by Will Brown
And the award for best actor goes to … the hognose snake! Okay, so there are no awards for acting in the animal kingdom, but if there were, the hognose snake would certainly deserve one for its amazing acting abilities. There are three species of hognose snake, the eastern, southern and western. All of them act by using specialized behaviors in order to protect themselves from predators. They have other things in common as well as some differences between them, so lets get to know these snakes a little better and find out more about their unique protective behavior.
All three species are closely related, so scientists have put them into the same genus or group called Heterodon . This strange word means different tooth which is a reference to the two enlarged teeth, which they all have at the back of their mouths. Hognose snakes use these special teeth to help them to catch their favorite food, toads. Another way in which they are all the same is the appearance of the scales on their noses. Where most snakes have smooth, rounded snouts, hognose snakes have wide, upturned snouts. It gives them a distinctive look, which is why they are called hognose snakes. Those unique noses arent just for appearance; they use them to root through loose soil in search of toads and other animals to eat. These are a few ways in which they are the same, but they are also different enough from each other for scientists to break the genus Heterodon them into separate species or subgroups. Lets learn more about each group.
Eastern hognose snakes are so named because they can be found across much of the Eastern half of the United States. They range in size from six inches at hatching to over three feet as adults. They are polymorphic, which means they can be a variety of colors. Some are solid black, while others are gray, brown, red, orange or yellow with dark blotches down their back.
The southern hognose snake is the smallest in size of the three groups. They are usually around 14 to 20 inches long and can be found in the southeastern United States, from North Carolina and west to Louisiana. They are pretty snakes, usually shades of tan and brown, but arent found in a wide variety of colors like their eastern cousin.
The western species is usually only slightly larger than the southern species. They range in size from 15-25 inches with the record size being 39.5 inches long. Like their southern counterpart, they are usually shades of tan and brown with dark blotches running down the center of their backs. The western hognose has the most upturned snout of all three species. It also includes small rodents in its diet while the other two species eat almost exclusively amphibians like frogs and toads. Western hognose snakes are found in much of the west-central United States, from the Montana/Canada border and south to Mexico. They like to live in relatively dry, sandy or gravelly areas. In Montana, habitats like these are found in the plains of the eastern part of the state, which is exactly where you might find a western hognose snake.
So what makes these snakes such great actors? Most of the time they act like any other snake, but when a predator or some other threat comes along, they are truly unique indeed. Hognose snakes use several tactics to fool predators, usually starting with acting tougher than they really are. When threatened, a hognose snake will flatten out its head and the first third of its body to make itself look much larger. If threatened further, it will strike out at its enemy. With each lunge, the hognose snake forces air out of its lungs making a loud, raspy hiss. This might look and sound very scary, but all of this is nothing more than a bluff because hognose snakes usually dont even open their mouths while striking. They just want to look frightening, because they are actually quite harmless. These impressive threat displays have earned hognose snakes such scary-sounding names as puff adder, spreading adder, blow viper, and hissing adder.
This great acting is enough to fool many animals into looking elsewhere for a meal, but if the predator is persistent, the hognose then tries its next trick, rolling onto its back and playing dead. At this point, some truly amazing things happen. First, the snake will open its mouth and lets its tongue hang out. In an attempt to appear injured, hognose snakes can actually make the inside of their mouths bleed, even though they really havent been hurt. Then, the snakes heart rate will slow down. Herpetologists (people that study reptiles and amphibians) have recorded the heart rate of hognose snakes and found that when they turn over to play dead, their heart rate drops almost instantly from 50 - 80 beats per minute to only 3 - 15 beats per minute. While squirming around on its back as if it were dying, special glands near its tail emit a liquid that really stinks. Finally, it lies completely still. Not only does the snake look dead, it smells dead too! Many predators arent interested in eating such a smelly meal. The hognose snake has now used all of its tricks. All it can do now is lie motionless on its back and wait until the danger has passed. When the coast is clear, it will close its mouth and slowly begin to turn over. A few flicks of its tongue and it slithers off to live another day.
These incredible behaviors are meant to protect hognose snakes, but unfortunately they dont always work when people are involved. People often kill snakes, including harmless hognose snakes, because they are afraid of them. This is really sad because snakes, even venomous species, dont seek out people to hurt them; in fact, they will almost always quickly crawl away from a person if given the chance. Remember, all snakes have a place in the ecosystem. So, if you ever get the chance to see a snake in the wild, consider yourself lucky; but if you get to see a hognose snake, consider yourself very lucky because you have spotted one of the best actors in the animal kingdom.