Virgil warned us to be wary of the snake in the grass, but I am suggesting an addition to that advice. Beware of the snake in the water, too!
We all want a water view. And why not? Living near water provides people with inspiration, recreation and sustenance. In fact, easily more than half of the human population lives on or near the coast or along rivers.
Humans are not alone in these wishes to inhabit watery environs. Ribbon snakes share the same desire. So don’t be surprised when you see a ribbon snake cruising the shoreline of your favorite pond or marsh or even swimming in its waters.
A swimming snake is a sight to see! Its body undulates in a figure S to provide resistance to water and forward momentum. Usually, the head of the snake is out of the water while its body in under it. This is in the snake’s best interest since it can drown if it takes in too much water through its mouth.
The life of a ribbon snake is both wet and wild. Residing close to and even in water affords ribbon snakes with everything they could possibly need. Food, for one, is easy to find there. The preferred prey of this swimming snake is frogs, fish, tadpoles and even some insects, all of which live, breed or spend time in or near water.
Considered semi-aquatic, the ribbon snake is a likely choice if you see a snake in the water. While your first identification guess might be a water snake, think again if you are on the Vineyard. Though common off-Island and occurring on Nantucket, the northern water snake isn’t found on the Island. Water snakes also generally dive deep, while the ribbon snake is more often sighted on or near the surface of the water.
There are a few other ways to identify a ribbon snake. Look for its thin body and long tail, which is at least a third of the entire length of the body of the snake. The coloring of a ribbon snake is black with yellow stripes appearing lengthwise along its body. Females are larger than males and both sexes are generally active from April through October.
Ribbon snakes are related to common garter snakes, sharing the same genus, Thamnophis, and some folks confuse the two species. Note that the tail of the garter is much smaller than the ribbon snake’s tail in proportion to its body. The pattern on their bodies is also different.
Another distinction is their propensity to bite. Garter snakes are known to nibble, while ribbon snakes are not aggressive and rarely bite. So it is safe to go in the water if you see a ribbon snake. Be warned, however: ribbon snakes do emit a foul musk and defecate to scare off an enemy, so stay out of their way.
If you decide to take the plunge, remember that Virgil also shared that “Fortune favors the brave.” So don’t give a second thought to that swimming serpent and dive right in.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.