The Santa Cruz Black Salamander




All photographs taken by the author. and Instagram @zacharge

Morning dew clung on green blades of grass, soaking my boots, as I hiked up a hill towards a cluster of rocks. The cool, brisk air offered a stark contrast to the slowly increasing warmth that the November sun was offerring. Blotched with the greens and teals of moss and lichen, the dark grey rocks studded the hillside of oak and buckeye. I have found red, black, and white montane snakes here earlier in the year and was hoping that a late season individual would be resting under a stone. I lifted up a dinner plate sized rock, half expecting the vibrant coils of a Coast Mountain Kingsnake. Instead of a brightly colored, ringed serpent, a jet black, legged amphibian laid waiting.


(Large adult from Santa Cruz County, CA)

Species Account

The Santa Cruz Black Salamander (Aneides flavipunctatus niger)* is a medium sized caudate in the genus Aneides (the climbing salamanders). As suggested by their common name, A. flavipunctatus niger is predominately jet black in coloration, with some specimens being a very dark charcoal gray. Unlike the Speckled Black Salamander (A. flavipunctatus flavipunctatus) of Northern California, Santa Cruz Black Salamanders do not have any white spots or flecks as adults. However, neonate and juvenile Santa Cruz blacks, like most, if not all, species in the genus Aneides, are jet black and covered with flecks ranging in colors from white, hints of blue and/or gold. Neonate and juvenile flavipunctatus (both niger and flavipunctatus) have a greenish tinge over their bodies- this distinguishes them from neonate Arboreal Salamanders (Aneides lugubris).



(Juvenile with speckles and greenish tinge from Santa Cruz County, CA)



(Juvenile transitioning to jet black adult from Santa Cruz County, CA)

Range and Habitat


(Oak/Buckeye clearing with rock outcropping in Santa Cruz County, CA)



(Creekside habitat in Santa Clara County, CA)scblack

(Charcoal colored adult found the creek pictured above)

The Santa Cruz Black Salamander occurs in the San Francisco Bay Area from southern San Mateo County, through Santa Clara County, and into Santa Cruz County. This range represents an extreme disjunction from that of this species (flavipunctatus), which is typically found in Northern California. Within their range, Santa Cruz Blacks can be found in a variety of different habitat types such as rock quarries, buckeye/oak clearings, grasslands, and in forested creeks. The presence of rocks, as well as semi-permanent to permanent water source, in the form of a creek, spring, or stream, seem to be the common factor within these habitat types. In drier habitat types, such as in grasslands and oak clearings, these salamanders are typically under rocks in or around rock outcrops or under logs. In creeks, SC Blacks typically favor rocks very close to the water- not submerged completely but close enough as to the soil being constantly damp to near saturated underneath. Santa Cruz Blacks range and share their habitat with a variety of other caudates, such as the California Slender Salamander, Ensatina, California Newt, Rough-skinned Newt, and Arboreal Salamander.


Like most other amphibians in the San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Cruz Black Salamanders can be found year round if conditions are optimal. Wet and cool conditions are ideal. These salamanders are a species of special concern and are protected by law from collection.

*Some herpetologists recognize the Santa Cruz Black Salamander as its own distinct species Aneides niger.

Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)



Timber Rattlesnake

(Crotalus horridus)



At a glance: The Timber Rattlesnake is a venomous, but typically docile, pitviper of the eastern United States. This species occurs in both mountains and swamps, and is protected in many parts of its range.

*This snake is a pitviper with large front fangs. This species should be approached with care, and only handled by professionals. While typically docile, this species can and will bite. The venom is potent, and can cause severe injury or death. If bitten seek emergency medical care immediately. 

Quick Facts:

Scroll down for deeper look at each section


Common Names: Timber Rattler, Velvet Tail, Canebrake, Diamondback (incorrect)

Identification: Thick body, rattle on tip of tail, rough (never shiny) appearance.

Range: United States: New Hampshire south to Florida, west to Texas, North to Minnesota. Canada: Ontario.

