If you need to identify a snake, try the Snake Identification Facebook group.
For professional, respectful, and non-lethal snake removal and consultation services in your town, try Wildlife Removal USA.

Friday, August 9, 2013

What the State Snakes Should Be: Part II

Several weeks ago, I debuted Part I of 'What the State Snakes Should Be', inspired by 'The State Birds: What They SHOULD Be' from thebirdist.com. With apologies for the late follow-up (I've been on vacation), I now present...

Part II

26. Montana. Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer)

Pituophis catenifer
These large, harmless, common snakes are known for their loud hiss, which they augment using a flap of skin on the end of their windpipe. They also rattle their tail against dry leaves in order to intimidate their would-be predators. Also known as gophersnakes or blowsnakes, they are commonly mistaken for rattlesnakes, which they superficially resemble. Bullsnakes are found throughout the plains of central and eastern Montana, as well as in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana. Appropriate to Big Sky Country, bullsnakes are among the longest of North American snakes, reaching incredible lengths of 9 feet as adults! Radiotelemetry studies have found that individuals spend up to 90% of their time in underground burrows, so these snakes must be quite abundant in areas where they are frequently encountered.

27. Nebraska. Western Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon nasicus)

Heterodon nasicus
I studied these snakes in Illinois for my Master's degree, but nowhere have I seen them so abundant as in the Nebraska sandhills. Western Hognoses love sand, in which they burrow and lay their eggs. They also frequently unearth the buried eggs of other species, including those of lizards and turtles. Like their eastern cousins, they also eat amphibians and possess elaborate anti-predator displays. These snakes are easily observed in open areas during the day by anyone willing to hike around the beautiful sandhills region of the Cornhusker State.

28. Nevada. Desert Nightsnake (Hypsiglena chlorophaea)

Hypsiglena chlorophaea
Known for its nightlife, the Silver State is well-represented by Nightsnakes, which are secretive residents of deserts throughout the west. Nightsnakes are nocturnal, as evidenced by their vertical pupils, and eat lizards and amphibians, as well as lizard and snake eggs on occasion. They are most active on moonless nights after rain. Few people will have seen a Nightsnake, but they occur throughout Nevada. I also heard that the Nevada Nightsnakes might be a competitive team against the Mississippi Mudsnakes this year.

29. New Hampshire. Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Heterodon platirhinos (dark phase)
Eastern Hognoses are well known for their elaborate anti-predator behavior, which involves vomiting, defecating, and flipping over onto their backs. Research in the southern part of the Granite State has shown that prey likely limits their distribution in the northeast, as they are found on barrier islands with small amphibians but not those without. A recent radio-telemetry study at the New Boston Air Force Station revealed much about the habitat preferences of these snakes. Overall optimal habitat was identified as hemlock forests having continuous canopy and understory architecture interspersed with fine-scale openings, in close proximity to wetlands and with a high density of leaf litter, debris, and rocks as well as homogeneous surface temperatures within critical thermal limits. Eastern Hognoses mostly eat amphibians and occur in two color phases, dark and patterned.

30. New Jersey. Northern Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus)

Pituophis melanoleucus
Much of the pioneering research on pinesnake biology has taken place in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. We know a lot about the surprisingly social lives of these large snakes - for instance, they communally bury their eggs in habitual spots used year after year by the same females. Pinesnakes prefer sandy, well-drained soils such as those in the the New Jersey Pinelands, which may provide residence for some of the largest populations of pinesnakes in the Northeast. Their reputation as ornery is mostly undeserved, much like that of their fellow Garden State residents (something I can admit despite having been born in neighboring New York).

31. New Mexico. New Mexico Blindsnake (Rena dissectus)

Rena dissectus
Having just been to New Mexico, I know first-hand that there are a lot of snakes there to choose from. In the interest of representing the widest range of phylogenetic diversity, I decided that the New Mexico Blindsnake should represent the state, in part because I was fortunate enough to find one while I was there (my first wild scolecophidian!) and in part because they can be found in only a few states in the US. These diminutive serpents eat ants and termites and burrow in loose soil. This species was discovered by E. D. Cope in 1896 along a road to a silver mine at Lake Valley, New Mexico. Runners up: Narrow-headed Gartersnake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus), Mexican Gartersnake (Thamnophis eques), Chihuahuan Nightsnake (Hypsiglena jani), New Mexico Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake (Crotalus willardi obscurus).

