Ring-necked snakes are easily recognizable by their small size, uniform dark color on the back, bright yellow-orange belly, and distinct yellow ring around the neck. The back can be dark brown, gray, or blue-black. The belly is yellow, changing to orange near the tail. The belly also has small, black spots that are irregular in size and pattern.
When alarmed, this species will coil its tail and expose its brightly colored underside. When captured, they usually do not bite but will discharge a pungent, unpleasant musk from glands at the base of the tail, along with fecal matter.
Similar species: The Mississippi ring-necked snake (D. punctatus stictogenys) is the subspecies found in extreme southeastern Missouri. It is smaller, its neck ring may be narrower or interrupted on the back, it has a yellow belly, and the small black belly spots are usually in 2 or 3 lengthwise rows.
Length: 10 to 14 inches.
Nearly statewide. The Mississippi ring-necked snake subspecies replaces the prairie subspecies in the Bootheel.
Habitat and Conservation
This species prefers to live on rocky, wooded hillsides, but it can be found in native prairies, pastures, grasslands, edges of woodlands, and on dry, rocky glades. Secretive, they often use flat rocks, boards, logs, or bark slabs for shelter. Instead of regulating their body temperature by basking in the sun on top of rocks, they rest beneath sun-warmed rocks. In the hottest part of summer, they seek cooler temperatures by taking shelter in the soil. Overwintering retreats include burrows of other animals and deep crevices in rock outcrops.
These snakes not only take shelter under rocks but also find prey there — primarily earthworms, but also slugs, soft-bodied insects, and small salamanders.
Prairie ring-necked snakes are active late March through early November. Breeding occurs soon after emergence from overwintering, in late March or early April. Egg-laying takes place from late June through early July. Females lay 1-10 eggs, averaging 4 per clutch. There is evidence that this species may nest communally. Eggs are laid in abandoned small mammal burrows or under large flat rocks. The young hatch in late August or early September. The hatchlings are about 4 inches long.
Many snake species are burdened with unfair, undying myths that paint them to be much more dangerous and harmful than they are. Persecuting this small, harmless species is especially unjust, for it results only from ignorance and fear. Support nature education. Speak out on behalf of snakes.
We usually think of snakes as fierce predators, and no doubt that is how earthworms, slugs, and insects view this species (if they were capable of thinking that much). But small snakes like this are equally as important as a food for other predators — including mammals, birds, and many more.