Black: Extirpated, Orange: Threatened, Red: Endangered.
Timber Rattlesnake occurrence by state. Black: Extirpated, Orange: Threatened, Red: Endangered. Extirpated in Ontario, Canada. Map created by the author.

Activity: Diurnal (day), Nocturnal (night), Crepuscular (dawn and dusk)

Diet: Small mammals, occasionally birds and reptiles.

Habitat: Habitat generalist. However, due to widespread habitat loss and persecution, this species is now mostly found in mountainous areas and swamps.

Herping Tips: This species can be sensitive to disturbance, particularly around winter dens and rookeries. Try not to disturb this imperiled snake during the early spring, late summer, and fall.

In Depth Information:


Pattern and Color: The Timber Rattlesnake (timber) is a highly variable species, and can range from melanistic (black) to to bright yellow. In general, this snake has a light background with dark chevrons (marks that look like a sideways “V”). There is often a pale dorsal stripe (line down the back). Freshly hatched snakes are typically pale grey with dull marks, which lighten with each shed, including snakes that will eventually be completely black.

    • Snakes in the southeast are typically pale grey to pink, with reddish-brown dorsal stripe, and a dark post-ocular (behind the eye) stripe.
    • Snakes in the western portion of this species’ range also tend to be grey or pink, but with a more reddish/orange dorsal stripe, and a reddish-brown post-ocular stripe. They may also have white edges to their chevrons.
    • Snakes in the northeast tend to be either yellow or black, with yellow snakes lacking a post-ocular stripe, and melanistic snakes being completely or partially black.

A sample of the variation in this snake is show below. Information on the different regional color varieties paraphrased from The Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America, by Conant and Collins.

Head: The head is broad and flat. The eyes are small but prominent, and the pupils are vertical. There is a loreal (heat) pit between the eyes and nostrils, used to sense infrared radiation. Inside the mouth are a pair of fangs, used to inject venom.

Key features in the head of a timber rattlesnake.
Key features in the head of a timber rattlesnake.

Body: This snake is heavy set, and a 6 foot snake can exceed 5 pounds in weight.

The author (6'3) with a 5+ lb timber rattlesnake. This snake was being handled as part of a scientific study and was prefaced by extensive safety training. Please do not attempt to handle wild rattlesnakes.
The author (6’3) with a 5+ lb timber rattlesnake. This snake was being handled as part of a scientific study and was prefaced by extensive safety training. Please do not attempt to handle wild rattlesnakes.

Size: Baby timber rattlesnakes snakes are typically between 7 and 16 inches long. Most adults snakes are between 3 and 5 feet, but the largest individuals max out at 6 feet 2 inches. Snakes longer than this should be reported to a professional herpetologist, but care should be taken to ensure lengths are not exaggerated.

Photography tricks should be taken into consideration before believing “giant” snake claims. Photo from



Behavior: The Timber Rattlesnakes is generally a placid snake, ignoring the presence of people. However, when agitated, the snake will use its tail rattle as a signal to the predator. This rattle is a warning, and this snake can strike up to half its body length or more. Do not approach wild rattlesnakes, just observe from afar. It is commonly thought that these snakes chase humans, but this is a myth. Given the chance, snakes will flee. Snakes that are not rattling can still strike and all rattlesnakes should be considered dangerous.

When hunting, this snake will often wait in ambush against a log, tree, or branch. The body will be coiled, with the upper body poised and tense. Timber rattlesnakes can remain in this hunting position for hours.

An Indiana timber rattlesnake waiting in ambush. Photo taken by the author.
An Indiana timber rattlesnake waiting in ambush. Photo taken by the author.



Current and historic range of the Timber Rattlesnake. Photo copywrite: The Orianne Society:
Current and historic range of the Timber Rattlesnake. Learn more about this map and the conservation of this species at

Activity: Timber Rattlesnakes are most active during the spring and fall, as they emerge and enter their winter dens. In colder portions of their range, they may be limited emerge from their dens as late as May, and enter hibernation in October. In warmer regions, they may be active during every month of year, but limit winter activity to the warmest, sunniest days. This snake is diurnal, but may be active at night during the summer, particularly in the southern portion of their range.

