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Eastern hognose snake (<em>Heterodon platyrhinos</em>). Photo: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Heterodon_platirhinos_head.jpg">Dawson</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos). Photo: Dawson, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Our mildly venomous neighbor, the Hognose snake

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The Eastern hognose snake is better known by its nickname, puff adder, derived from its aggressive display when disturbed. Its bite is mildly venomous, capable of sedating small prey, such as toads. Martha Foley and Curt Stager discuss this common northeastern reptile.

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Martha Foley: Not too long ago we did a Natural Selections segment on snakes in our part of Northern New York, our region, and we missed one. So in fairness to Hognose snakes, tell me about Hognose snakes.

Curt Stager: I have to say at the outset, coincidentally when we did that piece I went to a presentation by Kenneth Barnett who works for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, who sort of has taken on Hognose snakes as his personal passion. He knows everything about them and he’s basically doing a lot of fieldwork, pretty much on his own time, and finds them in the southern Adirondacks as well as way further south, down in Florida.

MF: What do they look like?

CS: It’s a little hard to describe. The adults are maybe three feet long. They’re really variable. Some are almost black, but you could say mottled brownish colors, mostly. They look kind of fat, you could say sluggish. The main thing is if you walk up to them you’ll see that their snout is sort of shovel-shaped, like a hog nose. Pushed upward like you pushed your nose up a little bit. One of the things that gives them their local name is that they’ll puff up and hiss and act really fierce and aggressive so that you think you’re dealing with a cobra or something like that.

MF: Are they called puff adders, commonly?

CS: Yeah, in fact Barnett says when he’s out in the field asking in neighborhoods, “do you have any Hognose snakes around?” people will say no, but if he asks if they have puff adders or puffers he’ll get, “Oh yeah, I got a puffer in my back yard that comes back every year and lays eggs in a little burrow that it digs.” So that’s named for the puffing up. They’ll hiss really loudly and their tongue will be sticking out. They’ll flatten their head and flatten their neck and rise up so they look just like a cobra.

MF: Are they poisonous?

CS: Actually, yes. Technically they are.

MF: So we can add them to the list of poisonous snakes in our region now.

CS: Yes, but I should immediately follow that by saying so are garter snakes and ring neck snakes. They’re all in this cobra family and they do have small fangs back along their jaw.  They’re not going to come get you with it, but there is a venom in there. In the case of Hognose snakes, they’ll almost never bite you, that’s pretty much there to deal with toads. Toads are one of their favorite foods.

MF: So they eat toads?

CS: Yes. Basically what happens is they’ll find a toad and the toad will take in air and puff up so it’s hard to swallow, so they’ll get it in their mouth and the poison in that little set of fangs will sedate the toad, which will exhale and relax and go down the chute.

MF: So what else do they do besides eat toads and look like a cobra? Do they use that snout for anything?

CS: Yeah! They like sandy habitats like pine barrens or grassy sand dunes or meadows and one of the reasons is that the females will actually dig a burrow to lay the eggs in, and she does it with her snout. It’s like a little shovely thing and it takes her three or four days to do it.

MF: So this guy watches them do that, probably. Right?

CS: He watches them do it and there’s just endless nice natural history stories about these things and one of the observations he had was that in addition to the hissing, flattening the head, and fake striking, they’ll play dead sometimes for 15 minutes or so. They’ll often roll over on their backs like they’re dead. One of the mysteries that he’s trying to solve now though is that oftentimes they’ll throw up their last meal, too. It sounds like maybe you’re driving away a pesky dog or person with this gross pile of stuff, but he said usually it’s a toad or a poisonous red eft; it’s the one species of aquatic newt that has tetrototoxin, a deadly poison, in its skin.

MF: Why are they doing that?

CS: The most reasonable explanation is that it’s just unloading its body so it can get away quicker or trying to distract a predator with that. But Barnett notices that usually those toads or red efts that are poisonous, both of which are poisonous, are usually in pretty good condition. He wonders if maybe it’s a toxic defense, to put this poisonous thing in between you and your predator in hopes that maybe it distracts him and he takes it. It’s just a wild speculation but an interesting thought.

MF: Sneaky snake, if it does that. So just for those of us that may want to avoid the Hognose snake, where would we be likely to find them?

CS: To sort of turn the question around, the way that Barnett would describe it is that the perfect, ideal hog nose snake habitat would be some kind of sandy place, pitch pine forest or something like that, or a sandy meadow, especially if there is some shallow temporary pools where toads will come in and breed in the spring. Because in addition to eating the toads they also like to go to the drying up pools later in the spring when the tadpoles are in there and eat the tadpoles.

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