Photo of the Week – March 19, 2015

Proof that I’m a biologist:  While driving along a gravel road near our shop this week, I stopped and backed up to see if I’d seen a small snake or just a piece of debris in the road…

A redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) found in Hall County, Nebraska.

A redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) found in Hall County, Nebraska.

I’m glad I stopped.  It turned out to be a redbelly snake, a species found in only a few counties in Nebraska.  I think it’s the third one I’ve found in our Platte River Prairies, dating all the way back to when I was working out here as a graduate student in the early 1990’s.

Not a lot is known about the habits or habitats of redbelly snakes in Nebraska.  When I got home with some photos, I contacted herpetologist Dan Fogell to confirm the identity of the snake and learn more about it.  Rather than getting a lot of information from Dan, he instead peppered me with questions about where and when I found the snake because he’s trying hard to gather data and better understand the species.

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This was a big snake (for a redbelly). It was close to 11 inches in length, which is about the maximum size for this species.

 

Jasmine (one of our Hubbard Fellows) held the snake to show the colorful underside it is named after.

Jasmine (one of our Hubbard Fellows) held the snake to show the colorful underside it is named after.

This particular snake was on a gravel road between two crop fields when I happened upon it.  The road ditches were full of old matted-down smooth brome grass.  It didn’t seem like particularly friendly habitat for wildlife.  Was the snake living in those ditches?  Or traveling to other habitat?  There was a small woodlot a couple hundred yards away, and a stream across the cornfield to the north…  We released the snake where we found her, so whatever habitat she’s looking for, I hope she finds it.

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There are a lot of species we just don’t know much about – not just tiny invertebrates, but also relatively large (and beautiful!) vertebrates.  It’s another reminder of how important the collection of basic natural history information is.  Conservation is difficult, but even more so when we don’t even know much about the species and natural systems we’re working to conserve.

I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to see and admire this snake.  I hope my kids get the same chance.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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13 Responses to Photo of the Week – March 19, 2015

  1. Joanne says:

    Jasmine has more courage than me — glad there is someone willing to study all creatures.

  2. Cindy Crosby says:

    The red belly is a beautiful snake — so nice to read more about it here! I had no idea they were found in Nebraska. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mike Henry says:

    Chris… I think I saw one of these several years ago down here in McPherson County, Kansas. It might have been in an abandoned house on our farm east of Lindsborg.

  4. Jeanine Lackey says:

    When I lived near Doniphan, I walked on gravel roads along the Platte and up into the hills on the south side of the river.. I found at least 7 red-bellied snakes along Shoemaker Island Rd and then south and east of Doniphan found a few more. Most of them alive!! A good biologist always stops for snakes.

  5. James McGee says:

    I saw one of those snakes locally a few years ago. I did not get a very long glimpse before it disappeared under a big log. It is strange that you would find that snake in that habitat. It is typically a woodland species, although it does occur in wetlands even in predominantly prairie regions. This time of year it must have been moving from a hibernaculum to a favored habitat.

  6. James C. Trager says:

    I’ve only seen this species once, a courting pair though, so a two-fer.

  7. laura says:

    Shes beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Lance Foster says:

    Love to do some kind of natural history collaboration, data collection, education, phenology, etc. on the Iowa Reservation, since the Rulo Bluff preserve is located here

  9. Lance Foster says:

    I found a dead ring necked snake in front of my door last week. Maybe it emerged due to the warmth and then froze at night. It didn’t look damaged.

  10. Kim Shannon says:

    That is a beauty!

  11. Matt Garrett says:

    Bill Busby and George Pisani with the Kansas Biological Survey did a nice paper on the Ecology of the Smooth Earth and Red Bellied Snake in NE Kansas in 2011. It’s worth a read. Recently they did an overlay of historic land survey data for old growth woods in Eastern Kansas and that’s pretty much where we find the the snakes today.

    The red bellied snake is pretty political in KS. It was delisted from the state T&E list against the advisement of the T&E committee…

    http://www.kansas.com/sports/outdoors/article2929122.html

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