Copperbelly Water Snake

Snakes, yikes, they are not the most loved creatures in the animal world. And yet, they can be appreciated. Snakes keep their prey populations in check. Copperbelly Water Snakes eat frogs and toads. Their name comes from the red-orange to slightly yellowish belly color that extends up the chin. They have dark colored scales on their back (dorsal) side that dip down into the belly region (Copperbelly Water Snake photo by jstark918 on iNaturalist.org). 

Copperbelly Water Snake by jstark918

Copperbellies are wetland snakes that require a mix of wetland types. They favor ephemeral or shallow water bodies. Ideal habitat for these snakes would include large, open, and shrubby wetlands and vernal pools, which dry out seasonally, or every couple of years, and do not contain fish (which eat their prey). Vernal pools are often found within upland areas and Copperbellies will travel through upland areas to get to nearby pools. Having multiple pools in close proximity, within an intact forest, is necessary to support sustainable populations.  

The Copperbelly is found predominately in southern Indiana and Illinois, but there is a disjunct (geographically separated) population around the Michigan and Indiana/Ohio border (see photo from the USFWS Recovery Plan, citation below). This disjunct population is federally listed as Threatened. By 1997, only a few (8) small isolated populations had been documented and six of these were on privately owned land. As of 2010, only four of these populations could still be confirmed. Half of the largest population is on private land.

Historic (green) and current (slash lines) distribution of the Federally-Listed Copperbelly Water Snake population from the USFWS Recovery Plan

Contributors to the Copperbellies decline include loss and fragmentation of habitat from roads and unsuitable habitat, including the loss of hibernation sites. Biologists still do not know enough about the snakes' hibernation habits and they say that more survey work is needed to confirm the use of potential hibernation sites on public and private land. The good news is that recent surveys, including those [invited] on privately-owned parcels have revealed new occurrences adjacent to known sites and suitable habitat has been found on still more properties. With most of the known Copperbelly populations occurring on private land, biologists working on the species’ recovery contend that conservation of this disjunct population will require additional surveys, monitoring, and cooperation with private landowners. 

The Copperbelly documents suggest that the snakes need intact wetlands as well as intact forests. Create shallow wetland pools with undulating and gradually sloping shorelines (to maximize the amount of shoreline) within large forested areas to make habitat. Creating or maintaining a diversity of wetlands, from ephemeral to permanent, would establish ideal habitat, and not just for Copperbellly Water Snakes. Working with neighbors to create and protect several wetlands in a larger area will further improve the chances of generating more wildlife. Trees and shrubs should be planted or forest succession encouraged if there are not intact forested corridors between nearby wetlands (even small connecting areas are valuable). It is also important to maintain shrubs, downed trees, or other woody materials in and near wetland areas for the snakes to warm themselves. In the Copperbelly region, planting the native buttonbush in permanently flooded wetlands can improve habitat (this not recommended in the ephemeral wetlands). 

Accomplishing these tasks will take time, knowledge and resources. If you live in the Copperbelly region (or not!) you may want to connect with your states’ Fish and Wildlife Service branch to inquire about the programs they have to help landowners restore wildlife habitat. Even if you are not sure you want to encourage snakes onto your property, creating and restoring wetlands will increase habitat for many other species of animals and plants too. And remember that there are many biological consultants with the expertise to help you get started with or see through a wildlife habitat improvement project.

Sources:

Copperbelly Water Snake: Identification, Status, Ecology and Conservation in the Midwestby the Center for Reptile and Amphibian Conservation and Management

Copperbelly Water Snake Recovery Plan Five-Year Review

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.

Y. L. Lee, H. D. Enender, and Bruce A. Kingsbury. Population Monitoring and Habitat Characterization for the Conservation and Recovery of the Northern Population of the Copperbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2007.