Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta

Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta

Copperbelly Water Snake
FWS Focus

Overview

The snakes have a solid dark (usually black) back with a bright orange-red belly. They grow to 3 to 5 feet in length. They are not poisonous.
Characteristics
Overview

The copperbelly water snake, an endangered species, is found in southern Michigan and northern Indiana and Ohio. It feeds primarily on amphibians, mostly frogs and tadpoles. Copperbelly water snakes need shallow wetlands along the edges of larger wetlands complexes where they can hunt for frogs, but they also require multiple wetland types as well as adjacent uplands.  This snake has a solid dark, usually black, back with a bright orange-red underside that is visible from a side view. They grow 3 to 5 feet in length and are non-venomous.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2008. Northern Population Segment of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan. Fort Snelling, Minnesota. ix + 79 pp.

Scientific Name

Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta
Common Name
Copperbelly Water Snake
FWS Category
Reptiles

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics
Habitat

Copperbelly water snakes have both wetland and terrestrial habitat requirements but are associated most often with wetland complexes characterized by a preponderance of shallow wetlands, many of which draw down seasonally. Thus, the species needs habitat complexes of isolated wetlands distributed in a forested upland matrix, floodplain wetlands fed by seasonal flooding, or a combination of both. Individuals move hundreds of meters or more between wetlands and routinely use multiple wetlands over the course of an active season. They also spend substantial periods of time in upland situations, aestivating, foraging, and shedding. In addition, fishless wetlands that have high anuran (frog and toad) productivity are required to provide habitat and a suitable prey base.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2008. Northern Population Segment of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan. Fort Snelling, Minnesota. ix + 79 pp.

Forest

A dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract.

Wetland

Areas such as marshes or swamps that are covered often intermittently with shallow water or have soil saturated with moisture.

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics
Food

Frogs and tadpoles are the copperbelly water snake’s main prey. It hunts on land and in shallow water and favors seasonal wetlands where frogs, toads, and salamanders lay their eggs. In addition to large numbers of prey, the gradual drying of these wetlands provides excellent feeding conditions as tadpoles become stranded.

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics
Color & Pattern

Copperbelly water snakes have a solid dark, usually black, back with a bright orange-red underside that is visible from a side view. The copperbelly water snake has “fingers” of dark pigment extending onto the ventral scales that may meet or nearly meet at the belly, whereas the yellowbelly water snake has dark 2 pigment encroaching onto only the edge of the ventral scales (Conant 1938, Conant 1949, Minton, Jr. 1972, Brandon and Blanford 1995). The head and eyes of the copperbelly water snake are proportionally larger than those of similar species (Clay 1938, Conant 1938, Conant 1951, Minton, Jr. 1972).

  • Brandon, R. A. and M. J. Blanford. 1995. Research concerning the current distribution, habitat requirements and hibernation sites of the copperbelly water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) and intergradation with the yellowbelly water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster). Report to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 23pp.
  • Clay, W. M. 1938. A synopsis of the North American water snakes of the genus Natrix. Copeia 1938(4): 172-182.
  • Conant, R. 1938. The Reptiles of Ohio. American Midland Naturalist 20(1): 1-200.
  • Conant, R. 1951. The Reptiles of Ohio, 2nd Edition (with revisionary addenda). University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana. 284 pp.
  • Minton, S. A., Jr. 1972. Amphibians and reptiles of Indiana. The Indiana Academy of Science, Indianapolis, IN. 346 pp.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2008. Northern Population Segment of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan. Fort Snelling, Minnesota. ix + 79 pp.
Size & Shape

They grow 3 to 5 feet in length.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2008. Northern Population Segment of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan. Fort Snelling, Minnesota. ix + 79 pp.

Characteristic category

Behavior

Characteristics
Behavior

Copperbelly water snakes are generally in hibernacula, underground and inactive, from late October until late April (Kingsbury 1996, Kingsbury et al. 2003). Although snakes in more southerly populations have been observed on the surface during winter warm spells (Susan Knowles, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pers. comm. 1997), such activities seem to be limited, and may be limited to injured or sick individuals.

