sound similar to a rattlesnake’s rattling, which can scare off potential predators.

    Intimidation

    In addition to camouflage and mimicry, yellow-bellied water snakes can also intimidate their predators using a variety of tactics.

    • Adopting an aggressive posture. When threatened, yellow-bellied water snakes may inflate their bodies and open their mouths wide to make themselves look bigger and more intimidating.
    • Engaging in defensive behavior. Yellow-bellied water snakes can also engage in defensive behavior, such as hissing, lunging, and striking. They may also release a musky odor from their cloaca, a scent that can deter predators.
    • Using warning coloration. Yellow-bellied water snakes have a distinct yellow or orange coloration on their bellies, which they can flash to scare off predators. This coloration acts as a warning signal to predators that the snake is dangerous.

    Aquatic Adaptations

    Yellow-bellied water snakes have adapted to life in and around the water in several ways that help them protect themselves from predators.

    • Swimming abilities. Yellow-bellied water snakes are strong swimmers and can move quickly through the water to escape from predators. They use their flattened tails to propel themselves through the water, and their streamlined bodies allow them to move quickly and efficiently.
    • Hunting underwater. These snakes can hunt underwater, which allows them to avoid predators that hunt on land. They can hold their breath for several minutes and use their sharp senses to locate prey.

    Wrapping Up

    While yellow-bellied water snakes may seem intimidating, they’re generally not dangerous to humans. As such, they should be respected and appreciated for their role in the environment. In addition, understanding their behavior and habitat can help coexist with them safely and responsibly.

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    About the Author

    Alan is a freelance writer and an avid traveler. He specializes in travel content. When he visits home he enjoys spending time with his family Rottie, Opie.

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