Vermont is not known for having lots of different snake species, just 11, and where I live in the northeast corner of the state (known locally as the Northeast Kingdom), we really just have three in most areas; Common Gartersnakes, Red-bellied Snakes, and Ring-necked Snakes. All three species are harmless, and pretty common, but the only snake most people encounter with any regularity is the gartersnake. Red-bellied and Ring-necked Snakes, while not nearly as abundant as garters, are also much more secretive, and far less likely to sun themselves in residential areas. Ring-necked Snakes, especially, tend to fly under people’s radar, possibly because they are almost entirely nocturnal. Whether you have seen one or not, Ring-necked Snakes are definitely worth learning a little about as they are not only beautiful but they also have some really interesting adaptations that set them apart from other northern species.
Small compared to most other snakes, Ring-necked Snakes in the northeastern United States top off around 17 inches in length and are very slender. If you are lucky enough to encounter a one, they are exceptionally beautiful in a simple, yet elegant way. Their back is a sleek blue or slate gray color, broken only by a distinct white or yellow ring around the neck, often outlined in black. In the right lighting, their smooth scales and glossy appearance can be enhanced with an almost iridescent sheen. Their belly is a vibrant yellow, sometimes peppered with small black spots along the both sides. In other parts of the country, the belly might also be red, and can have black spots running down the center or scattered all over as well.
Adult Ring-necked Snakes are not easily confused for many other species, but in the Northeast, newborn Red-bellied and Brownsnakes are often misidentified as Ring-necked Snakes because they are born with a light collar around their neck. The collar on these species fades quickly with age and is broader on the sides of the neck than on the top, which helps distinguish them from Ring-necked Snakes. Although difficult to see with the naked eye, newborn Red-bellied and Brownsnakes, which are only a couple inches long, both have keeled scales (a lengthwise ridge in the center of each scale), whereas Ring-necked Snakes have smooth scales.
Newborn Red-bellied and Brownsnakes have a light collar around their necks, but the collar is wider on the sides than it is on the top of the neck, helping to distinguish them from Ring-necked Snakes, which have a ring that is roughly the same width from one side to the other.
When threatened, they often roll their tail over, exposing the yellow or red underneath, perhaps to trick predators into thinking they are toxic. However, like most other snakes, the primary defense of Ring-necked Snakes is a foul-smelling musk that they excrete when a human or predator grabs them. The musk has an odor reminiscent of rancid cottage cheese soaked in dirty pennies, and is among the most pungent of all North American snakes. For extra effect, they usually defecate on whatever has grabbed them as well. Although they occasionally bite, their mouth and teeth are so small that a person is not likely to notice, and the only times they ever bite are when they are being handled roughly.
The diet of Ring-necked Snakes varies greatly from one region to another, but in most areas, salamanders, earthworms, slugs, and small lizards and snakes make up the bulk of their prey. Interestingly, the species is considered somewhat venomous, but their venom is completely harmless to humans. To snakes and possibly their other prey as well, their saliva can be fatal, which may allow them to subdue and consume prey that would otherwise be too large for them to overpower.
Found in most of the eastern and southern United States, the Pacific Coast, and southeastern Canada, Ring-necked Snakes can be found in just about every habitat type, but they seem to do best in wooded areas. The Eastern Ring-necked Snake (the subspecies found in New England) is often found in rocky habitat near water. In Vermont, inactive slate quarries are great places to observe the species, especially around the edge of wetlands or abandoned quarry ponds.
Interestingly, the Ring-necked Snake ranges farther north than any other egg-laying snake in the northeastern United States, and is the only snake in my hometown that lays eggs. As a general rule, the colder the climate in an area, the fewer egg-laying snakes it will have. This is because snakes that lay eggs need to find a place to lay them that is warm enough for those eggs to develop and hatch by late summer. Snakes that give birth to live young, on the other hand, can move from spot to spot and follow the warmth as the sun shifts throughout the day. Ring-necked Snakes at northern latitudes can get around that problem by retaining their eggs for longer periods, during which time the pregnant females can keep their developing young warm by following the warmth throughout the day, eventually laying eggs that are developmentally farther along a little later in the season than their counterparts farther south.
As with other common species, Ring-necked Snakes are sometimes overlooked by ‘herpers’ who are more excited by bigger, rarer finds. I myself have been guilty of that as well, but when I see Ring-necked Snakes these days, I try to pause for a moment to appreciate their beauty and reflect on their unique blend of traits that make them well-suited to almost every land habitat found in the United States. For a single reptilian species to thrive just as well in the deserts of Arizona as it does in mixed hardwood/boreal forests of northern New England says a lot about the adaptability and resilience of this secretive, charismatic, and at times, enigmatic snake.