Flat-Headed Snake

Photo of a flat-headed snake held in someone’s hands
Scientific Name
Tantilla gracilis
Colubridae (nonvenomous snakes) in the order Squamata (lizards and snakes)

The flat-headed snake is Missouri's smallest snake. It is smooth-scaled, and the general color is gray, tan, light brown, or slightly reddish brown. The head is usually darker than the rest of the body. The belly is salmon pink, a characteristic that distinguishes it from the similar-looking earthsnakes, which have grayish or cream-colored bellies.

This small, graceful snake is not known to bite people; indeed, it is probably unable to bite a person because of its small size.


Adult length: 7–8 inches; the largest may be nearly 10 inches long.

Where To Find
Flat-Headed Snake Distribution Map

Southern half of the state, especially in the Ozarks, but absent from the lowlands of southeastern Missouri.

Normally active from from late March through October, this is a burrowing species. It is most likely to be seen on the surface in April, May, and June. It spends most of its time in slightly moist soil under rocks or in underground burrows.

Preferred habitat is open, rocky hillsides, especially glades, in the Ozarks. These snakes also sometimes occur on exposed rocky road cuts, under rocks along logging roads and walking trails that have sufficient sun for their needs. They are often seen where loose soil occurs near limestone.

During very hot weather, they burrow into the ground, use small animal burrows, or enter rock crevices. Overwintering occurs in the same places.

The flat-headed snake eats scorpions, spiders, centipedes, and a variety of insects and their larvae. They have a pair of enlarged teeth in the back of the mouth that help them capture and swallow prey.

Flat-headed snakes rely on open glades for survival. Many Missouri glades were overgrown with cedars and other trees, but habitat restoration efforts in recent decades have been successful in improving these habitats. Glade restoration and maintenance are keys to keeping this species common in Missouri.

Life Cycle

Courtship and mating occur in late April and May. In June through the middle of July, females lay 1–4 eggs in moist soil under rocks, in rock crevices, or in small animal burrows. Sometimes several females may deposit their eggs in the same location. Hatching occurs in August and September. Male flat-headed snakes become sexually mature in 1 to 1½ years; females in 1½ to 3 years.

Fire suppression by people led to the loss or degradation of many glades that this species requires, but people have also been in charge of efforts to restore these habitats. In the past 30 years, land managers have been cutting cedars and other trees and using prescribed fire to replicate historic disturbance that kept glades as glades. Maintaining these interesting, open natural communities, and minimizing human disturbance of rocks, will help keep the flat-headed snake and other glade species common in Missouri.

At a glance, you may think this small snake is an earthworm. A delicate, smooth, eight-inch creature with few defenses, it disrupts our notion of snakes being fearsome, powerful, and dangerous. The species name, gracilis, means slender and graceful. The three-inch hatchlings are frankly adorable.

To insects and other arthropods, this snake is a predator, limiting their populations, but a variety of small mammals, birds, lizards, and other snakes relish this small snake, its eggs, and its vulnerable hatchlings.

Glades, which are essential to this tiny snake's survival, are some of Missouri's most fascinating habitats. Often likened to miniature deserts, these open, rocky areas survive because of periodic fire, which keeps cedars and other pioneer trees from getting established. Fire suppression by European settlers led to many glades becoming overgrown by cedars and the reduction and loss of many populations of glade species.

In addition to flat-headed snakes, other glade inhabitants include the eastern collared lizard, eastern narrow-mouthed toad, southern coal skink, eastern coachwhip, eastern (red) milksnake, roadrunner, painted bunting, Bachman's sparrow, prairie warbler, yellow-breasted chat, Texas and desert mice, and more. The well-camouflaged lichen grasshopper, Ozark swallowtail, Texas brown tarantula, and striped bark scorpion are also notable members of glade communities. Several glade plants are especially adapted to the desertlike conditions — prickly pear cactus, glade and yellow coneflowers, prairie dock, compass plant, wild petunia, and Missouri evening primrose are examples. Many warm-season grasses and other plants we commonly associate with prairies are often found on glades.

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About Reptiles and Amphibians in Missouri
Missouri’s herptiles comprise 43 amphibians and 75 reptiles. Amphibians, including salamanders, toads, and frogs, are vertebrate animals that spend at least part of their life cycle in water. They usually have moist skin, lack scales or claws, and are ectothermal (cold-blooded), so they do not produce their own body heat the way birds and mammals do. Reptiles, including turtles, lizards, and snakes, are also vertebrates, and most are ectothermal, but unlike amphibians, reptiles have dry skin with scales, the ones with legs have claws, and they do not have to live part of their lives in water.