Diet: This snake eats mostly rodents, but will occasionally eat small birds.

A large male Timber Rattlesnake eating a Grey Squirrel. Photo by the author.
A large male Timber Rattlesnake eating a Grey Squirrel. Photo by the author.

Habitat: Historically this snake was a generalist, occupying a wide range of habitats and geologic regions. Today, this snake is limited to wilder areas, with less human impact. In the northeast, Timber Rattlesnakes have been pushed back to the mountains, with small isolated populations. Of particular note are the snakes still left in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. In the south, they are snakes of both coastal plain swamps and Appalachian Mountains. Snakes living at higher elevations areas of low canopy cover, such as rock outcroppings, to bask and reach optimal body temperatures. These mountain snakes often den communally, whereas southern swamp snakes may den individually.

Herping Tips: Down south, these snakes can be found under cover objects such as tin sheets or wooden boards, or found crossing roads in the early morning/early evening.


In the northeast, this snake is becoming increasingly rare, so protecting locality information is very important! If you see a Timber Rattlesnake, make sure you don’t disclose that information to the public, and remove the GPS coordinates from any digital pictures you share!


John with tortoise

About the Author: John Vanek is a Master’s candidate at Hofstra University,where he studies the ecology of Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes. He received a BS in Wildlife Science from the SUNY-College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 2010. John has been fortunate enough to study a wide range of wildlife, including Eastern Hellbenders, Timber Rattlesnakes, Black Bears, and Peregrine Falcons. He has worked as a wildlife technician and environmental consultant for several companies, universities, and organizations. John can be reached on Twitter @Nomadofthehills and Instagram @johnpvanek. He is also a moderator for the 2,500 member facebook group Snake Identification.

Be sure to visit John’s article on the Eastern Hog-nose Snake

Eastern Racer Snake, Coluber constrictor


Eastern Racer Snake

Coluber constrictor

C. c. constrictor, Northern Black Racer from Coastal NC Michael Gosselin
C. c. constrictor, Northern Black Racer from Coastal NC
Michael Gosselin


Arguably one of the most successful North American snakes, the Eastern Racer Snake has dominated most of the Continental US and populated parts of Mexico and Canada.  This species of colubrid snake contains 11 subspecies.  Recent molecular work suggest the possibility of more than one racer species being recognized in the future.

Blue Racer @Big_river_herping
Blue Racer

Subspecies of C. constrictor:

Range of Racers by Subspecies (Note: Western Yellow-Belly present on West Coast
Juvenile Racer @itrains4days
Juvenile Racer

Collectively, these 11 subspecies make up the species known as Eastern Racers.  They are also known as Racer Snakes or Runner Snakes.  Adult racers range from 20-60″ depending on the species.  The species rarely weighs in over a pound.  Typically the species has a solid back and the underside is almost always a single color.  Juveniles are vividly patterned from the head and quickly fade to a solid color moving towards the tail.  The pattern generally fades as the snake grows older.  Juveniles from different subspecies lose their patterns at different ages but generally between 1-3 years old.  For more information, be sure to check out the subspecies details for more on the description.

Racer Reports from HerpMapper Click on image for clear view.

The above map was provided by HerpMapper.  Note:  The map is composed of Herpers who submit data.  There may be gaps in this map due to lack of reporting within a specified area.  You can help by providing data.


Sassy Racer Juvenile  Kyle Loucks
Sassy Racer Juvenile
Kyle Loucks

The primary food source of this species consist of soft-bodied insects such as moths, grasshoppers, and crickets.  As adults, they primarily feed on rodents, frogs, toads, lizards, and other snakes.  A few species have been known to eat young birds still nesting.  One of the adaptations this species has, is the ability to eat opportunistically.

General Behavior:

Like all species, there is variation among individuals however, the racer is known for a few characteristics shared by most specimen.  They are diurnal, meaning they are day time active.  They are usually seen during periods of sunshine.

This species is highly alert.  Most have a nervous nature about them.  Although they typically are found hunting in open spaces, the racer always seems to have a few hiding places in mind.  They are always on the alert.  The racer is rarely ever ambushed by Herpers.  Generally, unless a Herper flips them, the racer is aware of us long before we see them.

