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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).