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Soil Sidekicks – Eastern Hognose Snakes

July 2, 2015

If you see a snake slithering around on the ground, take a look and see if it might be one of our Soil Sidekicks, the Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos).

These land-loving reptiles spend their lives on the ground, and can also be found burrowing into the soil. The Latin name Heterodon means “different tooth,” so-called for the enlarged rear teeth this snake uses for eating (and even popping!) toads, and platirhinos indicates the Eastern hognose snake’s broad, flat snout.

The Eastern hognose snake is a stocky reptile with an upturned nose used for burrowing. Adult snakes range from 2 to 3 feet in length, with females typically growing larger than males. These interesting creatures have some of the greatest color variety among snakes in North Carolina, as they can be brown, reddish-orange, gray, black, or any shade in between. Their scale patterns range between blotches and solid colors.

Eastern hognose snake. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

This species of reptile can be found all over North Carolina (with the exception of high-elevation mountains), sharing territory with their amphibious prey. Eastern hognose snakes certainly have a taste for toads, particularly seeking out these amphibians as a meal. Many frogs and toads burrow underground during the day in order to escape the heat, emerging at night to hunt. The Eastern hognose snake is active and hunts during the daytime, using its broad, flat snout to burrow into the soil in order to reach buried prey.

As a defense mechanism against predators like this snake, toads will sometimes puff up like balloons, hoping to become difficult to swallow. True to its scientific name, the Eastern hognose snake can use its rear-positioned teeth to ‘pop’ and deflate the toad so that it can be swallowed.

This Soil Sidekick uses the ground beneath our feet in other ways, too. In some habitats such as sandy or loamy soils, a female Eastern hognose may dig an underground nest in order to deposit her clutch of eggs. In harder clay soils, which are more difficult to tunnel into, the female snake might instead nest in a rotten log, mulch or sawdust pile, mammal burrow, or stump hole.

Eastern hognose snake puffing up its neck. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

This interesting reptile species has also been nicknamed “puff adder,” and for good reason. These snakes make use of protean behavior: acting really strangely to confuse a predator. When the Eastern hognose snake feels threatened, its first line of defense is to flatten its neck, raise its head, and puff out to be as large and intimidating as possible. During this show, the snake hisses loudly, which can be quite startling to a predator.

If this first approach doesn’t work, the snake will “play dead” by rolling onto its back and writhing around on the ground. After a few moments, it will appear to be dead, sometimes emitting an awful smell and even opening its mouth so its tongue will hang out in an effort to be convincing. Many predators only eat living things and fresh prey, so if it looks and smells dead, this behavior can convince a predator such as a bobcat to leave the snake alone. If you find one of these interesting animals in the wild, it is always best to avoid touching or provoking it. After all, it’s exhausting to put on such a show.

Eastern hognose snake playing dead. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Beane.

Like other snakes, the Eastern hognose periodically sheds its skin in order to grow and develop. These reptiles can live 8 to 10 years, depending on the individual. Like other wild animals, these Sidekicks may seem cool, but they should not be taken out of their natural homes to be kept as pets. Leave the digging to the experts and let the Sidekick stay where it belongs — in the soil.

Soil Sidekicks is an inside scoop starring animals that live in and around the soil. Did you know that there are more living creatures in a shovelful of rich soil than there are people on the planet? Get the dirt on where the Sidekicks live and discover more about the soil that sustains us at Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

Claire Carrington is a Museum Public Relations intern, and currently a senior at Campbell University.

Photos courtesy of Collections Manager of Herpetology Jeff Beane.

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