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.


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.


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. Snakeheads are highly resilient to changes in salinity, temperature and diet, and can live out of water for up to four days. They will also lie dormant in mud during droughts. 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 follows:

    • 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.

    • Maryland: It is illegal to possess, import or transport live northern snakehead. 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.

    • 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. 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