32. New York. Brownsnake (Storeria dekayi)

Storeria dekayi
You might think the Empire State would be better typified by a grander snake, but there are several good reasons that Brownsnakes are special to New Yorkers (or should be). The first specimen of a Brownsnake was collected in New York by Dr. James DeKay, a zoologist and author of the 1842-1844 book Zoology of New York. He found the snake while it was ""swimming across a large bay on the Northern coast of Long Island." John Holbrook, the father of North American herpetology, named the snake for DeKay, making it the only North American snake whose name is a double patronym (the genus Storeria being in honor of David Storer, a Massachusetts herpetologist; see Massachusetts).

33. North Carolina. Southern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon simus)

Heterodon simus
Southern Hog-nosed Snakes aren't doing too well throughout most of their range. Habitat destruction and degradation, fire ants, and mortality on roads are among their major threats. The Sandhills of North Carolina are their stronghold, and we'd like to keep it that way. The North Carolina Herp Society supports Project Simus, a non-profit research program with the goal of monitoring Southern Hognoses in NC and learning more about their biology through radio telemetry and other techniques. North Carolina recently named a State Frog, a State Salamander, and a State Marsupial, so a State Snake could be next! Runners up: Carolina Pygmy Rattlesnake (the beautiful red phase) or Outer Banks Kingsnake or Carolina Watersnake (both endemic subspecies found in the barrier islands).

34. North Dakota. Racer (Coluber constrictor)

Coluber constrictor
Racers are one of North America's most widespread snakes, found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. They are highly variable in color, ranging from brown to black to green to blue. In North Dakota, they are greenish-blue to gray with a bright yellow belly and a white chin patch. They aren't called Racers for nothing: their speed is astounding and it is common to see these snakes for just a second or two as you walk through a grassland. Racers inhabit the sagebrush prairies of western North Dakota and are commonly found near sources of water. They have large eyes which aid them in their pursuit of their prey during the day. Young racers have a distinctive speckled pattern that slowly fades as they mature. Due to their widespread nature, this species might be a good candidate for a national snake as well.

35. Ohio: Kirtland's Snake (Clonophis kirtlandii)

Clonophis kirtlandii
These small and interesting snakes were originally slated for Indiana, until I learned that not only were many of the seminal studies of them carried out in the Buckeye State and that they are named for an Ohio politician, malacologist, and co-founder of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Jared Potter Kirtland. Kirtland's Snakes are found only in the midwest, where they inhabit crayfish burrows. Because of the intensive agriculture that dominates rural areas of Indiana and other midwestern states, some of the best known Kirtland's Snake populations are found in urban areas. Runners up: Lake Erie Watersnake (an endemic subspecies), Black Racer (actual State Reptile).

36. Oklahoma. Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)

Crotalus atrox
Much maligned symbol of the west, Western Diamondbacks are in much better shape than their slightly larger eastern cousins, in spite of heavy collection in some areas for use in rattlesnake roundups (festivals with the express purpose of executing as many rattlesnakes as possible in the misguided belief that this somehow makes people in the surrounding area safer). Corporate sponsorship and economic contributions to local economies have helped these festivals persist in the Sooner State and others, much to the detriment of wild rattlesnake populations. In fact, Western Diamondbacks and other rattlesnakes are not nearly as dangerous as cars, cigarettes, dogs, or many other things that people willingly accept as part of their lives. Granted, if one bites you you'd best get to the emergency room sooner than later, but they hardly deserve their vicious reputation, and confer many benefits to those with whom they share the landscape, including pest control.

37. Oregon. Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

Thamnophis sirtalis
Although these snakes can be found in every state except Arizona, Hawaii, and Alaska, I have never seen more beautiful Common Gartersnakes than those in Oregon. Add that to the incredible coevolutionary relationship between these snakes and their toxic newt prey discovered in Oregon, and you have a good recipe for a state snake. Common Gartersnakes are capable of resisting the neurotoxic effects of tetrodotoxin, which paralyzes the muscles and nerves of most other predators. More resistant gartersnakes live in areas where newts are more toxic, are more brightly colored, and crawl more slowly.

