Posts Tagged ‘snakes’

Small Yard Snakes

Friday, June 17th, 2011

Especially during Spring and Fall, we often see very small snakes, either on the sidewalks in morning or afternoon, or in our landscaping, often under rocks and other surface objects. We are talking about snakes about as big around as a pencil and usually less than one foot long. What the heck are they, and what are they doing in your yard?

The answer to the first question varies with where you live. In the immediate vicinity of Norman, Oklahoma and in most of the eastern half of the state, those small snakes are usually adults of several possible species. The first, and easiest to identify, is the Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus). It is dark gray or bluish on top with a narrow orange or yellow ring around its neck. If you bother it, it will coil its tail and turn it over exposing bright red to yellow underparts. The entire underside of the body is red to yellow with some black specks running down the belly. Ring-necked snakes eat small invertebrates, such as earthworms, spiders, and insect larvae, but they can take very small vertebrates.

Ring-necked Snake—note the obvious orange ring around the neck

Ring-necked Snake—note the obvious orange ring around the neck

If it is not a Ring-necked snake, the next thing to look for is some sort of pattern on the back of the body. If it has a pattern, then it most likely is a Brown or DeKay’s Snake (Storeria dekayi). Although the body color can vary from light tan to brown or even reddish, a lighter colored stripe will run down the midline of the back and the head will be darker than the rest of the body. However, look closely at the head and the tip of the tail, because the possibility exists that it may be a juvenile Pigmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius). If the head is triangular shaped and it has a tiny rattle on the end of its tail, then is it a Pygmy Rattlesnake and you should leave it alone. Brown Snakes mostly eat earthworms.

Brown or DeKay's Snake

Brown or DeKay's Snake

This leaves two small snakes, both of which are solid gray on top, with no obvious markings. One will have a slightly flattened (but not diamond-shaped) head that is a tad darker than the body. It will also have very small, beady black eyes, and if you turn it over, it will have a pinkish belly. This is a Flat-headed Snake (Tantilla gracilis). These eat centipedes.

Black-headed Snake—look for the pink belly

Black-headed Snake—look for the pink belly

The last common small snake is the Rough Earthsnake (Virginia striatula). These can be very common, often several under a single rock. They are gray, brown, or reddish with no obvious markings and the belly is a light tan (never pink). These eat earthworms, slugs, and insect larvae.

Rough Earthsnake

Rough Earthsnake

So, the next time you see a small snake while working on your landscaping, give it a close look and then come back to this blog. You should be able to identify it and assure yourself that it is something that belongs in your yard. And remember, these are all about as big around as a pencil, or less!

“Kingsnakes”

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Kingsnake is one of those snake words that is thrown around a lot. One of the most common things we hear about “kingsnakes is that they are cannibalistic because they eat other snakes. Technically speaking, kingsnakes are snakes in the genus Lampropeltis, and many species exist. They include Speckled Kingsnakes (L. getula), Prairie Kingsnakes (L. calligaster), California Mountain Kingsnakes (L. zonata), Arizona Mountain Kingsnakes (L. pyromelana) and even Milksnakes (L. triangulum).

Oklahoma has Speckled and Prairie Kingsnakes as well as Milksnakes, and all three occur across most of the state. Speckled Kingsnakes are black with yellow “speckles,” usually one on the back edge of each black scale. Prairie Kingsnakes have a background color of brown and have distinct blotches in the western part of Oklahoma but are often very drab with only a faint hint of blotches in eastern Oklahoma. Both of these can reach 3 feet in total length or more. Milksnakes have red, white, and black bands that do not extend across the belly. They usually do not exceed 2 feet in total length. These brief descriptions and the photographs in this blog, should make it rather easy for you to identify the three kingsnakes in the state.

An adult speckled kingsnake from eastern Oklahoma

An adult speckled kingsnake from eastern Oklahoma

An adult prairie kingsnake from central Oklahoma

An adult prairie kingsnake from central Oklahoma

A sub-adult milksnake from southeastern Oklahoma

A sub-adult milksnake from southeastern Oklahoma

So, what about cannibalism? It is the case that most kingsnakes eat other snakes as well as lizards, mice, and even frogs occasionally. However, the various species of “kingsnakes” usually do not eat their own species, so technically speaking, they are not cannibals any more than you or I are cannibals because we eat beef. All species of kingsnakes can discriminate between their own species and other snake species by use of a highly developed chemical sensing system. They touch other snakes with the tips of their forked tongue, bring chemicals into their mouths, and deposit those chemicals on the surface of a large and highly developed chemical sensing organ known as the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ. This organ transmits information to the snake brain (yes, snakes have a brain!), where the information is used to identify whether the other snake is a species that they want to eat or whether it is one of their own species. This same chemical sensing system is used to locate and identify mates during the breeding season.

