I came across this picture tonight and I really need you to tell me it’s photoshopped. Because I love the lake and there’s no way in the world I can go back if this kind of thing happens!
It is real.
When I saw this picture I immediately suspected that this was a mess of (harmless) water snakes in the Nerodia genus. These animals tend to mass together in the mating season (I’m contractually obligated here to tell you that Cottonmouths do not do this, they have a different reproductive strategy).
Because this looked like a big open lake and not some backwoods swamp I thought there was a good chance that these were Lake Erie Watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon insularum). But, I needed to consult an expert to make sure, so I e-mailed The Snake Lady. Dr. Kristin Stanford has worked very closely with this species (you may remember her from her snake-catching appearance on Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe) and I wanted to know if the picture looked familiar.
Yep… Very familiar! I think I’ve been tagged to it (on Facebook) a few dozen times already! Yes, they are LEWS (Lake Erie Water Snakes), but I can’t confirm (when or where it was taken). It’s not an unfamiliar scene this time of year though since they are just starting to form their mating balls. That’s what I try and explain to people, that they will see large piles of snakes like this in the spring but by July they will be dispersed.
These animals can only be found in a couple spots on Lake Erie and it actually used to be listed as a federally-threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The snake was in danger of going extinct because the few shorelines where they spent the winter were being rapidly lost to development. They were also frequently killed by people. Together with the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act, an unlikely ally helped the animal recover. The Eurasian Round Goby (Neogobius melanostomus) invaded Lake Erie and became a valuable and abundant food source for Lake Erie Watersnakes, so much so that they started growing faster and bigger and this probably reduced their risk from predators while allowing them to reproduce earlier and produce more offspring. In 2011, the animal had bounced back so much that they no longer needed protection from the Endangered Species Act.
So Heather, the “bad news” is that this photograph is real. The good news is that this is a harmless species, the sheer number of them make this a conservation success story, and the animal is unlikely to be seen by anyone outside of Ohio!