38. Pennsylvania. Eastern Wormsnake (Carphophis amoenus)

Carphophis amoenus
It's tempting to put this smallest eastern snake for Rhode Island, but because it was discovered in the Keystone State by the famous Philadelphian and entomologist Thomas Say in 1824, I think it's more apt for Pennsylvania. Say described its opalescent scales and called it "a very pretty and perfectly harmless serpent," noting that "it is found beneath stones and prostrate logs, but not very frequently." Wormsnakes eat invertebrates and so are beneficial to have in and around your garden. Runner-up: Narrow-headed Gartersnake (Thamnophis brachystoma), found almost exclusively in Pennsylvania.

39. Rhode Island. Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus)

Diadophis punctatus
At least in the east, these snakes are small, with gorgeous yellow color beneath marked with black spots. Farther west, they are orange or red instead. The yellow ring around the neck gives the species its name. Described by Linnaeus in the 11th edition of his Systema Naturae, it was one of the first species of North American snakes known to European biologists. Ringnecks are usually found close to water underneath rocks and logs, although they rarely swim. Rhode Islands's many historic stone walls are ideal habitat for this species. Eating salamanders and invertebrates, these snakes are harmless and beneficial. Don't miss the playoff game between the Rhode Island Ringnecks and the Nevada Nightsnakes!

40. South Carolina. Cornsnake (Pantherophis guttatus)

Pantherophis guttatus
The Cornsnakes of the famous Okeetee Club of southern SC are famed for their bright colors. Popular pets, these snakes have been bred in captivity to produce a variety of color morphs not found in the wild. Cornsnakes eat lizards and small mammals and are named for their highly contrasting ventral pattern, which resembles an ear of Indian corn. Carl Kauffeld first wrote of the Okeetee Club in his book Snakes and Snake Hunting, wherein he recounts several of his experiences trying to find cornsnakes in their natural habitats.

41. South Dakota. Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis)

Crotalus viridis
These rattlesnakes are fairly common in the Great Plains of the central USA wherever rocky outcrops (including man-made ones such as railroad track beds) provide suitable hibernation sites. They are closely related to Western Rattlesnakes (see Wyoming), with which they shared a common ancestor about 9 million years ago. Following their rise, the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains fell over central North America, causing a drying of the climate that led to the gradual replacement of open woodlands by prairie. Differentiation of the eastern form involved isolation plus adaptation to the expanding grasslands east of the Rocky Mountains. Today Prairie Rattlesnakes are common across the western two-thirds of South Dakota, where they prey heavily on rodents.

42. Tennessee. Rough Greensnake (Opheodrys aestivus)

Opheodrys aestivus
Rough Greensnakes are beautiful denizens of riparian woods throughout the Volunteer State. They were first recorded from "Carolina", which included Tennessee at the time. Also known as vine snakes, these arboreal, camouflaged snakes eat insects and spiders. Because they are so well-camouflaged, the best way to spot them is often at night using a flashlight. Difficult to keep in captivity, I would volunteer to study these any time, as they are among the most graceful and popular of snakes.

43. Texas. Gray-banded Kingsnake (Lampropeltis alterna)

Lampeopeltis alterna
Texas has 85 species of snakes, more than any other state. I thought that Texans would like to have the longest or largest snake for their state snake (they'd probably call it their national snake), but both, as well as the largest rattlesnake, are more iconic of other places. As such, they will have to do with one of the most beautiful and coveted, the Gray-banded Kingsnake. These secretive snakes are found only in dry, rocky areas of the Trans-Pecos and Chihuahuan regions of the state, where they are active at night. Although popular in the pet trade, very little is known about the ecology of these snakes in the wild. Much of their habitat is inaccessible, made more so by strict laws regulating the recreational pursuit of snakes (herping or snake-hunting) in the state of Texas. Runners-up: Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus), Concho Watersnake (Nerodia paucimaculata), Brazos Watersnake (Nerodia harteri), Texas Indigo Snake (Drymarchon corais).

