Monday, February 6, 2012

Kirtland's Snake, Pt. 2

It's been a whirlwind last few days; off to the fabulous Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia for a speaking engagement, then out to the spectacular coastal Atlantic waters of Barnegat Light, New Jersey. I saw lots of interesting things on this brief foray, including some sensational birds, and I've got photos. I'll get to some of those soon.

The previous post, about an oddly marked (or unmarked) Kirtland's snake, Clonophis kirtlandii, generated some fairly heated debate. Go read the comments to see for yourself. After seeing those remarks, I sent the photos of this snake to some people who know snakes well, and also see Kirtland's snakes on a regular basis. Their opinions run counter to those in the pro queen snake camp, agreeing with Jeff Davis's initial identification of an unpatterned Kirtland's snake.

The question of this snake's identification is rather beyond me - I've seen scads of queen snakes, but never the much scarcer Kirtland's snake. Although I sometimes forget, I normally remember lessons learned of the folly of trying to label something which is tricky to identify without having any direct experience with said tricky organism. Hence, the value of seasoned experts such as Jeff Davis or any of the other authorities that weighed in to me with their thoughts on this snake.

One cautionary note: in the comments, much was made of the seemingly inappropriate habitat for Kirtland's snake shown in the photos. The animal was found in an area that still has noteworthy swaths of fairly intact habitat, and the stream corridor in this area still boasts spring-fed meadows hosting unusual plants such as hairy-fruited sedge, Carex trichocarpa. This sort of graminoid-dominated meadow is probably a pretty decent habitat for Kirtland's snake, from what I gather, and the county from which this record was made has previous Kirtland's snake records.

In any event, one of my snake-seeking friends, who probably sees more diversity and numbers of Ohio snakes in the field than most of us do, made the following interesting photo. It is a montage of a known queen snake, the aforementioned Kirtland's snake in the middle, and a known Kirtland's snake. The photo features tight head shots, so that detailed comparisons of the scales can be made. I've uploaded it at the highest resolution available to me, so by clicking on the photo you should be able to see things pretty well.

The devil is sometimes in the details. Have a look and see what you think.


Anonymous said...

Jim, thanks for mentioning the comments and following up on this for us. I compared shots I have of several Kirtland's snakes that were taken in different areas in Ohio with Queen snake shots from central Ohio. I also did some quick Google image searches and flipped through some of my field guides. I have to say, I still think it's a Queen. But, like I said, I appreciate you asking around and getting other opinions. Hopefully more people do some detective work and share their opinions. Debate like this is what makes science so interesting!

Todd Pierson said...


I was directed towards this blog to check out the snake, and my immediate, secondary, and current reactions were that it is Regina septemvittata--without a doubt.

As others have mentioned, many things about the snake are inconsistent with a Clonophis. The white "notch" on the neck is absent--a trait that has been present on every Clonophis I have seen in Indiana (15-20). Check out some more of my photos here:

Furthermore, coloration is irrelevant on a snake that is stained like yours. I have seen (what would have been) banded Nerodia stained totally rusty-red, so the color of the stain should not be a factor in determining the ID. However, a white stripe near the venter of the snake--something present in Regina but not (to this extent) Clonophis--is apparent.

And to put icing on the cake, the habitat/habits of your snake are not quite right for Clonophis. While I have seen them near streams like yours, it is very bizarre to imagine one basking in the fashion that yours is--a behavior that is very typical of Regina.

Like some of the other guys here, I have good experience with both species, I can't really imagine this thing being a Clonophis. None of the evidence I present above is new to this discussion, but here's my vote (and total confidence) for Regina.

Todd Pierson

Buckeyeherper said...

Still no way that is a kirtlands. I know I am not changing any minds, but hopefully when people google this link up they will read the comments and realize the pictures are incorrectly labeled.

I love that Todd, whose photo you used from flicker, also feels it is a queen snake...

More to come when I get back in town.


Jason Folt

Carl Brune said...

I am also convinced the animal in question is a Queen Snake.The reasons have been laid out by other commenters. I would like to add one consideration:"extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Clonophis is seldom encountered (at best) in central Ohio these days and the situation (basking along a rocky stream) is also unusual for the species. On the other hand, Queen Snakes are both relatively abundant and commonly seen basking along rocky streams in central Ohio. This context should make the "certainty threshold" for reaching the conclusion of "Kirtland's" much higher. I don't see how the evidence (2 photos, some idea of the locality and habitat) is sufficient to support the conclusion.


Carl Brune

Pierson said...

I'll add another piece of evidence in support of the snake being a Queen Snake. Kirtland's Snakes have 6 supralabials (upper lip scales) while Queen Snakes have 7. The "mystery snake" obviously has 7.

Andrew Durso said...


I'm afraid to say that I am completely in-line with Todd, Jason, Carl, Peter, and Pierson on the ID of this snake. I've known some of these guys for many years, and I've never known any of them to misidentify anything, or not to admit doubt when it was present. In addition, I have seen a good number of both R. septemvittata and C. kirtlandii in the field, and examined many specimens of both, where color and pattern are unreliable characteristics.

Unfortunately, the shape of the parietal scale is definitely not a meaningful identification characteristic between these two species. However, your comparison photo does nicely show the temporal scales of all 3 species, which are in the 1+2+2 arrangement for Regina septemvittata and the middle snake, and in the 1+2 arrangement for C. kirtlandii. Furthermore, as Pierson pointed out, both Regina and the middle snake have 7 supralabials, whereas Clonophis has 6. If you look in Ernst & Ernst's 'Snakes of the US and Canada', these characteristics are listed as the only diagnostic differences in head scalation between these 2 species. Combined with the lack of a notch on the rear margin of the posteriormost supralabial and the cream-colored lateral stripe, there can be no question that the snake in the middle is a queen snake.


Andrew Durso

Andy Avram said...

Well I drafted a long comment the other day, but it appears to have been lost in the internet ether. But, I will weigh in with my thoughts on this snake too. I would like to start out by saying that I have only ever seen one living Kirtland’s, a captive about to be released, but I have seen plenty of Queen Snakes. I still only see a Queen Snake when I look at the snake in question.

First off looking at the comparison picture. The scales that were identified in the picture are the parietals and shape is not a good indicator to differentiate species. If interested, I can supply a picture I took of a known Queen Snake with parietals shaped exactly the same as the snake in question. Very rounded and blunt instead of elongated.

Looking only at the pattern of the snake in question we can see a slightly darker head. While this feature is standard on Kirtland’s Snakes, it is also not uncommon on Queen Snakes. Kirtland’s Snakes do, on the other hand, appear to have a standard light blotch just north of the corner of the jaw. The absence of this feature puts the mystery snake more in line with a Queen Snake, which also display a cream-colored lateral stripe, just above the ventral scales, also unlike a Kirtland’s. This stripe can be viewed on the mystery snake in the first picture on the upper loop of the body, just above the ventral scales on either side of the ground debris. The stripe is also noticeable in the bottom picture leading from the jaw line to about where the body intersects the tail. Lastly, it is unclear if the reddish color is mineral staining or a freak mutation, but either way it would be a useless feature in trying to ID the snake based off it.

Structure-wise, I am seeing an elongated head typified by Queen Snakes and quite unlike a Kirtland’s Snake. The head shape, structure and color pattern is identical in the comparison photo with the mystery snake and the Queen Snake.

Lastly, habitat and behavior. I am only assume the snake was photographed in situ. I have head numerous accounts of Queen Snakes basking near a running stream, but I have only heard of Kirtland’s Snakes crawling in the open, not openly basking (although, I am sure they do on occasion bask). The habitat and behavior just seems more consistent with a Queen Snake. Due to picture included in the picture, I am guessing at which central Ohio county the snake was seen at. If correct, then the snake was from a county which has many Queen Snake records, including recently, compared to a Kirtland’s Snake, of which the last record I can find in the literature was 1882.

In conclusion we have two options. We can call it is a patternless Kirtland’s Snake that is missing the white blotch above the jaw, is uncharacteristically basking in the open near a flowing stream and from an area where they haven’t been seen in 130 years. Or we call it a Queen Snake, exhibiting the correct pattern and head shape, and behaving normally in appropriate habitat in a county where they are well known from.

I would place my bests on the Queen Snake identification.

Thanks Jim for bringing up this new post to further discussion.

Andy Avram

Jim McCormac said...

I greatly appreciate everyone's comments, and information. They have been very enlightening and informative. The identity of this weird-looking snake is certainly beyond me, but a lot of experts have weighed in with compelling arguments as to its identification.

I also appreciate everyone's civility. And lack of anonymity. Occasionally contested issues can get a bit carried away, but that hasn't happened here. And I think we've all learned a bit more about queen snakes; at least I have.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm late in seeing this Jim, but I would like to join all these distinguished herpers who have called Queen. It's certainly a mud stained Queen Snake, looks like a probable female. Cheers, I will see you out there,
Ben Warner

Jared said...

Just stumbled on this today.

I'm far inferior to the other fine young herpers who have already chimed in, but if taking votes I'm certainly in the Queen camp.

Truthfully, I wasn't really aware of the white notch field mark above the final labial in Kirtland's. Comparing photos of my sole encounter with one, sure enough it is clearly present.

Eastern Cottontail courtship dance

This jumbo Eastern Cottontail hangs out in my yard, along with another. I like rabbits, and they're welcome here. Even when they nip off...