Tiny Snakes

By Tom R. Johnson | May 2, 2007
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2007

Most snake species native to Missouri are from 2 to 5 feet long—nose to tip of tail—but we also have many snake species that stay tiny throughout their lives. The shy flat-headed snake, for example, seldom grows longer than 7 inches, and a “gigantic” prairie ring-necked snake might measure just over a foot long.

People sometimes believe that any small snake they encounter is just a “baby snake.” If it has even a bit of red, brown or tan coloring they might think it is a baby copperhead, which to them seems to justify killing it.

While it’s never a good idea to kill any snake that doesn’t present a clear danger to people, killing small snakes that have no potential to harm us is certainly unnecessary.

Missouri’s group of small snakes are generally shy and reclusive. None of them are a threat to people. Even the few that inject venom through tiny fangs to subdue small prey cannot pierce human skin.

With a little time and study you can learn to recognize Missouri’s tiny snakes. Many of them have attractive colors and patterns, as well as fascinating life histories, making them great candidates for nature study.

Northern Red-bellied Snake

Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata

Length: 8 to 10 inches

Northern red-bellied snakes are closely related to brown snakes. Their coloration varies. The back and sides can be gray or reddish-brown with a faint, tan stripe down the center. Their belly can be yellowish-orange, orange or red—even scarlet-red.

This species is found throughout Missouri, except in the northwestern corner of the state. Red-bellied snakes can be found in moist, open woods with plenty of hiding places, such as flat rocks, boards or logs. Their prey includes earthworms, slugs, land snails and soft-bodied insects. They bear up to 21 young during late summer.

Ground Snake

Sonora semiannulata

Length: 8 to 12 inches.

This snake is seldom seen in Missouri. It’s found in only a few counties in the southwestern corner of the state, where it spends most of the time underground or under flat rocks on dry, rocky, south-facing hillsides.

Some ground snakes may have a plain background color of tannishgray with no dark markings. Others may be orange to reddish-orange with numerous black or dark brown cross bands. Still others may be tan with one or two dark bands on the head and neck. Their belly is cream color with small, dark transverse bars on the tail.

This species lays from four to six eggs that hatch in August. Ground snakes have several enlarged, grooved teeth at the back of their upper jaws that may allow them to inject venom into their prey. The prey of this species includes small scorpions, centipedes and spiders, including small black widow spiders. Ground snakes are not dangerous to people.

Western Worm Snake

Carphophis vermis

Length: 7 to 11 inches

Purplish-brown above and salmon pink below, western worm snakes live underground and under flat rocks. Like many of our small snakes, they have a cone-shaped head and smooth skin that help them burrow through soil. Worm snakes also have a unique, sharp (but harmless) tip on their tail that may help them maneuver through the ground.

Western worm snakes are found throughout Missouri, except in the southeastern corner of the state and a few counties in north-central Missouri.

This species lives on wooded hillsides that have abundant rocks for shelter. They eat earthworms and soft-bodied insects. They lay eggs that hatch in August.

Midland Brown Snake

Storeria dekayi wrightorum

Length: 9 to 13 inches

The midland brown snake is one of several of Missouri’s tiny snakes related to garter snakes and water snakes.

They are a gray-brown to reddish-brown snake with two rows of small, dark brown spots along the back. These spots are usually joined by small, dark brown lines across a tan stripe. Their belly is white or yellowish and has no markings.

This species prefers moist woodlands, where they take shelter under logs or rocks. Brown snakes eat mostly earthworms, but they also consume slugs, land snails and some soft-bodied insects.

Like garter snakes, brown snakes give birth to live young during late summer. Midland brown snakes can be found throughout most of Missouri. In the western third of the state, however, the Texas brown snake (Storeria dekayi texana) is more common.

Lined Snake

Tropidoclonion lineatum

Length: 8 to 15 inches

Another relative of garter snakes, lined snakes are brown to grayish-brown with a lighter color stripe down the middle of the back and another light line along each side. The belly is white with two rows of black markings shaped like half moons.

This reclusive species can be found in open woodlands and prairies or on rocky hillsides. They take shelter under flat rocks or other objects on the ground. Earthworms are their main prey. From two to 12 young are born during July and August. This species occurs in east central, northeast and west Missouri and in a small part of central Missouri.

Prairie Ring-necked Snake

Diadophis punctatus arnyi

Length: 10 to 14 inches

This species of snake is common in Missouri and is easily identified. Just look for a yellow to yellowish-orange ring around its neck, just behind the head. The back and sides can be dark gray, dark brown or blue-black. The belly is yellow with small, black spots, and changes to orange at the tail.

Ring-necked snakes eat mostly earthworms, but they will occasionally eat soft-bodied insects and small salamanders. The eggs of ring-necked snakes hatch in late summer.

Ring-necked snakes can be found anywhere there is an abundance of flat rocks, boards or other objects on the ground where they can find shelter. This species occurs throughout Missouri. A subspecies, the Mississippi ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus stictogenys), lives in the southeast corner of the state.

Flat-headed Snake

Tantilla gracilis

Length: 7 to 8 inches

Missouri’s smallest snake, the flat-headed snake can be tan, graybrown or reddish-brown. It lacks distinct markings, but its head is usually darker than the rest of its body, and it has a striking salmon-pink belly.

The snake’s smooth skin, small, flattened head and slender body allow it to move easily through the soil. This tiny snake eats scorpions, centipedes, spiders and soft-bodied insects. This species is equipped with slightly enlarged, grooved teeth at the back of the mouth. These are probably used to deliver venom that subdues prey.

Flat-headed snakes do not have the ability to bite a person when captured or handled and are not harmful to humans of any age.

Flat-headed snakes occur in the southern half of Missouri, except for the southeastern corner. This species can be found on dry, open, rocky hillsides, where they often burrow under rocks. Females lay from one to four eggs that hatch in late summer.

Rough Earth Snake

Virginia striatula

Length: 7 to 10 inches

Similar in appearance to the western earth snake, the rough earth snake’s name refers to a faint ridge or keel on each scale along the back and sides.

These snakes are gray, brown or reddish-brown with a lack of markings. Their belly is unmarked and cream-colored.

These snakes are found in the southern half of the state, except for the southeastern corner. They prefer rocky, open, wooded hillsides where they take shelter under flat rocks. Rough earth snakes mainly eat earthworms. They give birth in late summer to litters of two to nine young.

Western Earth Snake

Virginia valeriae elegans

Length: 7 to 10 inches

Similar in appearance to the rough earth snake, this small, slender snake has smooth scales and no distinct markings. Scales along the back and sides lack the ridge or keel of rough earth snakes.

Western earth snakes are generally gray to light brown or reddish-brown. A faint, light tan strip is usually found along the back. Their belly is plain white or cream-colored with no markings.

This species can be found primarily in the southern half of the state and in a few scattered locations in northcentral Missouri. They frequently inhabit rocky, hilly woodlands where they hide under rocks and logs or in leaf litter. Earthworms and slugs are their main prey. They produce from two to 14 young during late summer.

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This Issue's Staff

Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Arleasha Mays
Photographer- Noppadol Paothong
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Circulation - Laura Scheuler