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Expect an Oscar-winning performance when this snake takes center stage.
R. Paul Matty
Years ago, when I was running just to run, I used to take off full tilt down the railroad tracks for a refreshing changes from the sterile blacktop. It took plenty of concentration to plant my feet just right on the moving ties: the spaces between them never seemed to quite match my stride, there were rotten ties, and missing one meant there was a good chance of twisting an ankle on the soft, eroded gravel pitted with holes and depressions.
On one warm, sunny morning, I had gone far enough and turned back for the run home. I was concentrating hard on my pace and steps, focusing on the moving ties about 10 feet ahead. I had backtracked barely 30 yards when I saw it dead center on the tie – a fully coiled, ready-to-strike snake. I was completely surprised and at full stride. It was now only a step away. I took a BIG leap that I hoped would carry me safely over the impending menace.
I got lucky. Seconds later, I stopped, then turned to see what kind of snake had scared me so. I'm sure I must have startled it on both my outbound run and the return trip.
I had never seen a snake quite like this. It was fully alert, and on the defensive. Parts of its body constantly tensed then relaxed, but most of the body remained coiled and stationary. Its raised head remained eerily fixed in one position. The eyes never wavered from a fixed stare right at me. The broad triangular head I associated with poisonous species was hooded by a large, flattened neck complete with black spots on either side. And that noise! Those loud, long, ominous hisses that added to the visual display that screamed danger, danger, danger! to me.
All the old jungle movie scenes of poisonous cobras flashed before my eyes. I calmed down a bit, remembered that this was northeastern Wisconsin, and the strapping, wannabe naturalist in me took over as my breaths came slower and more regularly.
So what was I looking at? I started taking mental notes. The snake appeared about two to three feet long with a girth of two to three inches. It sported a dark brown, almost olive-colored back shadowed by a hint of diamond markings. That hooded, black-spotted neck was attached to a body that kept moving and hissing like a steam-blowing locomotive. I was stumped, and my curiosity demanded a closer look.
I found and grabbed about a six-foot-long stick and slowly approached. I didn't want to hurt it, but I wanted to see it strike at a safe distance to better determine its identity.
The snake's menacing disposition intensified as I neared, but it never moved. In fact, I never got any response at all until the stick touched its skin.
The reaction sure wasn't what I expected. The snake acted as if I had given it a death blow. It buried its head in its writhing coils. Within seconds it acted mortally wounded, turned upside-down and defecated. Soon the writhing slowed and the snake lay completely stiff, belly up, mouth open with its tongue hanging out. An actual spot of blood glistened with saliva.
It was quite a convincing act, but I knew the snake wasn't dead. As much as I tried to roll it over on its belly, the snake kept returning to its belly-up position. Now I knew just what the slinking thespian was.
It was a hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos), famous for this show of bravado followed by playing possum when challenged.
I backed off. I knew in a few moments the snake would feel secure again, right itself and crawl away. I didn't want to wait around, but neither did I want to leave the snake out in the open where it would be vulnerable to hawks. I picked up the "dead" snake with the stick, put it down in some brushy cover away from the railroad bed, and I moved on.
The hognose is often called the "blow snake" or "puff adder," by locals. Its genus, Heterodon, is unique to North America. The Eastern Hognose snake we find in Wisconsin occupies a range extending from New Hampshire south to Florida and west to central Teaxs and South Dakota. Incredibly, these snakes are completely harmless to people. Though they may strike at danger, the litereature does not record any incidences of human bites. The hognose is not venemous and has no fangs capable of inflicting human wounds.
The ferocious show discourages some potential predators. Unfortunately, the act is so good that people have destroyed hognose snakes on sight. Tales of "poisonous breath" and claims that the snake can "spit poison in your eyes" are completely false.
The hognose snake inhabits dry sandy areas, though it will move to lowland areas when food is scarce. It feeds entirely on toads and frogs, though it clearly prefers the toads. Hognose snakes spend most of their time moving slowly and relying on their excellent sense of smell to detect and locate prey. If a toad or frog attempts to flee, a short, rigorous chase is on. These snakes are not constrictors. They seize their prey and swallow them whole, head first.
In June through early July, the females deposit a clutch of eight to 28 white, leathery eggs. The eggs adhere to each other and conserve moisture until the hatch. Newborn hognose snakes are about six to eight inches long and are gray in color, not browninsh like the adults. Some communal nesting sites contain more than 30 snakes in a compact nursery.
If you come across a hognose snake, remember that the reports of poison spit and bites are fable, not fact. Watch it from a distance with renewed interest and less fear.
R. Paul Matty gives snakes a wide berth from Crivitz, Wis.