Eastern Hognose Snake Heterodon platyrhinos

Male - Santa Rosa County, FL
Photo By Michael R. Smoker <contribution>

     This is a stout bodied snake of medium length. Its general dorsal coloration has a light base color; usually yellow, tan, cream, reddish or brown with 17 to 28 irregularly shaped darker blotches and with 6 to 14 tail bands. The head often bears a stripe across the prefrontal scales and through the eyes to the last super labial and a marking on the back of the head that contains a heavy solid spot on each side of the neck. The belly pattern bears heavy mottling or speckling that gets denser from front to back and usually terminating at the vent leaving the underside of the tail light.

     The coloration of this snake is extremely variable and can cause great confusion for identification. There is a common dark phase in adults that can completely obscure the pattern, resulting in snakes that appear uniformly brown, gray or black. The dark blotches in some animals can be so large that they connect on the sides making the snake look to be dark with yellow spots. Some adult specimens can have a great amount of red in the forward parts of the body.

     Adult Eastern Hognose Snakes measure between 20" and 36" with the largest recorded at over 45". These snakes have heavier bodies than most other colubrids in the region.

     The rostral of this species is spade shaped and turned upwards making the head an effective shovel. The top of the rostral has an obvious keel and protrudes between the internasal scales. The tail is short and is often curled as if it were prehensile.

     Juveniles are very consistent in pattern and color. Typically, young hognose snakes have an idealized pattern with clearly defined dorsal blotches and are usually light gray with dark gray to black markings. The ventral patterns are characteristically light. The young seem to have a heavier build than adults.

Biology and Behavior:
     Generally, the hognose snake is considered to be non-venomous and it is certainly harmless to humans. However, the snake does have elongated rear teeth that are often used for puncturing toads and the saliva may be mildly toxic to anurans. These animals are very shy and can become very agitated when threatened; however they almost never bite even when first handled.

     This snake is usually active during the day with its peak activity in the morning when the sun is high enough to allow basking (8:00 to 9:30 AM), though it has been recorded throughout the day. We have discovered specimens hiding under boards and roofing metal in the afternoon, indicating daytime activity. They have been collected through out the year, but they are most active in the spring. Most specimens observed in the field have been observed on the move and only occasionally under shelter. This is most likely due to sheltering in largely inaccessible places, such as in the root cavities of trees.

     Eastern Hognose snakes are very specialized animals and have adaptations that aid them in hunting and eating toads. Their shovel-like noses are well suited for rooting toads out of the ground, however they readily eat frogs as well, including tree frogs if they can catch them. I have personally observed these snakes eating leopard frogs and tree frogs as well as toads. Young snakes share the adults feeding preferences. Many sources mention that these snakes will sometimes eat insects, lizards, birds and small mammals though I have never been able to verify these claims.

     Eastern Hognose snakes are reproductively active in the spring and sometimes in the fall, which accounts for the greater numbers of records from this time. Mating occurs in Aril to May in spring and in late September to Early November in the fall. Eggs are mostly laid in June or July and can number up to over 40, with the average being from 20 to 25 and usually hatch in 6 to 9 weeks.

     Hognose snakes are notable for their unusual appearance but perhaps more so for its unusual defensive behavior. Disturbed snakes will flatten their heads and necks like cobras, inflate their bodies and hiss loudly, often making mock strikes, though they do so with closed mouths and seldom bite. Should this fail to dissuade the would-be attacker, the snake will roll onto itís back, open its mouth, stick out its tongue and feign death. Should it then be turned onto its belly, it will immediately roll over to its back again. Some of these animals skip the hissing display altogether and simply play dead, while others may never play dead, opting for the phony show of aggression.

     Unless killed, Eastern Hognose snakes will live from 10 to 15 years.

Range and Locality Data:
     Eastern Hognose snakes are very successful snakes and range across the entire east coast of the US, west across the Appalachians and throughout the Midwest. In the east they range from southern Vermont to south Florida. In the west they range from the Great Lakes, south through most of eastern and central Texas. In North and South Carolina they have been found across the entire area with records getting less abundant as you move west. This probably due to less time spent searching in the west and to the sheltering proclivities of the snake. Higher altitudes offer more subterranean and inaccessible hiding areas.

     Most records of Eastern Hognose snakes are from dryer areas such as pine flat woods, pine/oak hammocks, sand hills and sand scrub, and cultivated fields. They are seldom found around swampy areas or areas that hold too much water in the ground. Again, I believe this due to how they shelter, nest and den.

These snakes appear to be locally common with abundance being directly proportional to suitable habitat. Itís modest size and food requirements would make it tolerant of some human intrusion and seem to thrive around agricultural areas, as long as some natural habitat remains.

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