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Snakehead Identification

Northern Snakehead


Similar-Appearing Native Species

Snakehead: Bowfin Snakehead: American Eel Snakehead: Sea Lamprey

Know the Facts

Snakehead Fish

  • As a family, snakeheads are native to parts of Asia and Africa. The Northern Snakehead is native to China, Korea and Russia.
  • Typically found in a wide variety of habitats but prefers slow, sluggish water with aquatic vegetation and muddy substrate.
  • Northern Snakeheads grow to a maximum length of about 36 inches and 18 pounds.
  • Generally tan in appearance, with dark brown mottling; body somewhat elongated; long dorsal and anal fins; jaws contain numerous canine-like teeth (similar to pike or pickerel).
  • Obligate air breather using an air bladder that works as a primitive lung (not found in most fish).
  • Able to hibernate in substrate including cracks and crevices during cold temperatures and to go dormant in mud during droughts.
  • Top-level predator, eating mostly fish, but also eats other aquatic wildlife including frogs.
  • Can live out of water for days as long as moist.
  • Favored as a food fish throughout the world, and believed to have curative powers. Also sold in the aquarium trade.
  • Three species have been found self-sustaining in the U.S., in at least nine states, probably the result of releases from personal aquariums or to develop local food sources.

Similar-Appearing Native Fishes


  • In Virginia, native to the Coastal Plain and possibly lower Piedmont; occasionally found in other parts of the state
  • Typically associated with swamps and sluggish open marsh-fringed rivers; found in both shallower and deeper waters in Virginia
  • Grows to a maximum length of about 32 inches
  • Generally tan-olive in appearance, with dark olive reticulation; body somewhat elongated; long dorsal fin; bony scales; jaws contain small canine and peg-like teeth; black spot at the base of the tail (more prominent in males)
  • Capable of breathing surface air using an air bladder as a lung (not found in most fish)
  • Able to withstand periodic droughts by going dormant in the mud
  • Nocturnal, but most active at dusk and dawn; predatory generalist eating fish, aquatic invertebrates and frogs

American Eel

  • Native to most of Virginia, as far west as the New River system; not known from southwestern Virginia
  • Typically associated with a range of habitats, including mountain streams, warm lakes, estuaries and the ocean
  • Grows to a maximum length of approximately 40 inches
  • Ranging from olive-brown to yellow-olive to almost black in appearance, with silver sheen on lower side; body very elongated; no pelvic fin; long dorsal and anal fins, converging with the caudal fin to create the appearance of one continuous fin; jaws with small teeth

Sea Lamprey

  • Native to coastal Virginia; migrates to spawn
  • Grows to 12–20 inches in length; eel-like body
  • Circle-shaped mouth full of teeth
  • Dark brown to black backs and light yellow to pale brown bellies; large reddish eyes

Why Should We Care?

Exotic species like snakeheads may have significant impacts in the U.S., including:

  • Impacts to local fish populations through predation or displacement and competition for food; disruption of native aquatic systems
  • Transmission of parasites or diseases, including those affecting humans
  • Potential impacts on local economies dependent on fishing or related resources

What Can You Do?

  • If you catch a snakehead and wish to possess it, kill it and contact the Department at (804) 367-2925.
  • If you can no longer care for an exotic pet, contact the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources at (804) 367-1000 or for assistance.