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

Non-Venomous

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
@Big_river_herping

Subspecies of C. constrictor:

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

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.

Feeding/Diet:

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.

Habitat:

Juvenile Racer @konnor_ross
Juvenile Racer
@konnor_ross

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.

Reproduction:

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
HerpersGuide.com
HerpersGuide.com

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
HawkinsHerping

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,
[/table]
 

Northern Black Racer @snakemaneargle
Northern Black Racer
@snakemaneargle

Back to Main Subspecies List


C. c. etheridgei, Tan Racer
HerpersGuide.com
HerpersGuide.com

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
@viralography

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.

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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
HerpersGuide.com
HerpersGuide.com

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

Rough Earth Snake, Virginia striatula

The Rough Earth Snake

Virginia striatula


Non-Venomous

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.

Feeding/Diet:
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.

Habitat:
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.

Reproduction:

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.

 

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

 

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake

(Heterodon platirhinos)

non-venomous*

 

At a glance: The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is a non-venomous, harmless toad-eater, often confused with copperheads and rattlesnakes due to an impressive BLUFF display (including headbutts and hissing), that ultimately plays “possum” when harassed.

*This snake has enlarged teeth in the back of it’s mouth, used exclusively for feeding. These teeth help deliver secretions that are toxic to amphibians, but not mammals. However, it is possible to be allergic to the secretions, so it is best not to stick your finger into the the mouth of this harmless snake.


 

Quick Facts:

Scroll down for an in depth look at each section

 

Common Names: Hognose, Adder (Sand Adder, Blow Adder, Spitting Adder), Viper (Sand Viper, Blow Viper)

Identification: Upturned snout, heavyset body. Variable color.  Loud hisser. Plays “possum”.

Size: Adults are typically 2 feet in length, but the largest can reach nearly 4 feet.

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

Eastern Hognose Occurrence by State
Eastern Hognose Occurrence by State. Map created by the author, John Vanek.

Activity: Diurnal (daylight), Crepuscular (dawn and dusk)

Diet: Amphibian specialist. Eats mostly frogs and salamanders, with a particular fondness for toads.

Habitat: Most commonly encountered in areas of sandy soil and open canopy, but can be found in mountains, rocky hillsides, and stream corridors.

Herping Tips: Focus searches in open sandy areas during the spring and fall breeding seasons. Avoid the hottest portions of the day, and don’t focus on movement: these snakes often stay put when first spotted. Road-cruising paved roads is generally unproductive for this species.

Conservation Concerns: While still common in some areas, this species is protected in many parts of its range due to habitat destruction and wanton killing.



In Depth Information:

  Identification:

Pattern and Color: The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (hognose) is a highly variable species, and can range from complete black (melanism) to to bright yellow. In general, this snake has a light background with dark saddles. There is typically a dark band between the eyes, and the belly (ventral surface) is usually a light color. Freshly hatched snakes are typically grey with dark saddles, including snakes that will eventually be completely black. A sample of the massive variation in this snake is show below.

User submitted photos from the Facebook photo contest: Grey, Dave Fitzpatrick; Brown, Jamie Zachary; Yellow, Matt Sullivan; Red, Zack Tyler, Black, Zack Tyler, Dark with orange, Chris Kirby.

Head: The head is stout, with an upturned rostral (nose) scale. The eyes are set on the side of the head, and are large, with round pupils. The lips (labial scales) are often pale in color, even in black individuals. This snake will often flatten it’s head, giving it a triangular appearance. The top of the head typically has a unique set of markings that can be used to identify individuals (see below).

Original Photo by Kyle Loucks from Facebook Photo Contest
Original Photo by Kyle Loucks from Facebook Photo Contest

Body: This snake is heavy set, and is usually about twice the weight of a garter snake (Thamnophis sp.) of the same length. Like the head, the body can be compressed, and appear even wider. The “neck” has a hood, and can be spread like a cobra due to flexible ribs.

Example of a hognose spreading its "hood." Photo by @dgreen962 from the Instagram Photo Contest.
Example of a hognose spreading its “hood. Photo by @dgreen962 from the Instagram Photo Contest.

Behavior: The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is most famous for its incredible behaviors. When first encountered by a predator, this snake will hiss loudly, spread its hood, and curl it’s tail. It will often make a series of false strikes (essentially “headbutts”) with a closed mouth. If this fails, the snake will either crawl away, or play dead like an opossum. This elaborate death-feigning routine often starts with the regurgitation of a prey item. Then, the snake will writhe in circles, mouth open, tongue out, release the contents of its musk gland, and defecate. Finally, the snake flips over on it’s back, and will remain belly up. The snake will remain this way until the threat is gone. However, if the snake is picked up and placed back on it’s belly, it will flip back over onto it’s back, giving it away!

Example of H. platirhinos playing dead and regurgitating a toad. Photo by @willie_in_the_woods from the Instagram Photo Contest.
Example of H. platirhinos playing dead and regurgitating a toad. Photo by @willie_in_the_woods from the Instagram Photo Contest.

Size: Baby hognose snakes hatch out of the egg as little as 3 – 7 grams and roughly 5 inches in length, but grow quickly. Most adults snakes are about 2 feet long, but the largest individuals max out at ~4 feet.

Baby H. platirhinos. Photo by @itrains4days from the Instagram Photo Contest.
Baby H. platirhinos. Photo by @itrains4days from the Instagram Photo Contest.

Sexing: Males and females look very similar, and reach similar sizes (although females are typically larger than males). However, when comparing females and males of the same size, the male’s tail is much longer and thicker. Males typically have >45 pairs of caudal (tail) scales, whereas females typically have <45.

Male and female H. platirhinos
Male and female H. platirhinos.

 

Despite the female being much larger, the male has a longer tail.
Despite the female being much larger, the male has a longer tail.

 

Range: A snake of the eastern United States and Canada. In the United States, it occurs in southern New Hampshire south to Florida, including barrier islands along the coast, east to western Texas, and north to Minnesota. In Canada this species is only found in Ontario. Despite the broad range, a finer look at each state shows fragmented and sporadic occupancy. For example, in New York, the snake can only be found in small, disjunct populations on Long Island, the Saratoga Sand Plains/ Albany Pine Bush, and the lower Hudson Valley.

ny map
Distribution of H. platirhinos in New York, based on data from the NYS Herp Atlas.

Activity: 

Daily: The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is primarily diurnal (active during the day), although it can also be found during dusk and dawn, particularly during the heat of the summer or in more southern portions of its range. This snake is rarely found to be active at night.

Seasonal: Hognose snakes usually have large home ranges (over 75 acres!), and individuals (males in particular) tend to move the most during the spring (emergence from hibernation) and fall (journey back to hibernation locations).


Diet: This species is an amphibian specialist. It mainly feeds on frogs, toads, spadefoots, and salamanders. In most areas, it feeds most heavily on toads (genus Bufo Anaxyrus ). The hognose snake is immune to the poison of toads and other frogs, possibly due to an enlarged adrenal gland. It is often thought that the hognose uses it’s enlarged rear fangs to “pop” inflated toads, but this is a myth. The teeth are used as anchors to prevent prey from escaping, as well as to help deliver its toxic (to amphibians) saliva. It will also eat newts and efts (genus Notophthalmus) and is likely immune to their poison as well.

A neonate H. platirhinos eating a young-of-the-year Fowler's Toad.
A neonate H. platirhinos eating a young-of-the-year Fowler’s Toad.

 


 

Habitat: The hognose snake is typically associated with sandy soil, but is actually a habitat generalist, and can be found in mountains, forests, plains, swamps, river valleys, and beaches. It does, however, appear to be most common (or commonly seen) in open, disturbed areas with sandy soil. This is likely because the snake digs a nest in sunny openings to lay its eggs, which require warm temperatures to hatch. Despite it’s preference for amphibians, standing water is not a requirement for this species, and it can survive in areas with only temporary sources of water (toads often only require short-lived pools or puddles to reproduce). It can occur in very dense populations on barrier islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

atlantic
Heterodon platirhinos from a NY barrier island. Photo by the author, John Vanek.

