A Tiny Actor

While wandering through a grassy opening in an oak woodland this weekend, I came across a gorgeous ring-necked snake. I was at Osage Hills State Park in Oklahoma, where Kim was running a 52 mile race. Kim had been running for almost 12 hours by the time I found the snake, but that’s just an extraneous detail – it’s not important to the story.

The ring-necked snake showing why it has that name.

It had rained for a while in the morning but the sun had been beating down all afternoon and I was hot and sweaty. Kim was too, of course, but that has nothing to do with me finding this snake.

I saw the snake because it moved when I walked too close to it. There’s no chance I’d have seen it otherwise. It was about 12 inches long, or so, which is pretty big for a ring-necked snake, and was about the same diameter as a pencil.

Because I had my camera with me, I corralled the snake to see if it would let me photograph it. I put my hand in front of it every time it changed direction until it finally stopped for a moment and coiled up the tip of its tail, showing the bright red underside. That’s a common defense mechanism for ring-necks and I’ve heard two different possible explanations.

The ring-necked snake and its coiled tail tip.

One explanation is that the red color is supposed to warn off potential predators. Red and orange color are often signs of toxicity among animals and there are some who say ring-necked snakes can taste bad to predators. I’ve not tested that.

A second explanation is that the coiled red tail tip is supposed to look like an earthworm and focus a predator’s attack on the tail instead of the head while the snake continues to try to escape. That’s a fun hypothesis, and I can see the logic in it, but I bet the snake hopes the red color is a repellant, rather than a target.

Anyway, I got a few photos of the snake while it showed me its tail, but then it acted like it wanted to leave again. Selfish.

I gently picked the snake up and moved it to a small spot of bare ground. When I released it, it immediately flipped itself over on its back and lay perfectly still – playing dead. It was a pretty good performance, but I had been expecting it, so I wasn’t worried. I photographed it a little more and then walked away so it would think it had fooled me. The whole encounter reminded me of a similar run-in with an even more dramatic hognose snake a few years ago.

The snake was pretty convincing when it played dead.

It’s important to mention here that the snake never acted aggressively toward me. It didn’t try to bite or even pretend to strike at me. Its full attention was on escaping, or, if that didn’t work, fooling me into leaving it alone.

The next thing I say is important to keep in context. The context is this: ring-necked snakes are harmless to people and pets. That’s important to remember because ring-necked snakes do have a venom they can release from small fangs in the REAR of their mouths. The venom helps subdue prey the snake has already grasped and is starting to swallow.

Again, these snakes are no threat to you. Unless you’re an earthworm, but if you’re an earthworm you have to tell me – and explain how you’re reading this.

The placement of those fangs in the back of the snake’s tiny mouth makes it impossible for you, as a normal human person, to come into contact with them. They’re used to deal with invertebrates, or sometimes small lizards or snakes if the ring-necked snake is big enough to eat those.

Ring-necked snakes are pretty common across much of the eastern 2/3 of the U.S., as well as parts of the west coast. There are different varieties (with assorted color and pattern variations) from place to place. Despite their abundance and widespread range, I’ve only come across a couple of them during more than 30 years as an ecologist. They’re small and hide very well.

I was grateful for the chance to see this particular ring-necked snake. I think the snake was grateful that I eventually left it alone. Meanwhile, Kim kept running, not that she’s part of this story.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

11 thoughts on “A Tiny Actor

  1. Chris, I look forward to receiving your posts via email each week! Thank you so very much for taking the time share your thoughts, sense of humor, knowledge, and wisdom with us. 4 years ago I was doing some research on mob grazing and came across your blog post “A skeptical look at mob grazing” and have been hooked ever since.

  2. Of course, I could Google this….Are ring-necked snakes related to red-bellied snakes? The size is similar and they show their bellies, too. Also not aggressive. They were pretty common in west-central Wisconsin 20 years ago.

  3. Thank You for posting these precious facts about life on the plains I some much want to visit someday. Greetings from now green Finland

  4. Just for the record, I read TO MY Earthworms😁. And what kind of scientist are you that you didn’t lick the snake to see what it tasted like?

  5. Pingback: Photos of the Week – May 18, 2023 | The Prairie Ecologist


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.