Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

A shy, harmless, beneficial snake

Description:

A. Gross features: This snake has a stocky body and a  broad head slightly wider than its neck, a snout that is upturned so that its jaws resemble, in some respects, those of a turtle, and a keel that begins at the tip of its upper lip and extends backward on the dorsal head, often as far back as the eyes. Its tail is noticeably less stocky than the remainder of the body, beginning at the vent; often the tail is curled tightly into a crook, even when the rest of the body is loosely coiled or straightened out. 

This moderately large snake, with its wide girth, is not built for speed. Consequently, it cannot escape with ease when discovered in an open area. This makes it susceptible to a variety of predators, including man. It is shy and harmless, and almost never attempts to bite. Instinctive defensive mechanisms are carried out to discourage predators from killing it. These are, typically, performed in three stages:

Photo courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03

STAGE I defenses, as shown in the photo above, involve (1) lying still when first confronted, hoping its coloration makes it inconspicuous, then, if that does not work (2) frantically trying to escape by using all avenues at its disposal. If this does not succeed, the snake usually proceeds to the next stage, shown below:

Photo courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03

STAGE II defenses involve a feigned aggression intended to frighten a foe away: (1) The snake raises its head above its coiled body, with its mouth gaping open or tightly closed, or, hides its head in the coils of its body, while it erects its coiled tail in the air above; in either case, the effect is enhanced by the snake's heavy breathing as it sucks air in and blows it out in a loud hiss, its body alternately expanding and contracting with each breath. 

Photo courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03

(2) The snake flattens its head and the forward half of its body and neck, like the hood of a cobra; pouches in the mouth expand and fill with air, making the head look fearsome to behold; as the skin behind the head expands.  If this display does not force the predator to back off, the snake (3) begins to lunge at its foe, striking out with much gusto in a fashion similar to that observed in the rat snakes; this is done, however, with its mouth closed, which an experienced observer will immediately recognize as a bluff.

Photo courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03

Photo courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03

Photo courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03

STAGE III defenses usually do not emerge until the snake comes into direct contact with a foe following a fierce stage II display by, for example, being touched. This defense involves playing dead, along with a discharge of foul-smelling fecal material from its vent, and the ejection of strong-scented musk from glands at the base of its tail. Recently swallowed food will be regurgitated as well, to accentuate the unpleasant sight and smell. 

Photo courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03

During stage III the mouth is often gaped open, with the tissues of the mouth visible. These may bleed copiously as the snake writhes, seemingly in a convulsion. This continues as the snake slowly turns its ventral surface upward, coiling in a tight coil with its head in the middle. The writhing finally ceases, and the snake twitches and goes limp, its tongue hanging out of its mouth, with no visible breathing, looking quite dead. From this position of apparent death, the snake waits for its foe to depart, continuing its charade for as long as it takes. During this time the snake can be picked up and handled, all without moving, unless it is turned over onto its belly. If that is done, it immediately turns on its back again, instinctively knowing that its act of death is not supported when it lies on its belly.

Photo courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03

B. Coloration:  

This snake comes in many different colors. If you are not an experienced herpetologist, such diversity may seem disconcerting, but that is par for the course in the world of snakes. H. platirhinos is generally colored yellow/brown, but it is also common to find specimens that are mainly orange, red, brown, black, olive or gray. In southwestern Texas, as far north as San Antonio, solid red specimens are common. Rarely, solid brown specimens are found throughout the normal range of this snake, which includes much of the eastern half of the United States. 

C. Markings: 

Markings on the dorsal and lateral surfaces of this snake may be pronounced, as in the specimen shown in the photos above and below (Courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03), or may be lacking altogether, as with the specimen in the photos shown further down on this page, taken by Donna Hughes, in East Texas. For those with definite markings, the pattern has been described by some authorities as large, dark splotches or saddles separated from each other by lighter bands. To me, the definitive markings are dumbbell shaped, with the circular ends of the dumbbells on the lateral surfaces, and the narrower, lighter bar of the dumbbell connecting them across the back of the snake. In between the dumbbell markings are darker spaces shaped like saddles.

Photo courtesy of John Kasperbauer/William Culver M.D., New Braunfels, Texas 11-18-03

The snake shown below was photographed by Donna Hughes, at her home in east Texas, on April 16, 2003. When we talked over the phone, she told me she had seen this snake (and others like it) near her home on several occasions. It would puff its mouth (notice the yellow area below the head, puffed up like a balloon) and spread its body out below the head the way a cobra spreads its hood. 

The Eastern Hognose snake is highly variable in coloration and dorsal markings; it is usually well-patterned, with a background color of yellow, pinkish brown, grey, black or olive. In the literature the most common marking on its body is a series of transverse saddles on the top, alternating with short transverse stripes on the sides. Often, though, its coloration is so dark (as in this specimen) that the markings are obscured or not visible. The body scales are keeled (with a ridge running the length of each scale, making the body look rough and dull, rather than glossy and smooth) and the coloration of the underside is lighter at the tail than at the remainder of the belly.

D. Often Confused With:

This snake is often confused with the copperhead, western pygmy rattlesnake, and juvenile cottonmouth. As a result, many are killed needlessly each year. Conversely, several serious bites by the western pygmy rattlesnake have been attributed to the mistaken identification of the latter as eastern hognose snakes. 

E. Adult Dimensions:

Between 20 and 33 inches (51-83 centimeters) in length. The largest specimen reported was 46 inches (116 cm) long.

F. Natural Range:

Eastern Hognose snakes require sandy soils for habitat, and are found in fields, farmlands, and along sandy coasts. Their favorite prey is the toad, but they will feed on a wide variety of marine and terrestrial animals as well. They seem to be immune to the poisons toads produce, and have large teeth in the distal jaw to allow them to puncture toads that have inflated themselves defensively. 

G. Diet:

Chiefly toads, but frogs and salamanders are often eaten, as are lizards, mice, rats, birds and their eggs. These are taken through chance encounters above ground. Its primary prey detection mechanism appears to be smell, rather than sight. The head and jaws of this serpent are uniquely adapted for capture and swallowing of toads. A pair of slender teeth pointing backward deep in the snake's mouth prevent a captured toad from escaping and help maneuver the toad's body for swallowing. Huge adrenal glands in the snake's body secrete antidotes to the highly toxic poisons (digitaloids) in the toad's skin. Without these antidotes, the digitaloids would kill the snake. 

H. Propagation:

The eastern hognose snake mates in the spring, and the females deposit their eggs in June and July. The eggs, usually 15-25 in number, are deposited in depressions under objects such as rocks or logs, in mulch, or buried in sandy soil.  The eggs hatch in August and September.

I. Encounter Reports:

Please send me details of your encounters with this snake, good or bad, and I will post them here. If you take digital photos of this snake, send them too.

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