Caged on display at the Community Showcase Saturday was this Western Hognose Snake, making a public appearance at the Carpenter Nature Center booth along with a Blanding’s Turtle and Yellow Rat Snake, which eats . The Western Hognose is not deadly to humans, but can look scary when it rears up with hooded majesty in the forest.Photo by Joseph Back.
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Western Hognose imitates Cobra, but is not deadly to humans

Fox snake also among reptiles commonly mistaken as dangerous

So there you are, in the Minnesota forsest. Walking along by yourself on the forest floor, with nothing but a twig for self defense, you look down— and freeze. Just to the side of the path is a long spotted reptile, rearing up in hooded fashion, apparently ready to strike. Choose from the following: A) Kill it. Snakes with hoods are deadly.

B) Consider that it’s Minnesota, where just two of eighteen snake species are venomous. Leave it be.

C) A. Definitely ‘A.’ Why is this a question?

D) Use your superior snake knowledge to try making a friend, until it potentially tries to play dead so you leave.

If you answered ‘B’ or ‘D,’ you possess a special kind of snake knowledge. It might not be good to make a friend (better left alone), but you know enough to know you’ve likely encountered a hognose snake, which has both eastern and western varieties along with a hood like a cobra, but isn’t one. So what is it?

“A medium sized snake that often startles people the first time they see one,” the Minnesota DNR states. “However, this common snake is not venomous and eats mostly toads.”

Belonging to the colubrid family, the hognose varies in color, with varieties including “yellow, gray, brown, olive, and black,” the DNR notes. This can also include “slate gray with dark blotches behind the eyes,” while “dark brown blotches on the back” are also a possibility.

Belonging to the southeast border of the Mississippi River and extending north into both deciduous and conifer forests, the Eastern Hognose (Minnesota’s variety) mates in spring, with females laying 15 to 25 eggs in cavities under rocks or logs in sandy soil. Eggs are left in June or July and hatch in August to September. Eating frogs and salamanders as well as small mammals, the eastern hognose is not without enemies.

In short, “hawks and various mammals kill eastern hognose snakes,” the DNR reports, going on to include “people who believe they’re poisonous,” among threats to hognose longevity. So what threat do they pose to people, besides loud hissing?

In short, they play dead, but strictly as a defense tactic. Turning upside down and expanding size, the aim is to get people to leave. While also capable striking with closed mouth, the DNR says that, “this is considered a bluff,” Should bluff striking fail the hognose, a performance of playing dead may follow “if the predator does not retreat.” With fangs in the back of its mouth to puncture large toads for easier swallowing, the hognose mostly wants to be left alone. Nevertheless, “Eastern hognose snake numbers often decline in areas where is there is much development such as highways and houses,” the DNR reports.

Also on the list of non-venomous snakes and extending along the southeastern state border towards the west into prairie grasslands is the western fox snake.

Sometimes mistaken for a rattlesnake due to imitative behaviors, the fox snake is also non-venomous, preying on “mice, birds, frogs, and other small animals,” before being preyed on in turn by ‘hawks, foxes, and coyotes,” per the DNR. The Western Fox snake can reach five feet long, with adults having “an unmarked bronze colored head,” while younger snakes have a black line from eye to jaw, along with one on top between the eyes. The fox snake is a constrictor, meaning it squeezes mice, birds, and other animal food choices.

As to the two species to beware of in Minnesota, these are the Timber Rattlesnake along with the Eastern Massasauga, both of which are venomous and best left alone, being ‘threatened’ and ‘endangered’ as well.

Some snakes are dangerous, while others aren’t (to humans). Knowing the difference, can help everyone get along better, perhaps with less anxiety.

We’re still not going anywhere near snakes intentionally though—call it chicken.

May 4, 2022