Smooth Greensnakes: My Most Abundant White Whale.



Ever since childhood I had a fondness for snakes and some of my earliest memories involve watching neighbor kids take a step back as I wrangled small serpents from ditches and rock piles (though I am not sure if my friends were distancing themselves out of fear or an aversion to most snakes’ typical defense: a foul smelling musk). In fact, every snake I have ever seen has brightened my day at least a little bit, but there are some species that make me particularly giddy. Most of those species are rare where I grew up, except one. Without question, the most common snake that I am always absolutely elated to find is the Smooth Greensnake.

As their name suggests, Smooth Greensnakes are mostly green and have smooth scales. Their underside is off-white with a yellow border transitioning to green. Photo by Kiley Briggs.

I recall once being asked by someone what the bright green snakes with smooth scales are called. On the east coast, reptile names tend to be pretty straightforward, yet folk can still be surprised when they learn how obvious the names are. When I responded “Smooth Greensnake”, I think the woman I was talking to thought I was kidding at first. But no, their name is spot on. Smooth Greensnakes have shiny smooth scales that lack keels that give other species a rough texture and coarse appearance. Their skin is vibrant green on top and yellowish white below, transitioning to green along the edges. They are small comparatively speaking, usually topping off around 15-inches or so (two feet would be a whopper!), and very difficult to spot. Camouflage is their primary defense, and they are very good at it, even swaying their head from side to side as they move, mimicking the movement of a blade of grass gently blowing in the wind. 

Blending in nicely and mimicking the movement of vegetation as they travel across the landscape, Smooth Greensnakes can be incredibly difficult to spot, even when they are out in the open. Photo by Kiley Briggs.

In Vermont where I live, Smooth Greensnakes are abundant in much of the state, but absent from colder areas such as what we call the “Northeast Kingdom” and higher elevations where summer conditions are not warm enough for their eggs to properly develop. But even where they are more common, the species is often overlooked due to their cryptic nature. They aren’t a species that turns up in people’s yards very often, instead preferring more natural meadow habitat, especially wet areas such as beaver meadows or near lakes and ponds. Although they are found in agricultural fields on occasion, modern agricultural practices, especially mowing, make such settings a challenging place for the species to thrive. Instead, power line corridors are the human-made habitat where the species seems to do best as the habitat is maintained as mostly open, tends to have many wet spots, and is only mowed every few years.

In Vermont, Smooth Greensnakes rarely exceed a foot and a half in length. Photo by the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas.

For me, Smooth Greensnakes remained a sort of white whale for many years as I developed my passion for reptiles. I knew they were out there, but just couldn’t find one no matter how hard I tried. It wasn’t until 2004, around the time I graduated high school, that I found one almost entirely by accident after a day spent swimming in a reservoir with friends. Today, that site remains the most reliable place I know to observe the species and is the only site where I consider seeing them a pretty good bet (though they are vastly outnumbered by Common Gartersnakes and share the rocky slope with Northern Ring-necked and Red-bellied Snakes as well).

At sites such as that reservoir, Smooth Greensnakes are able to coexist very peacefully with the other snake species and don’t even really compete with them for resources. Gartersnakes feed primarily on frogs and non-native worms, the Red-bellied Snakes specialize in eating slugs and snails, the Ring-necked Snake targets small salamanders, and the Greensnake feeds almost entirely on small insects such as crickets. Unlike other snake species, the Greensnake won’t typically eat prey larger than their heads, despite the fact they are capable of unhinging their jaw to swallow larger items like the others.

To date, one of my most exhilarating herpetological finds was a clutch of Smooth Greensnake eggs in the process of hatching under a piece of plywood in a field. Photo by Kiley Briggs.

Living in the Northeast Kingdom where cold temperatures keep Greensnakes at bay, I have not had the pleasure of seeing one for the past several years. I haven’t even managed to find any in our more southern Wood Turtle study areas where the species should be relatively common. So, once more, the species is feeling like my white whale. While it is more exciting for me to find and document species in places where I have not seen them before, next spring it may well past time to revisit my old stomping grounds, take a dip at the reservoir, and with any luck, scrounge up a Greensnake or two on the slopes above. If nothing else, my prolonged Greensnake drought will just make my next encounter with he species that much more exciting.