Photo of the Week – May 27, 2011

Ring-necked snakes are small and slender snakes that are fairly common throughout many habitats – but not often seen.  This one squirted out from beneath a cedar tree I was cutting down last weekend.

Ring-necked snakes can grow to about 15 inches in length. This one was about 10 or 11, and about the diameter of a pencil. Very cute.

Ring-necked snakes are nocturnal snakes that come out at night to feed on earthworms and other invertebrates.  The rest of the time they are most often found beneath logs or other dark places where they can stay cool and moist during the day.  They often live in colonies, so if you find one there may be quite a few more nearby.  This one seemed to be alone, as far as I could tell. 

The most intriguing thing to me about ring-necked snakes is their habit of coiling their tail when they’re threatened.  The salmon color of this snake’s underside, combined with the tight coiling of the tail created an image that looked much like an earthworm.  I wondered if this was a technique used to attract predators away from the snake’s head so they would attack the (less valuable?) tail portion instead.  I’ve not seen any corroboration of this – so I’d appreciate knowing if anyone else has ideas or information…

The ring behind the head makes ring-necked snakes easy to identify, but they also have the (unique?) characteristic of coiling their tail when threatened. If that fails, they sometimes play dead as well.

Another defense mechanism of this snake is to play dead if it’s being harassed.  We saw this in action after I handed the snake to my 10 year old son so he could look at it.  He was very gentle, but after a few minutes of “examination” the snake apparently had enough handling and went completely limp.  Even it’s eyes looked dead (or at least not right).  When my son handed it back to me I thought for sure we had a dead snake on our hands, but after a few moments of being left alone, the tongue flicked out a few times and the snake miraculously came back to life…  Pretty neat.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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6 Responses to Photo of the Week – May 27, 2011

  1. Karen Hamburger says:

    Hey Chris
    I have handled many ring neck snakes over the years.. probably over 50….this is the only one I have ever seen that wasnt black with a red ring around his/her neck.
    VERY COOL! VERY BEAUTIFUL!
    The ones I have incountered were caught out in the open during the day at unopertune moments by my cats (which I rescued all of them because I am a good kitty mom AND my cats were VERY MUCH OVER shelterd butt heads that didnt know what to do with any animal they incountered and they brought them to me unharmed if I wasnt there at the time of discovery…weird..yes I know but true!)….. and at times where I just happen to be at the right place at the right times.
    They all squirmed and slimed me much like the many small garter snakes I rescued from the neighbors over the years.. Never did any one of them play dead. But in truth all I ever did was admire them and carry them out of harms way and let them go.
    Are they different species or just a differance in locality and habitat???? They sure dont show up in urban setting.
    Wish I had taken pictures of mine because they were very beautiful.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Karen – they tend to be outside of town. Not sure why. It seems like they could adapt to town like garters, but I’ve never seen them in town either. I think they can vary quite a bit in color…not sure if that’s regional population differences or just variation within the species. I agree – they’re beautiful little snakes!

  2. Cyndi Trail says:

    I had always assumed that garter snakes were successful in town because their eggs are incubated inside the mother, so the young are born alive. Except for rattlesnakes, they are the only snakes around here that can do that. Perhaps it is the edge they need to reproduce in cities.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      An interesting theory! It would sure seem to simplify their habitat needs…

      As an aside, I saw a garter snake in a spirea bush in my yard today. It had climbed to the top of a 3 foot bush – I’d never seen one do that before!

  3. Karen Hamburger says:

    They climbe in up my raspberrys and other shrubs all the time. In my garadge they go all over.. up to 15 feet high…..and…. “go all over” every thing. I put up with them because they discourage the mice!!! They dont keep them all out but they scare the “crap” out of them!!!!:^)!!!!
    Karen

  4. Alex Kufeldt says:

    I have lived in Nebraska all my life and had come across this little snake for the first a couple of years ago. Have found 6 or 7 of them since then … normally when moving brush or other debris. Very cute little folk and their method of “playin ‘possum” is very interesting..

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