44. Utah. Wandering Gartersnake (Thamnophis elegans)

Thamnophis elegans
Because I currently live in Utah, I can attest to the ubiquity of these snakes almost throughout the state. So named because of their propensity to stray far from water, Wandering Gartersnakes have something in common with the early Mormon settlers of the Beehive State, who emigrated from their original homeland in New York through the Midwest to eventually end up in what is today Utah. Wandering Gartersnakes eat fish, frogs, and small mammals, and lack the resistance of some of their congeners to newt toxin because they do not co-occur with newts over much of their range.

45. Vermont. Black Ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus)

Pantherophis obsoletus
Familiar to many in the eastern US, ratsnakes are on the ropes in Vermont. Records from the west-central part of the state date from recent decades, with possible isolated populations in other areas of the Green Mountain State (though these records could represent releases of captive animals). Ratsnakes have been designated a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Vermont’s Wildlife Action Plan. Popular in captivity, we are just beginning to learn about the ecology of wild ratsnakes, which are highly accomplished climbers and important nest predators. Their communal nesting ecology at high latitudes and their intriguing foraging and social behaviors are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

46. Virginia. Smooth Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae)

Virginia valeriae
These small brown snakes come in two types, rough and smooth. The Rough Earthsnake (Virginia striatula) is found in the southeastern part of the state, whereas the more widespread Smooth Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae) is found across the eastern two-thirds, and also in isolated populations in the western tip. Virginia also shares with adjacent states an unusual population of Smooth Earthsnakes, called Mountain Earthsnakes (V. v. pulchra or, sometimes, simply V. pulchra), found in high-altitude glades in Highland County, Virginia, and adjacent WV, MD, and PA. Mountain Earthsnakes have scale characteristics intermediate between the other two, although they are more closely related to Smooth Earthsnakes.

47. Washington. Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis)

Contia tenuis
Sharp-tailed Snakes are small and locally common. They are named for the needle-like spine on the end of their tail, which nevertheless is not actually very sharp and with which they certainly cannot harm a human. This is a good snake to have around your garden, as they eat slugs and other invertebrates harmful to plants. Sharp-tails are mostly found in Oregon and California, but an isolated population occurs in central Washington, where dozens of individuals can sometimes be found together underneath cover objects. Sharp-tailed Snakes may turn out to be more widespread in Washington, especially since they were first discovered in 1852 by members of the U.S. Exploring Expedition near Puget Sound, a region from which no further specimens have been found. Perhaps state snakehood would promote further exploration.

48. West Virginia: Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

Crotalus horridus
Kudos to West Virginia for choosing a snake for their state reptile in real life! As a reward, they get to keep it. The Timber Rattlesnake isn't an inapt choice, as they are found in mountainous forests almost throughout the state, wherever suitable overwintering habitat exists. A recent analysis of the diet of Timber Rattlesnakes in the northeastern US suggested that they may help regulate tick populations through consumption of their mouse hosts, thereby probably reducing the risk of human exposure to Lyme disease and other tick-borne pathogens. Runner up: the other (Rough) Earthsnake (Virginia striatula).

49. Wisconsin. Butler's Gartersnake (Thamnophis butleri)

Thamnophis butleri
Butler's Gartersnakes are found in open-canopy wetlands in the southern Great Lakes region. In reality, enough Wisconsinites dislike Butler's Gartersnakes for getting in the way of development in the Milwaukee area that it's got about as much of a chance of getting chosen as the state snake as the Spotted Owl has of becoming the state bird of Oregon. However, efforts to manage and preserve the remaining habitat might just succeed, and could be significantly helped along by placing a little more value on these little snakes. In the land of visionary land manager Aldo Leopold, I agree with this One Wisconsin Now blogger that good stewardship should trump special interests when it comes to Butler's Gartersnakes.