Herping Tips: Look for Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes during the spring and early fall. This snake can be found year round (in the southern portion of its range), but not as often during the summer or winter. It can tolerate hot temperatures, but is most active during the morning and late afternoon, avoiding the heat of the midday sun. In the northern part of its range, this snake hibernates during the winter, but may emerge to bask on warm days. It is not commonly found under cover objects, and most commonly encountered on sand roads or open sandy areas. This snake is only very rarely found on paved roads, and therefore road-cruising paved roads is ineffective.


 

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, and is also a moderator for the 2,500 member facebook group Snake Identification.

Be sure to check out John’s article Timber Rattlesnake

Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix

Copperhead

Agkistrodon, contortrix

Venomous


Picture provided by @swamprattler
Picture provided by @swamprattler

Hi guys!  I am really excited about today’s species profile article. Why, you ask?  It’s because so many of my fellow Herpers had a part in it.  The pictures supporting the Copperhead piece came from followers of my Instagram account @plaxton.  Copperheads cruised, flipped, found chilling in natural habitat, and captive born were all added to the #HerpersGuide for submission.  Unfortunately I can’t fit all these great pictures on the article but I did get them in a video on our YouTube Channel.  My follower list on Instagram include some amazing Herpers.  I recommend you check out my following list to find some awesome people who help spread the word about Field Herping and the love they share for the reptiles and amphibians they find shows in their work.  Great Job to all of you and happy herping.



The Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix, Land Moccasin, one of the most famous snakes of North America.  Roads have been named after this snake, and songs have been written about this snake.  It is arguably the most beautiful of the North American Vipers.

Photo provided by: @tjweave
Photo provided by:
@tjweave

 Herping for these snakes can be a real treat.  These snakes are highly variable yet, so easy to identify.

The closest relative to the Copperhead is the Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscavorous.  The Copperhead is a pit viper that contains five recognized subspecies.

  • A. c. contortrix – Southern
  • A. c. laticinctus – Broad-Banded
  • A. c. mokasen – Northern
  • A. c. phaeogaster – Osage
  • A. c. pictigaster – Trans-Pecos
Photo Provided by: @captaincandlepants
Photo Provided by:
@captaincandlepants

The Copperhead’s average length is 30 inches with some specimen making it to nearly 40 inches.  The largest documented Copperhead I was able to find in my research was 4’6″ found in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Chapel Hill specimen was a Southern X Northern innergrade.  The Copperhead is a stocky snake with the typical broad head found in pit vipers.

The color pattern is very variable.  The snake as a whole, is a tan to pinkish tan ground color that becomes darker as you move distal the head towards the tail.  There are darker colored bands moving laterally across the snake.  These cross-bands vary among subspecies being wide throughout, hour-glass, and segmented.  Like the other Agkistrodons, the young are born with a yellow tail that is thought to be used in luring pray near young snakes.

Note the bright yellow tail. Photo provided by: @bill_nye_the_herper_guy
Note the bright yellow tail.
Photo provided by:
@bill_nye_the_herper_guy

Many specimen have dark spots down the flanks.  These snakes can look very different even within the same geographic area.  There is enough diversity in this species that I have been able to view local specimen and guess where within my county they were found.  If you take this same concept and take it across the snake’s whole range, you will quickly discover just how diverse they really are.  With 5 subspecies, inner-grades along boundaries, and then variation among local populations make this snake one of the most diverse vipers in the USA.

Copperheads are sexually dimorphic as well.  Males have longer tails and have overall larger size.  Females, although not as long tend to have more

Photo Provided by: @rj_herplife
Photo Provided by:
@rj_herplife

girth.  This may be due to the high likelihood of being gravid.

Feeding/Diet:

Copperheads feed on frogs, toads, lizards, other snakes, and especially rodents.  Rodents, specifically mice and small rats are a primary food source over much of its range.  These snakes are very important in controlling rodent populations.  The Copperhead is generally an ambush predator except when actively pursuing cicada.  Copperheads seem to be fascinated with eating cicadas.

