Eastern Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus)

I flipped over log after log on my way to class, searching for a particular species. I’m sure all the other students thought I was a bit strange, walking parallel to the sidewalk in the woods, rolling over decaying logs. Earthworms wiggled and spiders scurried away, and I put another log back. Methodically, I flipped a log and my heart beat took off because this earthworm had scales.

The eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) spends almost the entirety of its life underground, feeding primarily on earthworms but will also eat soft-bodied grubs and slugs. It is a small snake reaching an average length of 8 to 12 inches. It will venture above ground at night in the warmer months, but you’d have better luck finding them by flipping logs and rocks.

C. amoenus is present in every state in the south east except for Florida. They are brown to gray with white to pink bellies. There are two subspecies: the eastern worm snake (C. a. amoenus) and the midland worm snake (C. a. helenae) which are distinguished by number of head scales and range. Another species of worm snake is described alongside C. a. amoenus and C. a. helenae. The western worm snake (Carphophis vermis) has the same diet and behaviors but is typically of darker coloration than its counterparts.

When handled the worm snake tries to burry its small hand between your fingers in an attempt to escape underground. It also uses its spiked tail to dig into your hand. The hard, sharp end of the worm snake is used to position worms for feeding, but is also used as a weapon. The tail does not break skin and very rarely will this species bite humans.

Conservation concerns for this species include destruction of forest habitat, flooding, and poisoning via insecticides. Because worm snakes live underground, flooding can kill off populations. This would make damming in forested areas detrimental to local worm snakes.

C. a. amoenus fresh from under a log
C. a. amoenus fresh from under a log

 

 

Thank you for reading! I used “Snakes of the Southeast” by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas and “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy my other writings! Be sure to follow my twitter for updates!

Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi)

I gave up on my shoes early on. They rested on the bank while I waded into the cold stream, scanning the muddy banks and submerged rocks for herps. It was slightly chilly as spring had only just begun and a cold rain soaked the ground the night before. After at least a half hour of stalking the stream and turning over rocks, I spotted an oddly shaped stick on the bank beside me. But it wasn’t a stick at all! A northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi) was lying perfectly still on the slope above the water.

S. dekayi range from the tip of Florida to southern Maine and stretch as far west as middle Texas. Another common name for this snake is Dekay’s snake, but it is not used much because people sometimes think you are referring to a “decayed” snake. They are not big, adults averaging 12 inches in Virginia, have keeled scales, and are primarily nocturnal.

There are four subspecies of the brown snake: northern brown snake (S. d. dekayi), midland brown snake (S. d. wrightorum), marsh brown snake (S. d. limnetes), and the Texas brown snake (S. d. texana). The Florida brown snake (Storeria victa) used to be a subspecies but was recently renamed. These snakes can be distinguished by slight differences in patterning and range. Since I was in Williamsburg, VA, I found a northern brown snake.

Their most common prey items are earthworms and slugs, but they have also been recorded to eat salamanders, spiders, an assortment of insects, and snails. A cool fact about them: brown snakes pull the snail out of the shell before eating it (escargot – yum!). Some of their predators include birds, other snakes, mammals, toads, and spiders. It’s tough being so small that even spiders can eat you! The second picture in this article will give an idea of just how small a full grown northern brown snake is.

There are no conservation concerns for Storeria dekayi. In some regions, it is estimated that more individuals thrive in urban parks and lawns than in the forest.

S. d. dekayi on the stream bank
S. d. dekayi on the stream bank
Adult northern brown snakes average 12 inches in length.
Adult northern brown snakes average 12 inches in length.

I used “Snakes of the Southeast” by Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons and “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to follow my twitter!

Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis)

My ornithology professor pulled his car to the side of the gravel road, and my boyfriend, Matt, and I jumped out. While Matt and my professor were completely focused on birds, I wandered around the grassy, mountain meadow and explored the abandoned house on the edge of the woods. After finding a new-looking boat in the middle of a decaying dining room, I went back outside and decided to check the little stream meandering through the meadow for herps. I crouched in the tall grass, scrutinizing the banks of the stream while the sun shone brightly overhead. After a few minutes of looking up and down the stream, I glanced directly across from me and saw a smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis) frozen on the edge of the grass.

