Perhaps no group of critters in Arkansas can strike fear in the hearts of so many folks like snakes. Consequently, most encounters between people and a snake of any size, color or type don’t end well for the snake.
Of the 46 species of snakes native to Arkansas only six are venomous. A few of the harmless varieties go to great lengths to convince you otherwise. Some will hiss and strike. Some will vibrate their tail. But these acts pale in comparison to the undisputed drama-queen of Arkansas snakes: the eastern hognose.
The eastern hognose is a about as harmless as a snake can get. Though some herpetologists (reptile biologists) think it’s slightly venomous, its fangs are located in the back of its mouth and are relatively small. If the hognose is in fact venomous, it’s a very weak venom. Nothing more than a mild sedative for prey.
The only thing that should fear a hognose snake is a toad. Hognose snakes survive almost exclusively on a diet of toads, and have some interesting adaptations for this. The up-turned snout — which gives the snake its name — is perfect for digging a toad out of the dirt. Some herpetologists don’t think those rear positioned fang deliver venom, but they do make great “toad poppers.” Toad inflates themselves with air to look bigger, more threatening and potentially hard to swallow for would be toad eaters. Venom injector or toad popper matters not. Once the toad is in the snake’s mouth it’s all over. Before the toad goes down the hatch, the fangs either deflate it or paralyze it, making an easier swallow for the hognose. Toads are off the menu for many predators because of a toxin they secrete; it makes most animals sick. But the hognose has evolved immunity to the toxins.
While the eating habits of the hognose are rather un-glamorous, its defensive act is truly something to behold. Phase one defensive strategy is to freeze and disappear. Hognose snakes come in a variety of colors (including a reddish hue called razorback), but all of them feature a stripe and blotch camouflage pattern that works well in many habitats.
If the snake is detected phase two comes into play. This is where the hognose gets its common nickname of “spreadin’ adder.” The snake will raise a third of its body off the ground and spread a hood — just like a cobra — while hissing loudly. This trick usually leads to one of two outcomes: 1) It scares the threat into retreat. 2) If the threat happens to be human it almost guarantees the snake’s demise with a hoe blade behind the head. If after all the huffing and hood spreading the perceived danger is still there, and the snake is still alive, it’s on to phase three.
Phase three involves the excretion of some foul smelling musk. And by foul I mean rank enough to make you wash your hands in gasoline to get it off. Yes, it’s that bad. After stink secretion, the snake barfs up anything it has recently eaten, rolls on its back, opens its mouth and even flops out its tongue. It’s an act that puts any possum to shame.
After a few minutes, the snake will slowly turn its head right side up. If the coast is clear it will continue to right itself, and if not disturbed will slither away to find another toad. I have never tried to agitate a hognose after the first show so I don’t know if they go through the whole program again.
The hognose has a thick body and, to the untrained eye, markings similar to copperheads. Because of this resemblance, Broadway-worthy showmanship, and sometimes just for being a snake, they are often killed. If one shows up in your yard gently relocate it to a more remote area. If you encounter one in the wild let it be. Hognose snakes are part of that big circle of life, same as the butterflies and the bluebirds, even if they do have some gross habits.l