50. Wyoming. Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus)

Crotalus oreganus
These relatively small rattlesnakes are fairly common in the arid west anywhere that rocky outcrops provide suitable hibernation sites. They are closely related to Prairie Rattlesnakes (see South Dakota). These two species shared a common ancestor about 9 million years ago, populations of which were separated by the rise of the Colorado Plateau during the Miocene epoch. Volcanic activity in the southern area of the plateau prevented contact between the two populations. Further differentiation of the western form into six subspecies involved adaptation to various cooler climates west of the Rocky Mountains. The subspecies that occurs in the Cowboy State today is the Faded Midget Rattlesnake, a diminutive snake with a somewhat subdued pattern.

Feel free to chime in with your opinion about what your state's snake should be, if it differs from mine. What do you think the National Snake would be, if the USA had one? Vote in the poll at the right, or share your opinion in the comments below. If you missed Part I, check it out!


Thanks to Pierson Hill, Todd Pierson, JD Willson, Taylor Henry, Dan Johnson, James Turek, and Gary Nafis for use of their photographs.

Creative Commons License

Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


john said...

Andrew, This post was well worth waiting for. I love that fact that you gave the really obscure species their due, although a little heavy on the garter, and hognose snakes.
Since you chose Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake to represent Arizona, (a wise choice) I would like to nominate the Arizona Mountain Kingsnake to be the national snake.

Unknown said...

I think a more suitable national snake would be the Eastern Diamondback or possibly the Timber Rattlesnake. As the first snake type mentioned by our founding fathers in Benjamin Franklin's "join or die" illustration with a segmented rattlesnake representing the thirteen colonies published as a political cartoon in the newspaper Pennsylvania Gazette and then used as a national symbol on the Gadsden Flag on of our nation's first flags with the famous motto "don't tread on me," the rattlesnake has as much symbolic history with our country as the eagle. Which such a rich history of symbolism and usage during our struggles to become an independent country and as a unique animal type found only in the Americas, a rattlesnake is the most appropriate American national snake.

Unknown said...

Great stuff Andrew, it was an interesting read.

Unknown said...

Great read! I've been looking forward to part II and I'm going to second the nomination for Timber Rattlesnake as the National Snake (the EDB range is too restricted). Given the wide range of the Timber throughout the East Coast and Midwest and its role in representing the colonies during the Revolutionary War (as mentioned), our history is closely tied to that of Crotalus horridus.

Unknown said...

i love snakes and i also love that you wrote some about them. if you would be so kind to look at my blog http://funfactsabouteverything.blogspot.com/ and tell me what you think about it i would be so happy.

Unknown said...

Great basin rattlers have actually never been formally documented in Wyoming. I should know- I worked for Wyoming Game and Fish for a summer, and since then they've been my white whale.

Andrew Durso said...

Sam, you're absolutely right! I'm really sorry about that mistake. I'll have to do a little homework to figure out what to change it to. Any suggestions? I'd like to adhere to the rule I set about not duplicating, which might be kind of tough.

Unknown said...

You could leave it as Crotalus oreganus, but just specify the midget faded subspecies C. o. concolor. They're absolutely lovely snakes to work with, they're an odd addition to the herpetofauna of Wyoming because of how the populations established themselves, and they don't overlap with what you have for any other state.

By the way, I love your selection for my state's snake- the Butler's garter snake is what I've been saying should be Wisconsin's state reptile for a few years now.

Andrew Durso said...

Thanks Sam. I've made the change. How did the Wyoming populations establish?

Unknown said...

Andrew, where do you find the time? Brilliant stuff. If I might quibble, my vote would be for the Green Ratsnake to be the state snake of Arizona and obscurus as the state snake of New Mexico. Like birds, gotta give some love to a snake that barely makes it into the US and only in a few locales.

Also this, gives obscurus a shout out and it seems to have higher conservation needs than willardi.


Andrew Durso said...

You're probably right David. I really did want to have one blindsnake in there though, maybe I could have fit it in elsewhere? I was pretty excited about my first blindsnake, which I found in New Mexico, at the time I was writing this, so that probably contributed.

Unknown said...

I think it is a brilliant idea no matter what snakes are chosen as snakes need all the positive PR they can get!

Keep in touch,

Andrew Durso said...

Thanks David!