Eastern Hog-nosed Snake
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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