Many people have a love-hate relationship with snakes. They capture our imaginations, yet we instinctually fear them. Some people have such a fear of snakes they may avoid outdoor activities, while others kill every snake they encounter.
We tend to fear things we don’t know and often misunderstand. As a nature photographer, I have a front row seat to nature and have developed a deeper appreciation for snakes.
Several years ago, I was introduced to snakes, and I began to be fascinated by their complexity and agility. But never did I imagine I would be just a few inches away from a snake egg that was about to hatch. My heart raced, not from fear, but excitement. Right before my eyes, a small baby yellow-bellied racer took a look at the world for the first time, and I was there to observe it.
As the snake inched out of its egg, I was fascinated to watch a new life transform right before my eyes. Once hatched, the newly emerged snake immediately searched for protection under thick cover of an old log. Snakes are an important part of our ecosystem. They help control populations of rodents and other pests. In Missouri, there are 47 native snakes, and only five of them are categorized as venomous. The yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor mormon) is a nonvenomous snake in the order Squamata. Adults look unique because of their beautiful, uniform coloring and large eyes. However, because racers are born with rusty brown blotches on their back and sides, juveniles are often confused with other species of snakes, such as the garter snake or the rattlesnake.
The name racer is no accident since these snakes are built for speed. Racers use their excellent vision and speed to hunt during the day. Not only are racers good on the ground, they are also good climbers and are occasionally found hunting high in the bushes.
Yellow-bellied racers use their excellent eyesight to hunt a variety of prey. Racers attack prey with their teeth and wrestle it down before swallowing it as quickly as possible. Young racers mainly munch on insects like grasshoppers, crickets, and caterpillars, and adults often tackle larger prey like mice, voles, small reptiles, and frogs.
Racers are active during daytime from March through November, living in native prairies, grasslands, pastures, brushy areas, and along the edges of forests. In spring and fall, they are often found on rocky, wooded, south-facing hillsides, and in winter, they stay in caves or mammal burrows in open habitat.
Courtship and mating occurs soon after these snakes emerge from overwintering retreats, usually in early April. Egg laying usually occurs in mid-June to late July. The female lays eight to 21 eggs under logs or in abandoned burrows. The eggs hatch in two to three months.
Try to get to know snakes, their natural history and their role in nature, and then you might be able to overcome your fear and appreciate them.
—Story and photograph by Noppadol Paothong
We help people discover nature through our online Field Guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/field-guide to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler