Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Kirtland's snake

 Photo: Gina Smith

A few days ago, I was intrigued to see an email drop into my box with the curious heading of "mystery snake" or something to that effect. I clicked on the attached photo, and this is what I saw.

The email was routed to me from our communications people at work, and came from Gina Smith. She had found the reptile near a central Ohio stream, and wanted to know what it was. Now, I am not a huge snake guy. I love 'em, but just don't have enough experience with snakes to know all of the species inside and out. Still, I've seen all but a few of the species that we have in Ohio over the years, and can usually tell what they are. This one flummoxed me.

 Photo: Gina Smith

Here's an even better photo; in fact, a darn good photo. For a died-in-the-wool snake person, there should be no excuse for not being able to identify this beast from this photo. Still, I wasn't sure. Best as I could tell, it was a red-bellied snake, Storeria occipitomaculata, but that identification rang hollow, and I didn't really think that's what it was.

So, I sent off this photo to herpetologist Jeff Davis (he's the one who showed me wall lizards last year). Jeff knew what it was - a Kirtland's snake, Clonophis kirtlandii - and was quite excited by the find for two reasons. One, Kirtland's snake is quite rare and local in Ohio, and is currently listed as a threatened species. Two, it was a bizarre aberrant individual - this Kirtland's snake was completely unpatterned and quite different in appearance than would be a normally marked individual. I didn't feel as bad about not knowing the animal after learning this; had it been a normally patterned snake, I probably would have been able to make the ID. As an added bonus, Gina found the animal in a county where there have been no reports of Kirtland's snake in several decades.

Photo: Todd Pierson/Flickr

Here's what a normal Kirtland's snake looks like. It sports a beautifully symmetrical pattern of nearly round dark blotches on a pale cream-yellow background. Notice the head is black, just like Gina's odd snake, and the overall shape of the animal is the same.

These harmless little snakes don't bite, and a whopper would be lucky to stretch to two feet. Gina reported that hers was little more than a foot in length. They apparently ape hog-nosed snakes when approached, and a threatened Kirtland's snake will flatten its body to paper-thin dimensions in an effort to appear larger, and launch ineffective strikes. Pick it up, and it drops the charade and makes no attempt to bite.

Apparently Kirtland's snake tends to be quite secretive, and spends its daylight hours hiding under logs, boards, rocks or other objects. They are also said to inhabitat crayfish burrows and other subterranean haunts, which would make detection quite difficult. There are probably more of them lurking out there than we think. The Kirtland's snake is not much of a gourmand, and prefers to feast on slimy wrigglers such as earthworms and slugs.

Birders will be well familiar with this snake's namesake - Jared Potter Kirtland. He, of course, also has a fabulous warbler named in his honor.

The Kirtland's snake is confined to the upper Midwest, as shown in blue on this map (courtesy of Herpedia). But the actual known distribution within that blued out region is much smaller. This snake is listed as some category of imperiled - endangered, threatened, etc. - in every state in which it is still found. Habitat loss has certainly played a role in the Kirtland's snake's demise, but other detrimental factors may be at work, too. Much remains to be learned about these gorgeous, secretive little animals.

Congratulations to Gina for a fabulous find, and for allowing me to share her photos.


Buckeyeherper said...

Jim - I have to respectfully disagree with Jeff. We have spent tons of time in the field together, and he know's his stuff better than most, but I am not buying Clonophis on this one. I seen a few Clonophis out on the move in wet fields, but never basking. I am sure they could do it... It just strikes me as an obvious queen snake. It is sitting next to a creek, in a queen snake part of the snake, looks to be the size of a queen snake, has the same base color of a queen and the head of a queen snake. It just seems to be the more obvious pick in this situation. I actually have pictures of a queen snake from Adams Co, OH that has very dark and almost unnoticable lateral stripes, similar to this animal. It isn't as rusty red of a color, but this could be from soil/minerals in the area.

You can check out for images of Queen Snakes as well as Kirtland's Snakes from all over Ohio (well maybe not the Kirtland's).

Anyway, excellent pictures and discussion either way. I really don't think it is a kirtland's, but queen snakes are pretty cool too!

Jason Folt

Anonymous said...

I also agree with Jason. When I first saw that picture, I said to myself, "Wow, that isn't typical habitat." Limestone creeks are certainly not normal Kirtland's habitat. When I blew up the picture and took a look at it, it immediately struck me that it wasn't a Kirtland's. Both Queen snakes and Kirtland's are cool little snakes,though, and either way it's a neat thing to see if it was seen this time of year.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with Jeff. This is an unusually patterned Kirtland's. The head and body shape are right, and although lacking the spotted pattern on the body, the shoe-polish black head is exactly right for Kirtland's; You would never see that on a queen. The background reddish color is just right also. Kirtland's has some white/cream along the sides, that creeps up between the lower part of the black blotches, but the color of most of the back is the reddish color shown in this snake. Queen snakes are much more brown in tone, milk chocolate, mocha etc. Queen snakes have thicker necks,bigger heads, bigger eyes, broader snouts, and longer tails than this.
Also, if as Jim says, it was a little over a foot, it is NOT the size of a queen snake. A queen at only a little over a foot is a young snake and thus would be way more slenderly proportioned . This one is quite stockily proportioned for that length. It's just the right length and proportions for a Kirtland's though.


Ron G. said...

When I saw the photo I immediately thought Queen Snake; but I'm no herp expert. I'm not familiar with Kirtland's; so I'm curious what Jeff observed on this snake to decide Kirtland's. Thanks!
Ron Gamble

Ron G. said...

Thanks Brian-Anonymous,
I'm not sure what's up with the computer time post -- your response was very helpful, but it wasn't there yet when I clicked into the blog well after 8 a.m. (EST)

Buckeyeherper said...


Respectfully, the head and body shape are not right for Clonophis, they are way off. Clonophis tend to have a slightly blunted head, and the neck is "missing". The base of the skull flows right into the body without much of a taper. The animal pictured has a tapered snout and a well defined neck. The body appears too long and svelte for a kirtlands. This animal screams queen snake. Also, others, including myself, have observed all kirtlands have a white notch in the dark section of the last supra labial scale, which this animal does not have. I have also observed Ohio queens with the dark shoe polish head. If you do a quick google search you will see other examples of this. I think the rusty color can be easily explained by an animal that just crawled out of its hibernacula, and is either discoloration from soil or mineral deposits. I don't understand why we are trying fit a square peg in a round hole. The most likely answer is queen for a number of reasons. Based on location, activity and habitat, kirtlands is a huge stretch, before we even look at the animal. Finally, in regards to length, I don't trust anyones length guess with out actually handling and measuring the animal. Snake lengths suprise me all the time. I would try to email pics to help illustrate these points, but I am typing from my phone in the airport. Going to be be off the grid soon, back country kayaking the everglades and then herping san diego.

Nick Scobel said...

I'll agree with Jason & Peter on this one. This snake is definitely a Queen Snake.

Andrew Durso said...

I think this is a queen snake - it's lacking the white notch in the dark section of the last supralabial scale, and the cream-colored lateral stripe is indicative of queen snakes, but not Kirtland's. A shot of the ventral side would tell for sure.

Andrew Durso said...

In addition, the second photo shows 3 rows of temporal scales (1+2+2), consistent with queen snake scalation, whereas the Kirtland's snake has only two rows (1+2).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do some research on this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more clear from this post. I'm very glad to see such great information being shared freely out there.
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