Photo Provided by: @rj_herplife
Photo Provided by:
@rj_herplife

Although the Copperhead typically stays on the ground, they will regularly climb trees to feed on cicadas as they emerge from their nymph casings.  I have used “cicada hotspots” near my home to help me find them.  There is one oak tree near my home that has a high cicada population.  I have found several Copperheads at the base of this tree over the years.  I have found as many as 4 Copperheads at its base at one time.

General Behavior:

The Copperhead is primarily a nocturnal animal meaning it is most active at night.  In my personal experiences, I rarely see the Copperhead out in the middle of the day.  I usually begin seeing them moving around about an hour before sunset through the first 3 or 4 hours of night.  The few I have seen moving in the middle of the day have been in early spring and late fall.

Many published works describe the Copperhead as being a social snake.  In rocky and mountainous habitat, they are regularly seen denning up together with other snakes for

Photo Provided by: @captaincandlepants
A pile of snakes!  Photo Provided by:
@captaincandlepants

the winter.  I am not sure if this is truly a social behavior or if it is due to limited dens.  I know that in the coastal plains of North Carolina, they can sometimes be seen close together but not truly denning up with each other.  I have found more than one specimen under the same piece of cover.

The Copperhead has a few behaviors that make it unusual in the snake world.  There is one behavior that has possibly caused the Copperhead trouble since the Copperhead range has been overpopulated by humans.  The defensive strategy sets this snake up for being the 1st place winner in the “bite a human category”.

Rattle snakes rattle their tail when they feel threatened.  Cottonmouths display the white of their mouth and shake their tail.  Rat Snakes musk and shake their tail. Eastern Hognose snakes hiss, flatten out like a cobra, and bluff strike a would be predator.  A Ringneck snake curls it’s tail and displays the bright colors on its underside when threatened.  The Nerodia family lunge towards an attacker before making their escape.  The Copperhead freezes where it is and hopes it isn’t spotted.

You can't see me! Photo Provided by: @johngarrisonphotography
You can’t see me!
Photo Provided by:
@johngarrisonphotography

This freezing up works great in preventing the animal from being spotted.  Many times this plan works too well.  Instead of getting out-of-the-way of a person walking near it, the snake ends up getting stepped on or approached too closely.  This results in many bites.  The Copperhead is responsible for more snake bites than all the other venomous snakes combined within it’s range.  The State with the most Copperhead bites goes to, North Carolina.

Habitat

Within the Copperhead range, this snake has mastered many habitats.  The Copperhead is terrestrial to semi-aquatic.  Although the Copperhead can swim rather well, I typically find them in dry or swampy environment and do not seem to see them in water deep enough to require swimming.  In most of the Copperhead range, it favors deciduous forest.  The dead leaf ground cover makes the Copperhead very difficult to spot.  The Copperhead is often associated with rock outcroppings and ledges in mountainous areas.  In my home range, the Copperhead likes woodlands near grassy outcrops.

Sawmill Habitat by Phillip Laxton. By: plaxton53
Sawmill Habitat by Phillip Laxton.
By: plaxton53

I have had a lot of luck at an abandoned saw mill near my home.  I have read several reports of people having similar luck around saw mills.  They like to bury themselves under rotting wood stacked up on the saw dust.  The saw mill is my go to spot when I want to see them moving around at night when on foot.  Cruising at night, on the road leading to the sawmill has also yielded good results.

Reproduction:

Copperheads give live birth to as few as one but as many as eleven young.  There are a few reports of as many as 15 young in one litter.  Both males and females reach sexual maturity around 4 years old.  They are typically around 2′ when they are ready to begin reproducing.  Through most of the range, there is two breeding seasons.  Spring and Fall mating occur each year.  Females that breed in the spring will give birth in fall and the fall breeders will give birth late spring.

