Northern Snakehead

Channa argus

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Invasive

  • Habitat

    Ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and other freshwater areas. Can live out of water for up to four days if kept moist and will lie dormant in mud during droughts.

  • Range

    Found in the Potomac River and several of its tributaries in Maryland and Virginia. Native to China, Russia and Korea.

  • Diet

    Prefers to eat fish; will also feed on frogs, crustaceans and small birds, mammals or reptiles

  • Status

    Stable

The northern snakehead is a large, long fish with a mottled, snake-like pattern. It was originally found in the Potomac River and its local creeks and streams, but has also moved to places like the Rappahannock River system. It is an invasive species.

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.

Feeding

Snakeheads prefer to eat fish, but will also feed on frogs, crustaceans and small birds, mammals or reptiles.

Predators

There are no natural predators of the northern snakehead in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Spawning occurs in June to July. Females can lay as many as 15,000 eggs one to five times per year. Eggs 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 on small crustaceans and fish larvae. Young may be golden brown or pale gray, darkening as they grow older. The northern snakehead reaches sexual maturity at two years old.

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
    • It is illegal to move, possess or release snakeheads in Maryland. It is also illegal to transport snakeheads across state lines without a federal permit. If you catch and want to keep a northern snakehead in Maryland, you are required to kill it.
    • In Virginia, anglers are required to report snakeheads kept but are not required to kill them if caught and immediately released. However, the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries asks that all snakeheads be killed if possible.  Any snakeheads in someone's possession must be dead.
    • In Pennsylvania, anglers who catch snakeheads 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 northern snakehead outside of the tidal Potomac River in Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources asks that you report it by calling (410) 260-8287.
    • In Virginia, you must report all northern snakehead catches to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries by calling (804) 367-2925.
    • If you catch a snakehead in Pennsylvania, please contact the Fish and Boat Commission at (610) 847-2442 or via email.

Sources and Additional Information

Quick Facts

  • Species

    Invasive

  • Habitat

    Ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and other freshwater areas. Can live out of water for up to four days if kept moist and will lie dormant in mud during droughts.

  • Range

    Found in the Potomac River and several of its tributaries in Maryland and Virginia. Native to China, Russia and Korea.

  • Diet

    Prefers to eat fish; will also feed on frogs, crustaceans and small birds, mammals or reptiles

  • Status

    Stable