Michigan is known for its water. Not only is the state surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes, but it also has over 11,000 inland lakes.
Much of the wildlife of the state lives in or around the water. This includes the snakes of Michigan (click for my complete list of all the snakes with pictures).
Some snakes just hunt animals that are getting a drink, but others are either fully aquatic or spend much of their lives around the water.
Many snakes specialize in aquatic prey like fish and amphibians.
These snakes that rely on the water are called water snakes. There are a few species commonly called water snakes and some other animals that live in or near the water.
This list will teach you more about the water snakes of Michigan and help you identify any snake you find by the water.
1. Northern Water Snake
The Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) is probably the most commonly sighted water snake in Michigan.
They can be found over much of the state in both the eastern upper peninsula and lower peninsulas. They are typically seen either swimming or resting by the water on logs, rocks, and branches.
They can be found in rivers, lakes, marshes, and more. They typically prefer calm waters and open spaces with plenty of sunlight to bask in.
They are between 24 and 55 inches long. These nonvenomous snakes are dark as adults with typical tones including brown and gray.
The back and sides have darker square blotches that go down the back and sides.
Some animals may appear to have bands for their pattern, or an orange belly speckled with brown or black.
Juveniles are lighter and may be gray, tan, or brown with reddish-brown saddles.
They are diurnal snakes that will only socialize with other water snakes during the spring and fall before their annual brumation.
Northern water snakes are solitary during the summer. These snakes are active hunters that pursue prey, but they will also scavenge already dead animals.
They eat amphibians, fish, turtles, snakes, small mammals, crayfish, leeches, and large insects. They are known for eating prey alive.
2. Queen Snake
The queen snake (Regina septimvittata) is a semi-aquatic snake that is rarely found far from water.
Since they eat primarily freshly molted crayfish, they are found mostly in rivers and streams with large crayfish populations.
Queen snakes will also eat fish and tadpoles.
These snakes have a dull brown or olive color with a light stripe going down the sides of the body. The belly is a bright yellow with 4 brown stripes that go down the length of the body.
They are between 13 and 36 inches long as adults.
These brown snakes are found on the throughout the lower peninsula with the largest populations being in the southern lower peninsula part of the state. They used to be more widespread, but wetland habitats loss has made them a rare sight.
3. Copperbelly Water Snake
The copperbelly water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) lives primarily in southern Michigan close to the border with Indiana.
This subspecies is considered endangered in Michigan. They have a dark back that is either black or dark brown with an orange to red belly that gives the snake its common name.
The adults will be 4 to 5 feet long. They typically live in swamps or other still water. They need vernal wetlands during spring and early summer for hunting.
They need a mix of permanent and temporary wetlands to keep a viable population. They primarily eat small amphibians and fish, but may also eat crayfish.
4. Kirtland’s Snake
Kirtland’s snake (Clonophis kirtlandii) is found in southeastern Michigan and neighboring states. It is considered endangered in the state. It lives in open damp areas like marshes and wet fields.
They tend to stay under 2 feet long and have a grayish body with keeled scales.
They have two rows of small dark blotches going down the back with larger blotches on the sides of the animal. This snake is the least aquatic of the watersnakes and typically eats earthworms and slugs. It is rarely found far from water.
5. Eastern Garter Snake
The Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is found nearly everywhere in Michigan on both peninsulas.
These snakes are easily identified by the three stripes that run down the body against a dark background color. This can be gray, olive, or brown.
The species has a wide variety in their colors and the stripes can be yellow, white, blue, red, or green. They are between 18 and 54 inches long as adults.
They are easily mistaken for the ribbon snake and the Butler’s garter snake.
Eastern garter snakes have a larger head that is distinct from the neck. Their side stripes start at scale 2 or 3 compared to 3 or 4 in the ribbon snake.
Eastern garter snakes also lack a light bar in front of the eye. These are diurnal snakes that typically stay between 18 and 26 inches long.
They eat amphibians, slugs, and worms but will also eat anything they can overpower. They have a mild venom that they chew into their prey.
It is not effective in humans and will only cause swelling and some pain. They prefer to stay in moist habitats but can be found in many habitats.
They are typically found in hides that retain humidity. These snakes will flee into the water if they are nearby and are very good swimmers.
6. Northern Ribbon Snake
The Northern ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis) is a small relative of the garter snake. They are virtually identical with a dark bands background and three stripes along the body.
However, they have light scales on the lips and a light-colored bar in front of the eyes. They can be found on both peninsulas and prefer staying close to water.
They do not typically exceed 33 inches in length. They specialize in eating amphibians but will eat small fish. These snakes are active predators that chase down their prey. These snakes will flee into the water to escape predators.
7. Butler’s Garter Snake
The Butler’s garter snake (Thamnophis butleri) is found primarily in the south of the state. They are not found in the Upper Peninsula.
This snake species measures on average about 15-20 inches long, have a dark background color that can be olive, light brown to black in color. They have three yellow to orange stripes that go down the body.
Their side stripes are centered on the third scale row up from the belly scales, which can help to identify the species. They have smaller heads than other garters and typically thrash if captured.
They live in open and wet habitats but may come closer to suburban areas. They eat earthworms but will also prey on amphibians and leeches and other available natural resources.
If you want to find one, look around the edges of lakes and marshes.
8. Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake
The Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) is a venomous snake that is the only venomous snake in Michigan that poses a threat to humans.
These snakes are very rare and are threatened in the state due to habitat loss. They live primarily in marshy habitats where they hunt mice.
The more common Western Fox Snake (Pantherophis vulpinus) and eastern fox snake (pine snake) are often confused with a massasauga rattlesnake.
This threatened species will eat many small mammals and reptiles, but they have a wide diet including rodent or insect pests available in their wetland habitat.
They are typically between 2 and 3 feet long with a gray or tan background and darker blotches along the body.
This venomous species uses a venom that destroys tissues and disrupts blood clotting.
Bites are rare since they flee from humans if given the chance. Most bites occurred from stepping on a hidden snake or harassing the animal.
The Michigan Department of natural resources has an interesting video featuring Massasauga Rattlesnakes.
We hope this helps you identify the many snakes you can find along the water in Michigan.
Always be respectful of the snakes you find. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.