Western Smooth Earthsnake

Image of a western smooth earthsnake
Scientific Name
Virginia valeriae elegans
Colubridae (nonvenomous snakes) in the order Squamata (lizards and snakes)

The western smooth earthsnake is a small, plain, slightly stout snake. It is gray, brown, or reddish brown, with no distinct markings except tiny black dots. Sometimes a faint stripe runs down the back. The belly is cream-colored or light yellow. It occurs statewide, except for the northwestern corner.

To verify your identification, and to distinguish it from the very similar rough earthsnake, look closely: the western smooth earthsnake has smooth or only weakly keeled scales along the back (which makes it feel relatively smooth), 6 labial scales along the upper lip (counted along one side), 2 scales between the nostrils, and 2 scales (postocular scales) directly behind and touching the eye. The anal plate (the scale covering the anal opening) is always divided.

Similar species: The rough earthsnake (Haldea striatula) is closely related and extremely similar in appearance. It has strongly keeled scales along the back (which make them feel rough), 5 labial scales along the upper lip, only 1 scale between the nostrils, and only 1 postocular scale. The anal plate is usually divided but is sometimes single.

Other Common Names
Western Smooth Earth Snake

Adult length: 7 to 10 inches; occasionally to slightly more than 15 inches.

Where To Find
Western Smooth Earthsnake Distribution Map

Occurs nearly statewide except for the northwestern corner.

This nondescript little woodland snake is usually active from late March through early November, with peaks in April–May and September–October.

A secretive species, it lives in leaf litter and under rocks, logs, and other objects on rocky, wooded hillsides and in moist woods. Its preferred habitats are in open woodlands with moist, loose soils — places that provide ideal cover and loose soil for burrowing and locating earthworms, their favorite prey.

Smooth earthsnakes are most active at night, especially during warm, humid conditions.

They overwinter underground in rocky crevices, small animal burrows, rotting stumps and logs, or trash dumps. They may also simply burrow deeply into loose soils.

Foods include earthworms, slugs, and some soft-bodied insects such as cutworms (noctuid moth caterpillars that frequently live in the soil).

A harmless native Missouri snake.

In Missouri, it is generally less frequently encountered than the similar-looking rough earthsnake, but the smooth earthsnake can be quite abundant in areas with suitable habitat.

Life Cycle

This species is normally active from late March through early November. Mating usually occurs in April and May and possibly in the autumn. Females give birth to live young in August through September. Litters typically contain 2–14. Individuals become sexually mature by their second or third year of life. One individual lived for over 6 years in captivity after having been captured wild.

Although many people think of an animal’s value only in terms of its economic imprint on human affairs, the science of ecology has shown us that each component of the natural community plays a unique and important role. Valuing nature means valuing even the smallest plants and animals.

One of the two scientists who first described this species was Spencer Fullerton Baird. He was the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution and vastly expanded its natural history collections during his long tenure. In 1853, he named this species valeriae to honor the woman who collected the official first (type) specimen, Valeria Biddle Blaney (1828–1900). She was Baird's first cousin and in 1858 married a military man, Washington Lafayette Elliott, who would later be a brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War. Early in the war, he fought at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, near Springfield, Missouri.

These small predators control populations of the animals they consume.

As with many other rather small predatory species, earthsnakes can be preyed upon themselves by larger animals, including mammals and predatory birds. Newborns are especially vulnerable. The danger of predation explains the earthsnake’s camouflage coloration, secretive habits, and defensive smearing of stinky musk on a captor.

Open woodlands — the habitat preferred by this and many other Missouri species — are a principal habitat type in Missouri, especially in the Ozarks. Compared to forests, with their closed canopies, woodlands have a more open canopy (30 to 100 percent cover), and their sparse, woody mid-story allows more sunlight to reach the ground. This light permits the growth of a dense ground cover containing a variety of wildflowers, grasses, and sedges. Fire plays a large role in maintaining woodland habitats.

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Similar Species
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.