Juvenile Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer telescoping Kenneth Gisi
Juvenile Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer telescoping
Kenneth Gisi

Racers are very curious snakes.  they have very large eyes that allow them to see very well.  They have some of the best eye sight of all the North American snakes.  The racer is regularly seen telescoping above the height of the vegetation around them.  Once the racer sees a would be predator (or Herper), it will quickly flee for cover.  They are very fast snakes in terms of snake speed.  Even though the racer is fast, it can quickly be out ran by a human in an open field.  They are sprinters.

When a racer is cornered, the true colors of this snake are shown.  The racer will thrash around, defecate and release musk, and bite repeatedly.  Racers are also known to “rattle” their tale in fallen leaves.


Juvenile Racer @konnor_ross
Juvenile Racer

The racer has concurred many habitats.  They have been found in tall pine forest, dump sites, swamps, semi-arid landscape, and grassy plains.  This snake has mastered suburbia.  In many locations throughout the racers home range, it is the most encountered snake in suburban areas.  This species prefers warm weather with plenty of access to direct sunlight.

Phillip’s Personal Herping Notes

In my personal experience, I have best luck in open fields near a source of cover.  I will find them along the wood line on the perimeter of grass lots.  I have also found them along the road between the road and the woods, telescoping for food.


Northern Black Racer Thomas LaVine @Herpingnc
Northern Black Racer
Thomas LaVine @Herpingsc

Racers mate in the spring.  Most of the mating takes place in May and June.  The female will lay 6-30 eggs shortly after mating.  Nests are usually in hollow logs or under cover.  Juveniles are born in early fall.  They generally reach maturity at the 2-3 year mark.  Females produce only one clutch per year.

Neat Fact:

There are many myths of the racer chasing people.  This does not happen.  The racer, as mentioned before always has a hiding spot in mind long before a threat is encountered.  It is likely this myth originated by people startling the snake while standing between the snake and the desired hiding spot.

C. c. anthicus, Buttermilk Racer

AKA:  Ash snake, spotted black snake, spotted racer, variegated racer, and white oak racer

The Buttermilk Racer, C.c. anthicus, is uniquely patterned.  Unlike most of the others in the racer complex, the buttermilk has multiple colored flakes on the dorsal.  This subspecies can reach up to 60″ in length.  The buttermilk racer is only found in southern Arkansas, Louisiana, and southern and eastern Texas.  This racer prefers Longleaf and mixed pine-hardwood forest.

The buttermilk racer regularly integrate with Eastern Yellow-bellies (C.c. flaviventris) along the western edge of its range.

Back to Main Subspecies List

C. c. constrictor, Northern Black Racer
C. c. constrictor, Northern Black Racer Paul-Erik Bakland
C. c. constrictor, Northern Black Racers
Paul-Erik Bakland

AKA:  Black Racer, Black Snake, Black Runner

Juvenile Northern Black Racer HawkinsHerping
Juvenile Northern Black Racer

The Northern Black Racer, C.c. constrictor, is one of the largest of the eastern racer complex.  The northern black racer can regularly reach 60″ and has been known to reach 71″ in total length.  This racer has a coal-black dorsal.

The northern black racer ranges from southern Maine and central New York south to northern Georgia and Alabama.

The northern black racer is regularly confused with other solid black snakes where their ranges overlap.  They are commonly confused with black rat snakes and the black phase of eastern hognose snake.

This race is listed as endangered in the state of Maine.  The presence of this race in Canada has been heavily debated.