O. vernalis are the only southeastern species of snake found only in Virginia, growing to an average length of 24 inches. They range from southern Canada to Virginia and west to Montana. There are small, isolated populations of smooth greens in the mid-west as well. In Virginia they inhabit mountain meadows and bogs, sticking close to streams.

Smooth Green Snakes prey on insects, spiders, worms, millipedes, centipedes, salamanders, and crayfish, grabbing and swallowing their food instead of constricting. Their main predators are hawks and other snakes. There have even been records of spiders eating green snakes.

The distinctive feature that sets O. vernalis apart from the rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) is the texture of the scales. Rough greens have keeled scales, while smooth greens have smooth scales. Keeled is a term referring to the rise present in the middle of the scale that resembles a mountain ridge. The first picture at the bottom of this article shows an illustration of both keeled and smooth scales. The following picture is of the smooth green snake I found by the meadow stream.

The Virginia Herpetological Society lists this species as Tier III: High Conservation Need in the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan.  Human threats to this species include cars and habitat destruction (i.e. development around mountain wetlands). In the United States O. vernalis is a species of concern because it is in decline. Some states, including Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, Montana, Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Indiana, already protect this species.

Image appropriated from Lifeandscience.org
Image appropriated from lifeandscience.org
Photo taken by Matthew Anthony with his iphone through his binoculars.
Photo taken by Matthew Anthony with his iphone through his binoculars. Kudos to your skills, Matt.

Thank you for reading! I used “Snakes of the Southeast” by Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons and “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to follow my twitter page where I post links to all the articles I write.

Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)

Hanging out at college creek (the local “beach”) after exams turned out to be a great idea. No, not because of the sand and sun, but because of the snakes! A fine day turned into a great day when I spied a snake swimming on the water’s edge. After I IDed it to not be a cottonmouth, I quickly caught it.

It was a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)! Nerodia sipedon range from Maine to Florida and go as far west as Colorado. After researching this species a bit, I discovered there are three subspecies: the northern water snake N. s. sipedon, the midland water snake N. s. pleuralis, and the Carolina water snake N. s. williamengelsi. In Virginia only N. s. sipedon is in residence, so the one I found was the northern subspecies. Fascinatingly, the Carolina subspecies exists only on the Outer Banks.

This species is found near any body of water and eat over 80 species of fish and 30 species of amphibians. Fishermen and wildlife agents often kill northern water snakes, believing they eat game fish and make a significant impact on fishing success. This is a false belief according to Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons, two widely published herpetologists. Humans will also kill water snakes thinking they are cottonmouths. This too is a false belief.

These snakes breed from April to June and can lay up to 100 eggs; though typical clutch size ranges from 20 to 30. Juveniles look exactly the same as adults, but are more vibrant in color. Northern water snakes have dark bands on the upper half of their body that turn into square splotches further down, and their scales are keeled.

Interestingly, N. sipedon have quite the reputation of aggression. The latin word sipedon translates to “nasty bite”. However, the individual I caught was pretty chill. Didn’t bite or struggle. In the picture below, you can see it lying still in my hands. I’ve only ever caught one, so this guy might be an oddity behavior wise.

N. s. sipedon photographed by Matthew Anthony
N. s. sipedon photographed by Matthew Anthony

Thank you for reading! I used “Snakes of the Southeast” by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas and “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

 

 

Timber Rattlesnake

(Crotalus horridus)

venomous*

 

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:

  Identification:

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 http://www.livingalongsidewildlife.com/2009/07/return-of-giant-killed-rattlesnake.html

 

 


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.

 


Range:

Current and historic range of the Timber Rattlesnake. Photo copywrite: The Orianne Society: http://www.oriannesociety.org/sites/default/themes/orianne/images/rangemaps/Timber_Rattlesnake1.jpg
Current and historic range of the Timber Rattlesnake. Learn more about this map and the conservation of this species at http://www.oriannesociety.org/timber-rattlesnake

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