By Bennett Moseley
Spreading activity by the Eastern hognose snake. Photo by Gene Ott @ snakesandfrogs.com
If you met a snake that tried to imitate a cobra what would you think? You’d probably want avoid it—which is the exact result the hognose snake wanted.
Spreading adder is the name commonly used for a group of snakes called hognose snakes. The term actually refers to a type of defensive behavior exhibited by the animal to deter predators.
When frightened, the Southern hognose snake (Heterodon simus) will instinctively coil and flatten its head and neck and possibly make a hissing noise.
If this behavior is not enough to frighten away intruders the snake may roll over and play dead, often convulsing and sometimes vomiting blood to convince a potential predator. Both the Eastern and the Southern hognose possess this ability and both are found in the Southeast.
However, biologists are most concerned with the Southern hognose snake because population numbers are declining. This snake has not actually been observed in Alabama in over 20 years.
The Southern hognose is a small but heavy-bodied snake that may reach lengths of up to 24 inches. They have pointed upturned snouts and can be distinguished from the Eastern hognose by examining the underside of the tail.
The underside of the Southern is the same color as the belly and the Eastern will be lighter than the belly under the tail. Southern hognose snakes are never solid black. They are always tan, gray, or reddish in color with a series of dark brown blotches down the center of the back and smaller blotches on the sides.
Photo by Gene Ott @snakesandfrogs.com
Although, Southern hognose snakes were historically found in the Coastal Plain region from North Carolina to Mississippi and Florida, this species has declined in recent years and may only be found in locations in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. It has not been observed in Alabama since the 1970s.
Hognose snakes prefer well-drained sandy areas and can be found where fire-maintained longleaf pine and scrub oak habitats exist. Native grasses in these habitats, such as wiregrass and bluestem, are important species for cover. These habitat types have also declined in Alabama, which is thought to be a contributing factor in the decline of population numbers of the Southern hognose snake.
Southern hognose snakes are active during the day. They feed almost entirely on toads and are equipped with long teeth, called rear fangs, used to puncture inflated toads and facilitate swallowing. Hognose snakes seem to possess immunity to the toxins produced by toads. Females lay six to 14 eggs in sandy soil or under logs in early summer and they usually hatch in September or October.
The recent apparent decline of the Southern hognose snake is of great conservation concern. Several factors have been implicated as contributing to this decline. The introduction of imported fire ants as well as increased contact with humans are two such factors. Perhaps the loss of fire-maintained longleaf forest and the conversion of upland habitats are two of the more important limiting factors today.
Much research is needed in this area. Currently programs are available to assist private landowners in restoring these declining habitat types where they historically existed. These programs are administered through agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Services Agency and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources through its Landowner Incentives Program.
It is hoped that through research and restoration of these declining habitat types we can one day observe these amazing creatures again in Alabama.
For more information, contact Bennett Moseley Certified Wildlife Biologist, 105 east 5th Ave., Linden, AL 36748 or visit www.outdooralabama.com.
-- Bennett Moseley / Wildlife Biologist
Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries