Plain-bellied Watersnake

Yellow-bellied Watersnake (N. e. flavigastor) and Copper-bellied Watersnake (N. e. neglecta) are the 2 subspecies recognized in Tennessee.

Yellow-bellied Watersnake occurs in south-central and southwestern Tennessee.  The Copper-bellied Watersnake occurs in the lower Cumberland River and Tennessee River watersheds of Middle Tennessee.

Description: A medium-sized, semi-aquatic snake (30.0 to 48.0 inches in length) with a heavy body and keeled scales (not shiny).   

Adults are uniformly reddish-brown to almost black with a grayish or greenish cast on the lower sides.   

As the names suggest, bellies are plain yellow (sometimes with orange) in the Yellow-bellied Watersnake and red to orange-red (with brown dorsum color creeping onto belly) in the Copper-bellied Watersnake.   

Young are boldly patterned with complete dark crossbands just behind head transitioning into alternating back and side blotches.

Similar Species:  Red-bellied snake has 3 pale-colored nape spots.  Red-bellied Mudsnake has a red and black checkered belly and red extends onto sides of the body.  Other watersnakes have strongly patterned bellies.

Habitat: Found in quiet pools of water such as lakes, cypress swamps, wetlands, ponds, river sloughs, and slow-moving rivers.

Diet: Preference for frogs, toads, tadpoles, and salamanders; but also fish and crayfish.

Breeding information: Adults court and mate in spring. Females give live birth to relatively large litters (2-55) of young during the summer. The number of young per litter increases with an increase in the size of the female.

Status in Tennessee:  Copper-bellied Watersnake is considered rare to very rare and vulnerable to extirpation by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

As with most watersnakes, Plain-bellied Watersnakes are needlessly killed by humans who mistake them for Cottonmouths.

Fun Facts:

  • Unique among watersnakes in that it flees onto land instead of diving underwater when approached.

Best places to see in Tennessee: Edges of lakes and swamps in lower Cumberland River basin and in West Tennessee.


Conant, R. and Collins, J. 1998. Peterson Field Guides: Reptiles and Amphibians (Eastern/Central North America). Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. 616pp.

Jensen, J. B., Camp C. D., Gibbons, W., and Elliot, M. J. 2008. Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. 575pp.

Johnson, T.R. 2006. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri. The Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, MO.

Plain Bellied Watersnake