“Spreading Adders”

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

The hiss of an Eastern hog-nosed snake as it spreads its neck and acts like a cobra can be quite startling, but it is all bluff. Eastern hog -nosed snakes are completely harmless, and it is nearly impossible to get one to bite. It is no accident that they seem to show up when toads are active. Hog-nosed snakes specialize on toads, eating almost nothing else. Colors and patterns of hog-nosed snakes vary from nearly all black to reddish with various shaped markings, and younger hog-nosed snakes seem to be brighter in color than older and larger ones.

An adul;t (top) and juvenile (bottom) Eastern hog-nosed snake

An adult (top) and juvenile (bottom) Eastern hog-nosed snake

When first disturbed, hog-nosed snakes go through their hissing and spreading display, hence the nickname “spreading adder.” However, if they are bothered a bit more, they switch their behavior to a ridiculous series of movements in which they appear to act as though they have died, going so far as to roll over on their back, open their mouth, drag their tongue in the dirt and lay there motionless. If you wait a few minutes, they will roll their head over and look at you. If you roll them over so that they are upright, they quickly roll back over upside down. And, if you wait long enough, they roll over and crawl away. What could possibly be the advantage of doing this? One would think that simply lying there would make it easier for a predator to eat them.

Starting in the bottom left, follow clockwise, the deith-feigning sequence of a hog-nosed snake

Starting at the bottom left, follow clockwise, the death-feigning sequence of an Eastern hog-nosed snake

If you watch carefully when hog-nosed snakes first start rolling over, you will notice that they cover themselves with bodily wastes released from their cloaca as they twist and coil during their death feigning act. Recall that they eat toads, almost exclusively. Toads eat ants and beetles that produce chemicals (alkaloids) for defense, and toads in turn produce strong chemicals that are released from the large glands (paratoids) just in back of their head that make them very bad tasting and sometimes toxic (don’t lick a toad!). So, when Hog-nosed snakes eat toads, they are also eating a bunch of very bad-tasting chemicals. By covering themselves with excrement, Hog-nosed snakes make themselves very bad to eat. The “playing dead” likely keeps them from being injured while a predator determines that they are not as tasty as they first appeared to be when they were crawling along.

Threat display of an adult Eastern hog-nosed snake. Note the raised tail and the flattened neck, hence, "spreading adder."

Threat display of an adult Eastern hog-nosed snake. Note the raised tail and the flattened neck, hence, "spreading adder."

Amphibians and Reptiles at the SNOMNH

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009
Male Broad-headed Skink showing breeding coloration
Male Broad-headed Skink showing breeding coloration

Hello, interested readers. Herpetologists at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman have been monitoring amphibians and reptiles in southeastern Le Flore County for the past year and have run across some interesting aspects of the biology of these often abundant and visible animals. We are so excited about our findings, and herpetology in general, that we decided to create this blog to keep others around the state, the nation, and the world informed.

As some of you already know, Dr. Laurie Vitt and Dr. Janalee Caldwell (us!) have spent many years studying amphibians and reptiles in the United States, Central America, South America, and a few other exotic places. We are professional researchers, but like most people who are fortunate enough to be paid for what they love to do, we started out by observing amphibians, reptiles, and other animals in their natural habitats when we were just children. So, in a sense, we never grew up! What we have learned directly from these animals is remarkable, and as you will see in the forthcoming blogs, the natural world is even stranger and more interesting than anything that we could make up.

We hope that you will join us by keeping up with our blog, and we will do our best to provide you with interesting information on these fascinating animals. For those of you who are particularly interested in amphibians and reptiles of Oklahoma, we invite you to visit our web personal pages, and more specifically, to examine the web pages that we have prepared for some of the Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) around the state, in collaboration with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. We now have three WMA web pages, Packsaddle, Atoka, and Cookson, and all can be accessed from our WMA web page (http://www.snomnh.ou.edu/personnel/herpetology/vitt/WMA/index.shtml). We are working on more. We also have web pages for some of our South American research sites. So, for now, welcome to our blog, keep checking, and feast your imagination on this beautiful male Broad-Headed Skink from the Cookson Hills in NE Oklahoma.