[table caption=”Black Snake Guide” width=”500″ colwidth=”20|100|50″ colalign=”left|left|center|left|right”]
,Northern Black Racer,Black Rat,Black Phase Hognose,
Scales,Smooth,Slightly Keeled,Heavy Keeled
Underside,Plain or Lightly Speckled,Checkered,Lightly Colored
Head,Large eyes with white chin and sleek head,slightly widened head,Wide head with upturned snout
Background color,Sleek black and glossy,black with usually some pattern hidden with slight gloss,black with some pattern hidden usually dull
Overall Body Shape,Long and thin,Long a bit thick,Short and stocky,

Northern Black Racer @snakemaneargle
Northern Black Racer

Back to Main Subspecies List

C. c. etheridgei, Tan Racer

The tan racer, as the name implies, is generally a solid tan or brown in color snake.  The tan racer may have some speckling especially in the Texas part of its range.  The juveniles are vividly marked and this marking fades once the snake is about a year old.  They generally max out around 60″ in length.  The tan racer is found in Louisiana and Texas.  There is some integrating between the tan and the buttermilk have been reported in Texas.

Although most racers inhabit primarily open spaces, the tan racer prefers more cover.  The primary habitat is Longleaf pine flatwoods.  Land clearing is reducing the prime habitat of the tan racer.  As more land is cleared in this snake’s range, the buttermilk racer, being resident to open habitat, is slowly invading what was once tan racer range.

Back to Main Subspecies List

C. c. flaviventris, Eastern Yellowbelly Racer
(AKA Yellow-Bellied)
C. c. flaviventris, Eastern Yellowbelly Racer Jake Scott
C. c. flaviventris, Eastern Yellowbelly Racer
Jake Scott

Please Note:  Many people within the Eastern Yellow Belly Racer range refer to this subspecies as the blue racer.  Be sure to view the correct range description to determine the proper subspecies you are referencing. 


Eastern Yellow Belly Racer @viralography
Eastern Yellow Belly Racer

The Eastern Yellow Belly Racer is an unpatterned olive-brown to grayish snake.  They are slightly smaller than the maximum racer size, maxing out near 50″ in length.  This snake has a cream to yellow underside with especially bright yellow under the snake’s chin, across the lip scales, and on the sides of the neck.  Juveniles keep their markings slightly longer than most other racers, with some keeping their juvenile markings until nearly 3 years of age.  The markings fade closer to the tail.  This solid tail color slowly advances up the snake’s dorsal until it has completely faded.

The Eastern Yellow-belly is one of only 3 subspecies officially to be documented in Canada.  The other 2 are the Western Yellow-belly (flaviventris) and the Blue (mormon).  There is some debate on flaviventris and mormon as it is generally excepted that most of the specimen in Canada are intergrades.  All 3 subspecies are currently protected in Canada.

Back to Main Subspecies List

C. c. foxii, Blue Racer
C. c. foxii, Blue Racer Joshua French
C. c. foxii, Blue Racer
Joshua French
Blue Racer Matt Bordeaux
Blue Racer
Matt Bordeaux

The Blue Racer is a pale blue or bluish-green snake with a white to bluish white underside.  There are isolated populations that have been documented as having a reddish dorsum.  The blue racer can sometimes look gray in color as well.  The head of the blue racer is usually darker than the rest of the specimen.  The chin is white.  They are found in extreme southern Ontario and northwestern Ohion west to southeastern Minnesota, eastern Iowa, and Illinois.

C. c. foxii, Blue Racer Lloyd Smith
C. c. foxii, Blue Racer
Lloyd Smith

Although they are good climbers, it is seen most frequently on the ground.  Most research shows this subspecies to climb far less than other members of the C. constrictor complex.  The blue racer is more social than most other racers during hibernation.  They are frequently seen hibernating in large numbers and with other snake species.

Once common within it’s range, the blue racer numbers are falling.  This is due to needless persecution by humans, den site destruction, and habitat loss.  Minnesota has listed this snake as a species of special concern since 1984.  This race is listed as endangered in Canada.

Back to Main Subspecies List

C. c. helvigularis, Brown-chin Racer
C. c. helvigularis, Brown-chin Racer Jake Scott
C. c. helvigularis, Brown-chin Racer
Jake Scott

The Brown-chin Racer is a slate black snake.  The lip scales and chin are tan or brown.  Some specimen have a rusty color to chin and lip scales.  They are found in the Apalachicola and Chipola River Valleys in the Florida Panhandle and adjacent Georgia.  There has not been much documentation of integrates with other subspecies.

