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.
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.
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.
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.