Neat Fact:

The toxins within Copperhead venom are so similar to it’s cousin that there was no need to make Copperhead anti-venom.  Most bites do not require any anti-venom but when necessary, Cottonmouth anti-venom is what is used.

Herping Tips

Cruised @jadedherper
Cruised
@jadedherper
  • Night cruising produces the best results for quantity for me.  Humid yet moonlit nights bring out the Copperheads.
  • Cruising just before dark is another prime time.
  • When looking for active Copperheads, be sure to watch were you step.  They freeze when startled.
  • When flipping, look for rotten wood.  They seem to prefer a rotten log over a freshly fallen tree.
  • During cicada season, look up.

Thanks guys for checking in with HerpersGuide.com.  Be sure to check us out on our other media outlets: Facebook and Twitter Also, be sure to check out the Author’s personal Instagram here, for all his Herping adventures.

The Santa Cruz Mountains- A Herper’s Delight

Dark gray, lichen covered rocks come into view as we trek up a dusty, old trail. Having earlier retreated to a local diner to escape the midday heat, the now cool, spring air was a welcomed relief. As we reached the afternoon sunlit rock outcropping, thoughts of which snake species we would encounter first began to form. Would it be a Racer? Would a juvenile NorPac be taking in the mid-afternoon sun? Fence lizards watched us cautiously as we began flipping, making sure to replace each rock as we found them. Reaching a flat rock resting by the larger outcrop, I firmly placed my fingers around the sun soaked stone and lifted it up from the green grass. A flash of red, black and white appeared against the dark brown soil. Making a quick grab, I yelled “Zonata!” Luke Talltree uttered an obscene word of shock, while Jared Heald looked in disbelief as I presented the prize. In my hand was a snake that is often regarded as the “gem” of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

zonatarocks

 

All photographs by the author. http://www.zacharge.tumblr.com . Instagram: @zacharge

202187-262964

 (Coast Mountain Kingsnake- San Mateo County, CA)

The Mountains

Considered a part of the Pacific Coast Range, the Santa Cruz Mountain Range is situated along the western coast of Northern California. Beginning just south of San Francisco, the mountain range spans through San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties. Due to levels of varying elevation and a micro-climate that is greatly affected by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Santa Cruz Mountain Range boasts a variety of different habitat types.  Drought resistant plant life, such as the coast sage scrub, characterizes the chaparral.  Brown colored needles and bark of evergreens litter the forest floor of coastal redwoods. Often studded with rock outcroppings, rolling grasslands and pine-oak clearings offer sun loving plant life a place to thrive. It is within these various areas that reptiles and amphibians flourish.

santacruz

rocksgrass

Snakes

The diversity of snakes within the mountain range is nothing short of expansive. Various species inhabit the different habitat types within the mountains, with many of their ranges overlapping. Generally preferring open breaks from the extensive stretches of coastal redwoods, it is not uncommon to find multiple species coexisting within the same area. This is especially true with species that inhabit chaparral, pine-oak, and grassland habitats. During months of optimal temperature and weather, one can easily find Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus oreganus), Western Yellow-bellied Racers (Coluber constrictor mormon), Pacific Gopher Snakes (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) and Coast Mountain Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis zonata multifasciata) all within the same rock outcropping. During the moister, cooler portions of the year, one may easily uncover smaller, more fossorial serpents, such as Ringnecked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus), Sharp-tailed Snakes (both the Forest and Common species of Contia), Nightsnakes (Hypsiglena) and the extremely docile Rubber Boa (Charina bottae) under both natural and artificial cover. The various ponds, creeks, and bodies of water that span throughout the range offer refuge for garter snakes, such as the highly variable Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris) and the large bodied Santa Cruz Garter Snake (Thamnophis atratus atratus). Other snake species, such as the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae) and the lightning fast Striped Racer (Coluber lateralis) also call the Santa Cruz Mountain Range home.

scarredboa

 (Northern Rubber Boa- San Mateo County, CA)

articlerattler

(Northern Pacific Rattlesnake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlelateralis

 (California Striped Racer- Santa Cruz County, CA)

articlegetula

 (California Kingsnake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlescgs1

 (Santa Cruz Garter Snake- Santa Cruz County, CA)

articleracer

 (Western Yellow-bellied Racer- San Mateo County, CA)

greenring

 (Pacific Ring-necked Snake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlecontia

(Sharp-tailed Snake- San Mateo County, CA)

articlenight

(California Nightsnake- Santa Cruz County, CA)

Lizards

Lizards are found in every habitat type that exists within the mountain range. Fence Lizards (Sceloporous occidentalis) are a common sight for anyone trekking along sun exposed trails and rock piles. Two endemic species of Alligator Lizard, the live-bearing San Francisco Alligator Lizard (Elgaria coerulea coerulea) and the often colorful California Alligator Lizard (E.multicarinata) can easily be found under rocks and logs in areas that may prove too cold for other  species, such as the temperate redwood forest. One may spy the bright blue tails of juvenile Western Skinks (Plestiodon skiltonianus) slipping through oak leaf litter during the earlier mornings and midafternoons as they search for arthropod prey. Horned lizards (Phrynosoma blainvillii), as well as California Whiptails (Aspidoscelis tigris munda) are also found within the Santa Cruz Mountain Range, often favoring chaparral in varying elevations.

articlegator

(California Alligator Lizard- San Mateo County, CA)

articleskink

(Western Skink- San Mateo County, CA)

Salamanders and Newts

The majority of the Santa Cruz Mountain Range lies within a temperature rainforest. Characterized by evergreens such as Coastal Redwoods and Douglas fir that thrive on the moisture generated by the Pacific coast, the generally cool and moist forests provide prime Caudata habitat. Year round streams and creeks that bleed into pools are home to the California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus). Slender salamanders (Batrachoseps) and Ensatina are easily found under fallen evergreen bark and logs. The mountain range is also home to two species of Aneides– the large, yellow spotted Arboreal Salamander (A.lugubris) and the striking Santa Cruz Black Salamander (A.flavipunctatus niger). During the winter and early spring, it is very common to see mass congregations of both the California Newt (Taricha torosa) and the Rough-skinned Newt (T.granulosa) as they move to ponds and other bodies of water to breed. It should be noted that the aforementioned species are not restricted to the temperate forest. The more adaptable salamanders can be found during the cooler, wetter months within the grasslands, pine-oak clearings, and chaparral.

articlecreek

articletina(Yellow-eyed Ensatina- Santa Clara County, CA)

articledicamp

(California Giant Salamander- Santa Clara County, CA)

scblack(Santa Cruz Black Salamander- Santa Clara County, CA)

Frogs and Toads

Four species of native frog and toad are found within the mountain range. When the chaparral, grasslands, and pine oak forests are lush during the wetter seasons, the large bodied California Toad (Anaxyrus boreas halophilus) can be found under both natural and artificial cover. Sierran Tree Frogs (Pseudacris sierra) can often be seen jumping from reed to reed in almost any riparian area. Two spectacular species of Rana reside within the waterways of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The beautiful California Red-legged Frog (R.draytonii) can be found in many of the accessible ponds that exist within the grasslands, often favoring areas with thick aquatic plant life. Preferring rocky, sun exposed streams, the Foothill Yellow-legged Frog (R.boylii) can be found in certain locations within the range. While searching for these Anurans, one may spy the only native aquatic turtle that exists within the Santa Cruz Mountain Range, the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata).

articlefrog

 (California Red-legged Frog- San Mateo County, CA)

articletreef

(Sierran Tree Frog- San Mateo County, CA)

Conclusion

The Santa Cruz Mountain Range offers an excellent representation of the biodiversity found within coastal Northern California. Any enthusiast of the outdoors will find the sheer diversity of fauna and scenic habitat simply breathtaking. The vast expansion of undeveloped natural land is certainly a welcome change to the busy cities that lie waiting just outside the Range. Field herpers will enjoy knowing that such a large amount of different reptiles and amphibians call this region home. One must simply pay a visit to the mountains to truly understand the sheer wonder and amazement.

santacruz