Back to Main Subspecies List

C. c. latrunculus, Black-mask Racer

The black-mask racer is slate gray to tan in color racer with a black stripe behind each eye.  The underside is pale grayish-blue.  This species was once thought to only reside in southeastern Louisiana.

In 1997, a paper was released by the Journal of Arkansas Academy of Science, describing the blackmask racer living in Arkansas.  The article, written by Stanley E. Trauth, discusses the possibility of the blackmask living there as well.  He explains finding a series of color slides in the Arkansas State University Herpetology collection, presenting with a postocular stripe on the sides of the head of several specimens from eastern Arkansas.  The article concludes that, Southern (C.c.priapus) is the most wide spread race found in Arkansas, Buttermilk (C.c.anthicus) in south-central part of the state, and Eastern Yellowbelly (C.c.flaviventris) was found in the northwestern part of the state.  The second most widely-distributed race in the state was, in fact the blackmask.

The article is a good representation of a scientific approach.

Back to Main Subspecies List

C. c. oaxaca, Mexican Racer
C. c. oaxaca, Mexican Racer John Eagleton
C. c. oaxaca, Mexican Racer
John Eagleton

The Mexican Racer is the smallest of the racers.  It is characterized by an overall greenish gray color.  There is usually a darker hue extending down the middle of the snake’s dorsal.  There is many times a darker hue present between the dorsal scales as well.  The throat of the species normally has a white or pale yellow color.  There are some isolated populations within the Texas range where the snake may have a pink color to the chin.  The rest of the abdomen is generally a pale yellow to yellowish-green.

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C. c. paludicola, Everglades Racer
C. c. paludicola, Everglades Racer Jake Scott
C. c. paludicola, Everglades Racer
Jake Scott

The everglades racer is a variable snake.  It can be bluish, greenish, or brownish gray on the dorsal.  The underside is normally white or cream with pale gray or powder blue markings.  This racer generally reaches 50″ in length although, some have reached the 60″ benchmark.  It is found in the southern Florida Everglades and east of Cape Canaveral.

Back to Main Subspecies List

C. c. priapus, Southern Black Racer
C. c. priapus, Southern Black Racer Kyle Loucks
C. c. priapus, Southern Black Racer
Kyle Loucks

The Southern Black Racer is very similar in appearance to the Northern Black Racer.  There are a few subtle differences.  The southern black racer, comparing the whole subspecies, generally has a more white chin.  This is not a for sure diagnostic as northern black racers do have quite a bit of white on the chin.  The iris of the eye, in southern racers are usually red or orange.  The eyes can not be completely relied on either, as some southern racers do not carry this trait.  The male organs of the southern racers are larger than that of the northern counterparts.  Blood testing is the only sure way to determine the two subspecies apart in females that do not have the red or orange eyes with predominantly white chins.  The best way to tell the two apart will be based on range information.

C. c. priapus, Southern Black Racer Juv. Jake Scott
C. c. priapus, Southern Black Racer Juv.
Jake Scott

The Southern Black Racer is found from the coastal plains from extreme southeastern North Carolina to the Florida Everglades.  It is also found in the Florida Keys.  Moving west, this subspecies can be seen in the southeastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, southeastern Mississippi Valley to southern Illinois and southern Indiana.

There is some integrating among racers near range boundaries.  This is especially true where the northern and southern subspecies meet up.

Back to Main Subspecies List

C. c. mormon, Western Yellow-Bellied Racer
Western Yellow-belly Racer @zacharge, also see HG-Article
Western Yellow-belly Racer
@zacharge, also see HG-Article

The Western Yellow-Bellied Racer is normally a green, olive-green, yellowish-brown, or reddish-brown colored snake.  There are isolated populations with a bluish-brown coloration.  This bluish color is noted in the picture above.  This subspecies is found from southern British Columbia to Baja California east to southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, and western Colorado.

