I have had many snake experiences over the years, but nothing really compares to experiencing the theatrics often produced by Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes (Heterodon platirhinos). More on that in a minute. First, Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes are moderately-sized (typically 2–3 feet) snakes, with a large distribution that covers a majority of the eastern United States. These snakes can be found in a variety of habitats but typically prefer areas with sandy soils. Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes are diurnal and are well-known for being most-active during the spring and fall when they are commonly encountered crossing roads.
Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes exhibit a wide variety of color patterns. Some individuals are melanistic (completely black), while others are typified by a row of brown of black blotches along the dorsum. Individuals with a pattern can have a wide variety of background colors, ranging from dull brown or gray to a bright orange or reddish tint. Other than the melanistic individuals, two hog-nosed snakes rarely look the same, and it is a special treat to find some of the more strikingly colored or oddly patterned individuals. Despite this variety in appearance, Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes can be readily distinguished from other snake species by their characteristic pointy snout and variety of defensive behaviors.
As I mentioned above, it is hard to forget your first encounter with an Eastern Hog-nosed Snake and their plethora of defensive behaviors. When first approached, most individuals will flatten out the skin around their necks, angling their head towards you to appear larger than they actually are. This is often accompanied by puffing up the body and hissing loudly in an attempt to get potential predators to leave them alone. These behaviors have produced many colloquial names for hog-nosed snakes, including ‘puff adder’ or ‘spreading adder’ (my personal favorite). Some individuals will curl into a ball, hiding their head under their body, and wiggling their tails back and forth. If these initial displays fail to dissuade potential predators, the defensive theatrics will come out in full force. Eventually many individuals will play dead, rolling onto their backs and opening their mouths to make a convincing showing. Recent meals will typically be regurgitated or excreted from the rear end to further promote the display. You haven’t experienced snake catching’s true charm until you have been thrown up and pooped on at the same time by an annoyed hog-nosed snake. Once left alone ‘dead’ individuals will slowly flip back over and crawl away in search of the nearest refuge.
If all this was not enough to convince you that hog-nosed snakes are fascinating, they have one more interesting trait. Hog-nosed snakes have two large teeth in the back of their jaws that they use to deliver a mild venom into potential prey items. This venom is not dangerous to humans, and hog-nosed snake bites are almost unheard of, with most known envenomations coming from snakes flailing around while death feigning or confusing a finger for a potential prey item. Interestingly, Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes feed primarily on toads and are immune to the bufotoxin that toads produce.
Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes and their sister taxa (Southern and Western Hog-nosed Snakes) are a fascinating group of animals that possess a variety of traits that set them apart from other snake species in the U.S. It is a memorable (albeit stressful for the snake) experience to see them perform their entire repertoire of defensive behaviors.