A Gardener’s Friend: The Secretive Red-bellied Snake



Northern New England is not known for having high reptile and amphibian diversity, yet most people here are amazed to learn how many species we actually have. I’d wager that if you approached someone on the street and asked them to name all the local frogs, salamanders, snakes, and turtles in the area they can think of, the most common responses might include Northern Leopard Frogs, Common Gartersnakes, Bullfrogs, American Toads, Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs, Spotted Salamanders, Painted Turtles, and Snapping Turtles, but not much more. In Vermont we actually have more than 40 species of reptile and amphibian, including one lizard which really surprises people. Many of our species only occur in small parts of the state or are very secretive, so it’s no wonder why people tend not to encounter them. One of the most common species in the state which most people never have a chance to see is the Red-bellied Snake.

True to their name, Red-bellied Snakes usually have distinct red bellies – Photo by Kiley Briggs

Just as their name suggests, the harmless Red-bellied Snake usually has a bright red belly, which is complimented by either a brown, gray, or black dorsal color. When they are very young they have a white patch at the base of the head that fades in color and turns into three small dots in a triangular formation as they age. When people do see an adult Red-bellied Snake they often say they found a “baby” snake, which is an easy assumption to make as Red-bellied Snakes rarely exceed 12-inches in total length.

Neonate (newborn) Red-bellied Snakes have more distinct light markings at the base of their head than adults – Photo by Erin Talmage

Like most other snakes in the Great Northern Forests, Red-bellied Snakes give birth to live young, which is an advantage in cooler environments and part of why they are one of only three snake species found in most of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. They are primarily a woodland species, favoring mixed and hardwood forests and adjacent early successional habitats with lots of open spaces and debris to hide in. In particular, the edges where fields and meadows meet woodlands are hot spots for this species, as are log landings with lots of coarse woody debris on the ground for them to hide in.

Favoring landscapes dominated by unfragmented hardwoods, Redbellied Snakes are easiest to find along the edges of small clearings such as the field in the center of this photograph – Photo by Jim Andrews

As a very small species with even smaller heads, Red-bellied Snakes are incapable of eating many of the food items our other snakes specialize on, such as frogs, small rodents, fish, and birds and instead feed primarily on slugs and snails. The teeth of Red-bellied Snakes, and their close relative, the Dekay’s Brownsnake, are sharply curved backwards, which allows them to latch onto a snail’s body and essentially scoop the snail right out of its shell. Thanks to their diet and unintimidating size, many gardeners throughout the eastern United States consider Red-bellied Snakes to be a welcome addition to their vegetable and flower beds.

So why, as the second most common snake in Vermont and other states making up the Great Northern Forests, do so few people actually see Red-bellied Snakes? The answer is fairly simple: they are nocturnal, mirroring the habits of the snails and slugs they feed on. Unlike Gartersnakes, which often bask in the open on warm sunny mornings, Red-bellied Snakes are much more likely to be found under cover such as a dry piece of bark or in a pile of slate stone; places where a small snake can get pretty warm without actually being out in the open. Gardeners sometimes find them when pulling tarps or landscaping fabrics off the ground, but people who use wood heat are probably the source of most Red-bellied Snake reports in the area. Stacked piles of firewood pretty much check every box on the list of what Red-bellied Snakes are looking for, especially if the wood has sat around long enough for some of the bark to start peeling off.

Smaller than most other species, this juvenile Red-bellied Snake will only grow a few more inches in length – Photo by Erin Talmage

While most people are more likely to see a picture of a Red-bellied Snake than the snake itself, almost 1000 observations of the species have been reported in Vermont and they are documented in almost every single town, which you can’t say about many other species around here. It just goes to show that reptiles and amphibians are experts at avoiding notice, even when they are a large component of the ecosystems they call home.