Yesterday morning, as I ambled up the driveway to close the deer gate, I stumbled across a species that I have wanted to see for the past forty years, ever since I first read about it in the old Golden Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: an eastern hognose snake.
Like about 30% of the hognose snakes in the piedmont area , it was melanistic, with jet black scales showing none of the brown camouflage markings of the typical color form. At first glance, it looked like an unusually short and stout black rat snake, but then I noticed the distinctive upturned snout that gives the eastern hognose its common name.
The eastern hognose is one of the most interesting and unusual snakes in North America. Why? First, hognose snakes feed almost exclusively on amphibians, primarily toads, so they are resistant to the bufotoxins exuded by their prey. When threatened, toads inflate with air, but hognose snakes have the tools to deal with this defense mechanism: enlarged rear fangs and a mild venom. Some sources suggest that the venom anesthetizes toads, causing them to deflate, while others indicate that hognose snakes “pop” inflated toads with their fangs. Perhaps both are true.
The hognose snake’s second claim to fame is its truly spectacular behavioral repertoire. When threatened, a hognose will first puff up, hiss loudly, and spread its neck like a little cobra. The snake that I found showed us this behavior when I lifted it into a bucket to carry it away from the road to a safer spot in the garden.
By the time the kids and I deposited the snake next to a large pile of rotting logs and some good undergrowth, it apparently felt sufficiently threatened to perform its most famous routine. Writhing dramatically, it rolled over and then went limp with its mouth gaping and tongue hanging out.
It held this pose for about a minute before spoiling the effect by popping its head up to have a look around.
Deciding that we had disturbed the snake enough, we went away.
- Palmer, W.M., and Braswell, A.L., 1995, Reptiles of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press.
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