Northern Snakehead

Channa argus

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Invasive

  • Habitat

    Snakeheads are primarily freshwater fish and are most commonly found in ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. However, snakeheads are highly resilient to changes in salinity, temperature and diet, and can flourish in a wide variety of habitats. They can live out of water for up to four days if kept moist and will lie dormant in mud during droughts.

  • Range

    Snakeheads are found in the Potomac River and several of its tributaries in Maryland and Virginia. They are originally native to China, Russia and Korea, and were likely introduced to the Chesapeake Bay watershed by local fishermen and exotic aquariums in the late 20th century. Due to their ability to breathe out of the water, snakeheads are capable of traveling over small pieces of land and into new bodies of water.

  • Diet

    White perch, largemouth bass, frogs, crustaceans and small birds, mammals or reptiles

  • Lifespan

    Up to 8 years

  • Status

    Stable

The northern snakehead is a large, long fish with a mottled, snake-like pattern. It is an invasive species that can be found in Maryland and Virginia.

Appearance

The northern snakehead's elongated body grows to 33 inches in length. It has tan, dark brown or black coloring with a mottled, snake-like pattern. Its long dorsal fin runs along most of its back. It has a large mouth with a protruding lower jaw and many teeth. Young snakeheads may be golden brown or pale gray, darkening as they grow older. 

Feeding

Snakeheads prefer to eat fish, but will also feed on frogs, crustaceans and small birds, mammals or reptiles. Once a snakehead is fully mature, other fish will make up over 90% of their diet, such as largemouth bass and white perch. Snakeheads typically feed in schools and prefer to hunt their prey in areas of low light.

Predators

While the northern snakehead has no natural predators in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, young snakeheads have been reported being carried away by large birds of prey, such as ospreys and eagles. However, once they have fully matured, northern snakeheads are not prone to predation.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Female snakeheads reach sexual maturity at two years old and can lay as many as 15,000 eggs one to five times per year. The eggs will hatch in one to two days. Larvae remain in the nest, which both parents guard. Larvae are nourished by a yolk that they absorb by the time they are less than one-third of an inch long. After that, they feed mostly on insects, small crustaceans and fish larvae. On average, the northern snakehead lives eight years in the wild.

Did You Know?

  • The northern snakehead is able to breathe air from the atmosphere using an air bladder that works similar to a lung.

  • It was first discovered in the Bay watershed in a pond in Crofton, Maryland, in 2002.

  • Snakehead regulations vary from state to state and are as followed:

    • Delaware: It is illegal to transport, purchase, sell, stock or possess live snakeheads in Delaware. Anyone who catches a snakeahed is encouraged to kill it and notify the Division of Fish and WIldlife by calling (302) 735-8653 or (302) 739-9914, or emailing edna.stetzar@state.de.us.

    • Maryland: It is illegal to possess, import or transport live northern snakehead. Anglers are encouraged to harvest snakeheads when caught. However, anglers are not required to kill snakeheads, so long as they are immediately released back into the body of water from which they came. If you catch and want to keep a northern snakehead in Maryland, you are required to kill it. If you have any further questions about catching or harvesting snakeheads, please contact the Maryland Department of Natural Resources by calling (410) 260-8300 or emailing customerservice.dnr@maryland.gov.

    • Pennsylvania: Anglers who catch a snakehead are encouraged not to release it. It is illegal to introduce or import snakeheads into Pennsylvania waters, or to possess live snakeheads. If you catch a snakehead in Pennsylvania, please contact the Fish and Boat Commission at (610) 847-2442 or via email using this contact form.

    • Virginia: It is illegal to possess, import or transport live northern snakehead. Anglers are required to report snakeheads kept to the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries by calling (804) 367-2925, but they are not required to kill them if caught and immediately released. However, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries asks that all snakeheads be killed if possible. Any snakeheads in someone's possession must be dead.

Sources and Additional Information

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Invasive

  • Habitat

    Snakeheads are primarily freshwater fish and are most commonly found in ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. However, snakeheads are highly resilient to changes in salinity, temperature and diet, and can flourish in a wide variety of habitats. They can live out of water for up to four days if kept moist and will lie dormant in mud during droughts.

  • Range

    Snakeheads are found in the Potomac River and several of its tributaries in Maryland and Virginia. They are originally native to China, Russia and Korea, and were likely introduced to the Chesapeake Bay watershed by local fishermen and exotic aquariums in the late 20th century. Due to their ability to breathe out of the water, snakeheads are capable of traveling over small pieces of land and into new bodies of water.

  • Diet

    White perch, largemouth bass, frogs, crustaceans and small birds, mammals or reptiles

  • Lifespan

    Up to 8 years

  • Status

    Stable