Back to Main Subspecies List

I would like to thank everyone for the support so far.  I have had a blast viewing everyone’s submissions for this article.  These articles would never be as detailed without readers, like you, submitting images.  Please be sure to leave us a comment letting us know how we are doing!  Be sure to share this article with friends and family with the social links provided below.  Once again, let me say thank you for all the support and encouragement.   Phillip Laxton


Feature image by @viralography

Five-Lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus)

Five-Lined Skink

Plestiodon fasciatus

The five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) is a common lizard in eastern North America. It is a smooth-scaled lizard that typically grows to between 5 and 8.5 inches. Their color can vary as they age and between the sexes; but as the name implies, these lizards exhibit five parallel lines that extend from snout to tail.

Juvenile five-lined skink By:  Phillip Laxton
Juvenile five-lined skink
By: Phillip Laxton

The distinct line pattern can become diminished in males as they appear to be a more uniform color, but during breeding season they show bright orange-red coloration on the head that makes them easy to identify. Juveniles are the most colorful, with dark bodies, white to yellow stripes, and a bright blue tail. As they mature, they lose the blue color in their tails, and their bodies become a brown to olive color (females can sometimes retain small amounts of the blue coloration). Five-lined skinks can also be distinguished from other skink species by counting their labial scales: they only have four, whereas other species have five.

Diet/Feeding: Five-lined skinks feed on small invertebrates, including crickets, spiders, centipedes, and beetle larvae.

Habitat/Range: The five-lined skink can be found throughout the eastern United States and north into Ontario, Canada. These skinks are diurnal ectotherms and can commonly be spotted on the ground, on rocks, or in trees, basking in the sun. When they are not basking, they are found under logs, rocks, and other debris.



Reproduction: Breeding season occurs in the spring months. Mating takes place in April and May, and the female will then lay eggs six weeks later, as late as mid-July. She finds a nest cavity in rotten logs, leaf litter, and other damp forest debris and lays approximately ten amniotic eggs, which increase in size during the incubation period as they absorb moisture from the soil. The female will guard this nest until the eggs hatch. If the eggs do not absorb enough water from their surroundings, the female will urinate on the eggs to keep them hydrated. Females will also bask in the sun, then immediately return to the nest to warm the eggs. Five-lined skink females often form communities for the purpose of nest-guarding. Once the eggs are hatched, all forms of parental care cease.

Herping Tips/Fun Facts: The bright blue coloring of this skink’s tail causes people to mistakenly believe they are a venomous lizard. They are sometimes referred to as “scorpions”, as people falsely think their tails can be used to sting predators.

Five-lined skinks exhibit caudal autotomy as a defense mechanism. They have a fracture zone between two vertebrae in the tail, and store fat in their tails. If they are facing capture by a predator, they can release their tail. The tail continues to move for some time, distracting the predator and providing it with a meal while the skink can escape to safety. Because of this, extreme care should be taking when herping for skinks if tail-dropping is to be avoided. Skinks will regrow a lost tail, but it is duller in appearance and lacks the full functionality of the original tail.

Rough Earth Snake, Virginia striatula

The Rough Earth Snake

Virginia striatula


The rough earth snake (Virginia striatula) is a very small, fossorial snake that is common throughout most of its range.  This snake averages 7-10” in length and there is only a few documented cases of this snake reaching over a foot in length.  These little guys are brown, gray, or reddish in color.  The rough earth snake has no pattern except for a few specimen having a light band around the neck.  The band is usually more visible in young.  The belly of the snake is usually white, tan or cream.  The band around the neck of young and a few of the adult specimen do sometimes cause mis-identification with Ringneck’s.

Rough Earth Snake found on a warm December 2nd, 2014 By: Phillip Laxton
Rough Earth Snake found on a warm December 2nd, 2014
By: Phillip Laxton

The rough earth snake derives its name from the keeled scales found on this species.  The presence of these keels help differentiate the rough earth snake from the very similar smooth earth snake (Virginia valeriae).  The rough earth snake is also commonly confused with the worm snake (Carphophis amoenus), and the DeKay’s Brown snake (Storeria dekayi).  Smooth earth snakes look very similar to the rough earth snakes except for the lack of keels.  The DeKay’s brown snake has checker and striped markings on its back.

