Sunday, February 24, 2013

Surprise Encounter with an Eastern Hog-nosed Snake

A summer or two ago found your blogger and a couple botanist friends out and about in the famed dolomite prairies and cedar barrens of Adams county.  It was a particularly hot and muggy day, even by Ohio's standards that was spent meandering through the grasses and wildflowers that were springing to life in splashes of pink, purple, yellow, and green.  The heat and humidity of early July is the typical admission one pays to witness first hand the rich display of color this area's prairies are known for, and I must say it's completely worth it.  As we made our way through a larger section of the preserve, I spotted an exceptionally stunning specimen of the rare wildflower bluehearts (Buchnera americana) and moved in to set up the camera.  All of a sudden a loud hissing noise emitted from the ground near my boots.  I looked down and immediately saw the source of the noise and was delighted at what I saw.

Eastern hog-nosed snake among the prairie grasses and forbs

Silently slithering by was one of our state's most unmistakable and curious of serpents: the eastern hog-nosed snake (Heterodon platyrhino).  I must admit I was taken completely by surprise at the chance discovery of this fine reptile but my reaction was/is quite the opposite of what I would imagine a large majority of our populace's would be.  It's unfortunate the amount of fear and misplaced animosity these incredible creatures receive from most other human beings.  For centuries snakes and their ilk have suffered at the hands of the misinformed and misguided when in actuality they should be commended and respected for their roles in the environment, if not just for the fact they have been around for over 100 million years.  Hog-nosed snakes range throughout most of Ohio (except the northeast corner), and prefer drier, open habitats comprised of sandy soils.  It's little wonder then that your blogger came across this fellow in the open barrens of Adams county.

E. hog-nosed snake showing a classic method of self-defense

What makes hog-nosed snakes so fascinating is probably the first thing you'll notice about them when you come across one.  Hog-nosed snakes utilize a very neat method of self-defense by inflating their head with air and flattening their upper bodies in an attempt to appear larger and more intimidating to whatever threat is at hand.  This is often accompanied with hissing to spread even more fear and intimidation to their agitators.  If all else fails the hog-nosed snake will even go so far as to simply flip onto its back and feign death with its mouth comically agape and forked tongue hanging out.  That's right, these snakes will play dead as a last ditch effort to draw disinterest from their predators!

E. hog-nosed snake showing off its best cobra impression

The photo above may conjure images and thoughts of the venomous and deadly cobras of Africa and Asia but fear not, North America is void of any such species.  The hog-nosed snake has no intention or idea of its accurate impressions to such a feared snake but I'm sure it will do a number on an unsuspecting and unknowing person who stumbles across one in the field.  Another interesting aspect to this snake's behavior is when putting on this display it will often repeatedly strike but never attempt to bite.  This acts more like a high speed headbutt than anything else.  Combined with being non-venomous, this snake is truly harmless to humans and should never be harmed or killed in any fashion or for any reason.  Remember these animals are much more afraid of you and in all reality they have the need and right to be.  For every one person that has met their fate at the bite of a snake, 10,000 snakes have probably perished at the hands of humans.

E. hog-nosed snake showing its characteristic 'hog-like' nose

Looking at this angle of the snake it's not hard to see how and why this species received its common name. Its pointed, upturned 'nose' appears very much like that of a hog and is an excellent characteristic for identification. The nose along with its unique behavior should quickly confirm its identity in the field and squash any fear of this snake being a danger.  Hog-nosed snakes are also unique in that their primary source of food comes from toads.  Few other animals prey on toads due to their foul taste and the toxins in their skin glands. However, this species of snake has evolved enzymes in its digestive tract that neutralize the toad's toxins.  Its namesake nose is also used to help burrow and dig out its prey from their subterranean hiding places.

Another interesting trait is the presence of enlarged teeth on the hog-nosed snake's maxillary bone that are used to aid in the swallowing of its toad meals.  Toad's use the defensive strategy of puffing up to make themselves larger and thus harder to swallow.  Those enlarged teeth of the hog-nosed snaked puncture the toad on its initial bite and "deflate" it.  I absolutely love specific predator-prey relationships and how they have come to evolve such interesting traits/characters.  

It's my wish that with more understanding and education on our natural world, people will grow to see just how complex and precious it is and make more effort and time to preserve, protect, and appreciate its beauty.  I hope this post will have some positive effect on those who fear and hate snakes for unnecessary reasons. Understandably we all have our fears that cripple and hold us back but with these animals it's something that can be unlearned and reversed.  


  1. What an exciting find! I have come across these fascinating creatures several times in my hikes around Saratoga County, and I always hope to see another. Their behavior is something to see! Another defense is to emit a foul odor, and yes, it sure does stink!

  2. Ever since Josh was little, any time we had the chance to be around snakes, I would make sure we were. We've held anything from Garter Snakes to Blue Racers to Albino Pythons. I agree 100% about changing people's minds about these wonderful reptiles. Thanks for the great blog post!

  3. Great animal. I have seen a couple Adams Co hogs myself, but that one is by far the best looking. I don't see enough hoggies these days unfortunately, despite looking for them pretty hard. Thanks for sharing.