Little Snakes are not Baby Rattlesnakes

Published Aug 11th 2002 in Wildlife

“We found a little baby snake on the floor. Can you tell us about it?” From mid-May until mid June, the Sibley Nature Center receives at least seven phone calls each week concerning small snakes that somehow creep into folks’ houses. “I just want to make sure it isn’t a baby rattlesnake.” Sometimes more than one is found, or several are found in just a few days’ time. “We don’t have a nest of snakes under our house, do we?”

We are glad to be of service, and explain about the small snakes of west Texas. Such basic bioregional information is unfortunately not part of public (or private) school education. Information about the very common creatures that live in backyards and vacant lots should be “common knowledge” to all citizens. Primitive and rural cultures considered such information as basic shared knowledge, and despite the deficiencies of folk knowledge of being prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, everyone in a locality knew the local “natural calendar.”

Over the years members of The Midland Naturalists have put together a natural calendar. Certain animals emerge from hibernation, pass through in migration, mate, or disperse from their birthplace at roughly the same time each year. Certain wildflowers only bloom during one season. The small snakes of the Llano Estacado are no exception.

Blind snakes, ground snakes, black-headed snakes, and ring-neck snakes are all active during the early monsoon of May and into June. Admittedly, we have not had our normal spring rainfall for a number of years, but the snakes do not change their behavior because of the drought.

The ground snakes are the most common, and the most often noticed. All have a faint pink to orange stripe along their backs, but the side color of individuals can vary in shades of tan to gray. Every backyard in town has at least one. If the yard is hard-pan bermuda grass turf, only one or two may be found, while in the lushest landscape of groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, and trees a dozen or more can be found.

Like all of the small snakes, ground snakes are nocturnal and fossorial (live underground.) Rarely as big around as a pencil, and almost never more than a foot long, the small creatures can be found under flagstones, fence-edges, the base of houses, and any other object on the ground. Most of the time they are deeper in the ground, living in old abandoned wolf-spider and tarantula holes, old cicada and cicada killer tunnels, and all the other tiny holes that can be found by astute observers. Ground snakes are wonderful commensals for humans, for their prey consists of spiders, scorpions, and the smaller centipedes.

Black-headed snakes are almost as common, and found in the same places. Their prey is similar, but they add moth, beetle and butterfly pupae to the menu. They are less than a foot long, as skinny as a drinking straw, and have a black skullcap that extends to the nape of the neck. After a rain here at the Sibley Nature Center, a group of children amused themselves turning over a number of haybales at the Junior Master Gardener compound. Under one haybale, six black-headed snakes were found knotted together. Even when disturbed, the group reformed. We were unable to determine the sex of the individuals, but a good SWAG hypothesis would have been that only one was female, and the rest her suitors.

Ringneck snakes are the rarest of the small snakes. Taxonomists believe that the southern Llano Estacado is an area of intergradation between two different races. Prairie ringnecks are slate gray with a golden ring around the neck and tiny black dots on their lips, chin, and throat. The belly is yellow, and the tail is orange-red. When disturbed, the beautiful little snake curls its tail so that the red is plainly visible. It writhes as if hurt, and often defecates as well.

The regal ringneck is paler gray, and the ring about its neck is pale, or not complete, or not even present, depending on the individual. Its favored habitat is the canyons of the mountains of West Texas. Frederick Gelbach, an ecologist from Baylor University, reported in Mountain Islands and Desert Seas that in the Guadalupe Mountains the regal ringneck inhabited the bigtooth maple covered north facing slopes while the prairie inhabited the sotol and catclaw covered south-facing slopes.

In forty years of exploring the southern Llano Estacado, I have only found one prairie ringneck, and no royal ringnecks. I only know of a few other sightings. Almost all have been located in the heart of mesquite, wolfberry, soapberry, or hackberry thickets in soil with dead limbs and years of dead leaves and other decayed plant material. Ringnecks eat earthworms, insect larvae, as well as baby lizards and snakes. The Sibley Center has had two brought in from oil well sites on the Stockton Plateau.

Blind snakes, although the smallest, are the most amazing of the small snakes. Rarely more than seven inches, and only as big around as a pencil lead, they have vestigial eyes that are dots of dark pigment below the translucent ocular scale. The eyes only register the presence of light, nothing more. The snake, being phototrophic, will wiggle madly until shelter can be found. In the hand they will calm after sticking their head between a pair of fingers. The tip of the tail has a sharp spur, usually used in obtaining purchase while digging in the soil, or to lever the body ahead while on the surface. Like the black-headed snakes, mating aggregations can be found. Females sometimes lay eggs communally, each laying up to eight eggs within a tiny pocket of soil.

In west Texas a species of tiny Novomessor army ant will march on moonless nights, moving their colony to raid Aphanogaster (spider ant) ant colonies. Blind snakes often accompany the ants, feasting on defective army ant eggs and larvae. The tiny snakes can identify the army ant pheromone and follow their trail long after the column containing thousands of ants have passed. When researchers introduced blind snakes to a column, about a third of the time the ants would attack the snake, which resulted in the snake coiling and flailing, and emitting an odiferous discharge that deterred the ants. The rest of the time the ants seemed unaware. Blind snakes will also eat termites, and are often found under ground litter with such prey.

Blind snakes are also partners in a most incredible case of symbiosis. Screech owls, which have nested as close as the confluence of Mustang Draw and Johnson Draw, pick up the snakes and carry them to their nests. They then let the snakes crawl about in the nest, eating insect larvae from fecal matter, pellets, and uneaten prey. This reduces the nits and lice that reside in the repeatedly used nests. Nestlings with live-in blind snakes grow faster and experience lower mortality than nestlings lacking blind snakes.

Despite the average American’s cultural aversion to snakes, the little snakes are good companions. They live among us, usually unnoticed, doing good work. Tip your hat, and say “howdy,” the next time you see one!