Hognose A Star Performer
If you happen upon a hognose you’re in for quite a show.
The snake will flare its neck like a cobra, hiss, coil its body and strike menacingly like a rattlesnake. For an encore, it will roll over, convulsing dramatically, and stick out its tongue in a death scene worthy of an Academy Award.
“It will go limp as a wet noodle,” said Bob Jacksy, a Metroparks naturalist who has identified more than a few of the snakes for people who mistook the harmless hognose for one of the venomous serpents it pretends to be.
Mimicry and bluffing are just two of the defensive maneuvers in the hognose’s repertoire. When cornered, it may spray a coyote, badger, curious child or other predator with a foul smelling musk, or hurl the contents of its belly – most likely an undigested toad – in the direction of the attacker.
But it’s all an elaborate con. People have nothing to fear from the great pretender named for the snout-like, upturned scales on the front of its face. The hognose’s teeth are positioned so far back in its jaws, it is unlikely it could puncture human skin. Toads, however, have reason to be wary.
Found only in the United States, hognose snakes (there are eastern, southern, western and plains species) vary greatly in color depending on when and where they are found.
The eastern hognose (Heterodon platirhinos), which grows to 20 to 33 inches long, is common throughout the eastern U.S., including the northwest corner and southern half of Ohio. In some other states they are a protected species. The eastern and western species’ ranges overlap in Iowa.
The eastern hognose is not as choosy about its habitats as its western cousins. They make their home in heavily wooded areas, prairies and grasslands, and are occasionally found on bluff prairies. They feed in damp areas, where their preferred prey, amphibians, are found. Like the western hognose, however, the eastern species prefers to burrow into sandy or loamy soil.
Hognose snakes are regularly seen in the sand of the Oak Openings Region, including Wildwood Preserve, Oak Openings Preserve, Secor and the Blue Creek Conservation Area.
The diurnal (active during the day) snake begins hibernation in October or November, and reappears in spring. Its breeding period is June through August, and it can hatch up to 60 young per year.
The hognose’s show of hostility has earned it nicknames such as “hissing adder,” “hissing sand snake” and “puff adder.” A field guide describes the animals as “serpents of extraordinary behavior.”
While seeing a hognose can be a memorable experience, the snake is also impressive for its ability to avoid being seen.
“First, they will be motionless, relying on their varying degrees of camouflage,” said Jacksy. “Varying degrees because they have a few different color morphs. Individual snakes are typically black, punctuated with yellow patching, but on some, instead of yellow there is beautiful burnt-orange coloration. Other snakes can be near-black to a dull gray with no patches.”
The hognose’s appearance and behavior often leads to misunderstandings, sometimes proving deadly to the snake.
“I have had more then a few brought to me, killed by folks wanting me to identify which venomous snake they just bagged with their garden shovel,” Jacksy said.
Jacksy tells residents and visitors to the Oak Openings that hognose snakes are not only harmless, but fascinating animals whose performances are a rare treat to wildlife watchers.