When copperbellies first emerge from their hibernacula, they stay nearby, and may re-enter the ground if the weather turns cold. Within a few days, however, they begin to move into adjacent wetlands. As the weather warms, copperbellies become more active, searching for food and also for mates. Courtship and mating occur largely in the spring. Individuals engage in what becomes the standard pattern of behavior, spending a few days to weeks in one wetland, then move upland or to another wetland (Kingsbury 1996, Kingsbury et al. 2003, Roe et al. 2003, Roe et al. 2004). In the middle of the summer when air and water temperatures are relatively high, copperbellies are more crepuscular, although some will remain active during the day. They will also spend extended periods underground aestivating or in shallow water. By September, individuals are less active and begin exploring hibernation locations. By mid-October, most individuals are in hibernacula.

  • Kingsbury, B. A. 1996. Ecology of the endangered copperbelly water snake, Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta, in Fish Creek, Indiana. Report submitted to Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
  • Kingsbury, B. A., J. H. Roe, N. R. Herbert, and J. Gibson. 2003. Ecology and status of northern populations of the copperbelly water snake. Final Report for Indiana and Ohio Departments of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 186 pp.
  • Roe, J. H., B. A. Kingsbury, and N. R. Herbert. 2003. Wetland and upland use patterns in semiaquatic snakes: implications for wetland conservation. Wetlands 23(4): 1003-1014. Roe, J. H., B. A. Kingsbury, and N. R. Herbert. 2004. Comparative water snake ecology: conservation of mobile animals that use temporally dynamic resources. Biological Conservation 118: 79-89.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2008. Northern Population Segment of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan. Fort Snelling, Minnesota. ix + 79 pp.
Characteristic category

Lifecycle

Characteristics
Reproduction

Courtship and breeding principally occur in spring, although this activity may continue into summer (Conant 1934, Kingsbury 1996, Kingsbury et al. 2003). Males seek females and may aggregate around them. Mating “balls” may be observed where the female remains relatively immobile but alert while multiple males endeavor to mate with her, a mating behavior typical for natricine snakes. It is unknown whether copperbellies breed annually or less frequently, and we also lack significant information on clutch size. Gibbons and Dorcas (2004) summarized litter size for N. erythrogaster as a whole and reported that they ranged from 2 to 55, but averaged 17.7 across 53 records. Not enough data are currently available to state whether or not litter size is correlated with adult body size.

Lifespan

Little is known about survivorship; however, mortality during radiotelemetry studies suggests survival rates may be 70-80 percent per year for adults. Snakes PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tagged as adults in 2001 were found in 2005, indicating ages of at least 6-7 years (Omar Attum, Indiana-Purdue University Fort Wayne, pers. comm. 2006).

Lifecycle

Neonate (newly born) copperbellies are quite small. Data is scarce for the NPS, but neonate plain-bellied water snakes sampled from a variety of locations average about 250-270 mm (10-11 in) snout to vent length (SVL) and 5-6 g (0.18-0.20 oz) (summarized in Gibbons and Dorcas 2004). Observations of neonates in the fall are rare, and it appears that they may hibernate at—or at least near—their birthing site. Consequently, they are approximately the same size the following spring when they emerge.

  • Gibbons, J. W. and M. E. Dorcas. 2004. North American watersnakes: a natural history. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 438 pp.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2008. Northern Population Segment of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan. Fort Snelling, Minnesota. ix + 79 pp.

Geography

Characteristics
Range

The northern population of the copperbelly water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) is listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS). The DPS consists of populations north of the 40th Parallel, in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. Surveys over the last twenty years have documented an ongoing decline in these populations. Many populations are now extirpated, and the five that remain are very small. Even the largest population, located in Ohio, is in decline with adults likely numbering in the low hundreds, or less.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2008. Northern Population Segment of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) Recovery Plan. Fort Snelling, Minnesota. ix + 79 pp.

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