The rough earth snake and the smooth earth snake were thought at one time to be extremely closely related.  This was due to the fact they looked so much alike.  With the use of mDNA, the two species have been found to be a bit further separated than previously thought.

Rough Earth Snake found on a warm December 2nd, 2014 By: Phillip Laxton
Rough Earth Snake found on a warm December 2nd, 2014
By: Phillip Laxton

The primary food source for the rough earth snake is earthworms and soft-bodied insects.  It is believed that most populations feed almost exclusively on earthworms.  In my herping experience, I have regularly found them under cover in places with lots of earthworms.

General Behavior:

The behavior of the rough earth snake is very typical of most fossorial snakes.  The rough earth snake is rarely ever seen out in the open.  The snake’s secretive nature results in the general public rarely encountering them.  The rough earth snake is regularly found under cover.  Flipping is generally the best way to find this snake.  There is some indication the snake may be slightly social, with multiple specimens being found in very close proximity.  It has yet to be determined if snake concentrations are social or prime habitat driven.

When encountered, the rough earth snake will typically freeze in place or make a mad dash towards the nearest hole.  When picked up, the rough earth snake will usually squirm around violently and release a musk along with defecation.  The snake regularly digs its head into the skin of the handler.  This is thought to aid in movement and not necessarily an act of aggression.  The rough earth snake is not known to bite.

Rough Earth Snake  By: Phillip Laxton
Rough Earth Snake
By: Phillip Laxton

There was an interesting article produced by the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, discussing the frequency of small fossorial snakes using ant nest as a hibernacula.  The study focused on smooth earth snakes, DeKay’s snakes, young garter snakes, and ringneck snakes.  The article did lightly reference the rough earth snake.  The article presented the case that the snakes were using ant nest under tin as a hibernacula.  The study mentioned the likelihood of the rough earth snake also using the nest.  The fact that rough earth snakes are not as common in the study area resulted in there not being enough data.  The paper can be found for free at; “Use of an Active Ant Nest as a Hibernaculum by Small Snake Species” by, George R. Pisani.

Although I have not studied the topic in detail, it is my experience, that I would support the theory.  I regularly find rough earth snakes in ant nest early spring and late fall.  I have on occasion, found rough earth snakes on the occasional warm winter day, under some tin in an ant nest.

Rough Earth Snake By: Shawn Hayes
Rough Earth Snake
By: tx_snakewrangler

Within the rough earth snake range, this snake can regularly be found in loose damp soil.  A good rule of thumb would be, look for earthworms.  If the soil is loose enough and moist enough for earthworms, you will find rough earth snakes.  They can regularly be found flipping boards, logs, tin, or other ground cover.  The rough earth snake regularly visits flower beds.  The rough earth snake has a very small home range.  Many snakes can be found repeatedly each season, from year to year.


The rough earth snake breeds in early spring.  They are one of the first active snakes when spring arrives.  The mother will give birth to 3-11 young, each totaling approximately 4” in length.  The young will look just like the adults accept many will have a light ring around the neck and the head tends to be much darker.

Neat Fact:

The small fossorial snake populations are generally considered a staple species when I begin herping a new location.  Many other snakes feed on small species like the Rough Earth Snake.  King snakes, Mole snakes, Pigmy Rattle Snakes, young Rat and Corn snakes, and other Herps depend on these small fossorial snakes as a primary food source.  In my experience, where there are little snakes there are big snakes.

As another neat fact, I use the emergence of the rough earth snake and the anoles as a sign.  When these guys emerge, it is time to get the herping gear out.  As a very cold tolerant species, that is small in size, that is typically under sunny cover, they are some of the first to get moving around!

Herping Tips:
  • Look under light weight cover any time of year.
    • In spring and fall look under cover in direct sun light.
    • In summer, look under cover that is in the shade.
    • In winter, on warm days, you can still find these guys under sunny cover.
  • Specimen are easy to find under cover when ground is saturated. (after heavy rain)
  • Look in areas with earthworms (favorite food source).
  • They tend to buddy up with ringnecks and DeKay’s.