Water (Snakes), Water (Snakes) Everywhere…

This is the next in a series on snakes that’s being written for you by The Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department Supervisor, Judith Bryja. Our Herp Department knows their stuff, and since we get so much interest in snakes, Judith is writing this informative blog series each week just for you!  If you’d like to read the series from the beginning, click here.

Frequenting the same habitat as the venomous water moccasin or cottonmouth, water snakes are numerous in species and numbers. They prefer wooded areas near slow moving water.  Swamps, ponds, marshes, bayous, small streams, even muddy ditches are all places where you can find these snakes. 

Their diet consists mostly of frogs and fish.  Babies are born live usually in the early fall.  They’re excellent swimmers but will spend considerable time on land and sunning themselves on submerged logs.  When swimming (unlike the cottonmouth which holds its head high and with the back visible) the head is held just barely out of the water and the body is mostly submerged. 

Like most snakes, their first reaction to a threat is to get away, but if they cannot, they will vigorously defend themselves by striking and biting and by releasing a foul smelling liquid from their scent glands. There are about 10 species in Texas with about half of them occurring in the Houston area.  We will look at what are probably the 3 most commonly encountered.

The broad banded water snake (Nerodia fasciata confluens)

Color is variable but usually the background is yellow, brown, or even red.  Wide irregular bands of black or brown break up the ground color.  The yellowish belly has random splotches of black/brown.  They have a dark stripe that runs from the eye to the end of the mouth.  Except for brighter colors, babies look the same as adults.  Adult size is 20-30 inches. 

The yellow-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster)

Color is grey-green (though sometimes darker to almost black).  The back may have indistinct darker crossbars.  The belly is bright yellow as is the area around the mouth.  Babies are heavily patterned and have a pink hue. Average adult size is 24-36 inches.

The diamond-backed water snake (Nerodia rhombifer)

Color is any shade of olive, grey, or brown with dark markings which look sort of like chain link fencing or diamonds (hence the common name).  The belly is yellowish with dark scattered crescent shaped marks.  The head is large and flattened with a distinct neck; this is a good example of why the “triangle shaped” head thing does not work to distinguish venomous from nonvenomous snakes.  Babies look pretty much the same, just brighter.  This is our largest water snake with an average adult size of 30-48 inches.   It is also in general our most cantankerous water snake, not hesitant to get right into the thrashing, striking, biting, spewing stinky stuff part of its defense repertoire. 

At present, we have a broad-banded water snake on exhibit here in the Reptile/Amphibian building right next door to the venomous cottonmouth with which it is often confused.

Come back for the next installment in this Snake Series!

For more information on Texassnakes, Judith has reccomended these two resources: http://www.herpsoftexas.org/ and  The Field Guide to TX Snakes written by James Dixon and former Houston Zoo director John Werler.

The Eastern Hognosed Snake

This is the next in a series on snakes that’s being written for you by The Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department Supervisor, Judith Bryja. Our Herp Department knows their stuff, and since we get so much interest in snakes, Judith is writing this informative blog series each week just for you!  If you’d like to read the series from the beginning, click here.

The Eastern hognosed snake (Heterodon platirhinos) is a local harmless snake with some interesting characteristics and behaviors which we’ll get to in a bit.

Basics first.  Adult size is about 2 feet.  Coloration is super variable; usually yellowish with brown splotches but ranging also into orange, olive, grey, and black.  Red is unusual but does occur.  The splotches are darker in color, irregular, and pretty much all over the back and sides of the snake. 

The belly is usually grayish and mottled.  The underside of the tail is lighter than the belly.   Sometimes the pattern has faded so much in older animals that you can’t discern it any longer and sometimes there are individuals that don’t have a pattern at all.

This snake has the distinction of a strongly upturned snout.  It uses this to “plow” and move soil and debris to make burrows in which to shelter.  It also comes in quite handy for rooting around and catching their preferred diet of toads.  Toads make up the majority of their diet though they will also eat frogs and salamanders and on occasion, lizards and/or their eggs.   They like fairly open wooded areas (good toad hunting habitat).   

Hognosed snakes rarely if ever attempt to bite.  I’ve tried many times (just to see if they would)  and they steadfastly refuse.  They do however have some very interesting defensive behaviors that are usually put into action in a predictable order:

1. Lie still and hope the threat goes away

2. Run away

3. Strike a scary pose which consists of raising and flattening the head and neck. Some of the neck ribs are elevated which spreads the neck just like a cobra. The snake inhales and exhales deeply and audibly resulting in a loud hissing noise.

4. Stike menacingly at the offensive party. The funny part about this is that they usually never open the mouth at all.

5. Finally, if none of the above work it’s “play dead” time.  The snake will fake “death throes” writhing and twisting its body until it winds up completely upside down.  It often discharges fecal material and a stinky fluid from its musk glands, opens its mouth a bit, and will even loll the tongue out of the mouth.  But wait, it gets even funnier.  If you take one in this stage and flip it right side up it will immediately flip itself back over and go right back to being “dead”.  After a few minutes of being left alone, they will right themselves and continue on their way.  These snakes should get academy awards for these performances as elaborate as they are.

Due to some of these behaviors they are often called puff adders or spreading adders.  Yet another example of the confusion of common names-there is a very large venomous snake in Africa called puff adder.  At present we have a western hognosed snake on exhibit but it will soon be replaced with an eastern

 

For more information on Texas snakes, Judith has reccomended these two resources: http://www.herpsoftexas.org/ and  The Field Guide to TX Snakes written by James Dixon and former Houston Zoo director John Werler.

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