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