The Natural History and Captive Care of the Eastern Hognose Snake
October 23, 2015
Few people within its range are unfamiliar with the Eastern hognose snake Heterodon platyrhinos. Having a whimsical face with large ominous eyes and a permanent smile, this snake leaves many who are so fortunate to find one with a feeling of bliss. It has a short, stocky structure and is quite animated, diverting our attention away from the fact that the Eastern hognose is a powerful predator, often swallowing other animals while still alive!
One cannot help but to have a feeling of enlightenment while in the presence of an Eastern hognose snake and though many adore them, there are those that fear them and find them to be the epitome of all that is evil.
Eastern Hognose Snake
- Family: Colubridae
- Adult Size: More than 28 inches in length.
- Range: eastern United States from eastern-central Minnesota to extreme south New Hampshire south to south Florida, west to east Texas and west Kansas.
- Habitat: Open fields and grasslands, pine barrens.
- Care Level: Intermediate
As a defense mechanism, the Eastern hognose snake will sometimes put on an elaborate display when disturbed. In an effort so dramatic it will flatten its head and upper third of its body, and appearing to be larger than life, it will hiss and aggressively strike outward (most often with mouth closed), poking at intruders with a rigid, upturned snout. If it has not scared you away with this formidable display, it quickly takes on a more submissive persona and in a graceful, almost artistic display, it will often feign death.
This colorful performance is quite peculiar throughout as the snake will actually writhe in apparent agony with twisting undulations, extend her tongue and often release bodily fluids of musk, urea and feces from its cloaca. Turning over top to bottom, it compresses its sides while extending its ventral scales outward as if it will collapse into itself. Ultimately lying lifeless on its back complete with open mouth now full of the surrounding woodland detritus, some would truly believe it to be without life.
“So cleverly and patiently does the snake feign death that it may be carried about by the tail for half an hour or more, hung over a fence rail where it dangles and sways to a passing breeze, or tied in a knot and thrown in the road, and to all of this treatment there is no sign of life except from one condition.” (Raymond L. Ditmars 1907) That one condition being that after going through the act of playing dead, an Eastern hognose can be placed right side up, at which time it will quickly turn belly up once again! The snake must believe that to be belly up is a more believable appearance for a non-living snake. Once the Eastern hognose snake has fooled you into believing it is dead, it will lift its head and view its surroundings. If all is well, it will right itself and exit the area.
Although many field experiences will yield such bravado from one of these amazing animals, it is not always the case. Many individuals will not give you the satisfaction of an entertaining display, instead some will remain completely motionless relying on their camouflage often putting up no resistance at all when discovered.
Eastern Hognose Snake Geography
A wide spread snake, the Eastern hognose snake is found throughout the eastern United States from Eastern-Central Minnesota to extreme south New Hampshire south to south Florida, west to east Texas and west Kansas. (Behler and King)
It is a highly adaptable snake and can be found in a variety of habitat in coniferous and deciduous forest, including forest which abuts salt marsh and fresh water swamps. Eastern hognose snakes are frequently found in the rocky outcrops of higher elevations, they can be found from sea level to 2,500 (Behler and King) and along open stretches of sandy soil and beach. The author lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts where the species is relatively common in the pine barrens which make up much of the natural landscape there.
Nomenclature & Description of the Eastern Hognose Snake:
In North America, the Eastern Hognose snakes share the genus Heterodon with two other species, The Southern Hognose Heterodon simus and The Western Hognose Heterodon nasicus. The Western Hognose H. nasicus has three sub-species, The Plains Hognose H. n. nasicus, The Dusty Hognose H. n. gloydi and The Mexican Hognose H. n. kennerlyi.
Men of science once recognized a sub specific form of Heterodon platyrhinos as the now forgotten Heterodon platyrhinos browni. This snake was found only in southern Florida and was without the characteristic azygous scale which others in the genus possess. The azygous is located just above the enlarged rostrum and separates the pre-frontals on the snakes face. The lack of an azygous scale in some individuals is now considered to be a simple deficit in some individuals of the species.
Heterodon which means different tooth, is in reference to the characteristically enlarged dentition to the rear of the hognose snake’s mouth.
Eastern hognose snakes possess this pair of enlarged rear teeth which when swallowing a toad that has defensively inflated its lungs with air, will help to pull and hold the prey to the back of the mouth while the snake swallows it. I have never witnessed these teeth to be used in actually deflating a toad, although this is sometimes suggested within the scientific community. Biologically speaking, it would be unrealistic for the snake’s fangs to pop or deflate a toad like a balloon. Toads are quite different than balloons and the various layers of skin and membranes which surround and protect the toad’s lungs, act much like tape over an inflated balloon, a needle can be pushed through the tape and the balloon will not deflate.
A word should be mentioned on the subject of venom. The hognose snakes are classified as Opisthoglyphs, which is to say that they are rear fanged and are grouped together with the harmless Lyre snakes Trimorphodon and Night snakes Hypsiglena as well as other presumably harmless rear fanged species. The hognose possess a Duvernoys gland which is located in the upper jaw. The Duvernoys gland is an adaptation which in many species of rear fanged snakes produce powerful proteins which aid in the digestion process.
The verdict is still out on the hognose snakes however, just how active this gland is at producing toxic properties in this genera is questionable. It has been suggested that the Eastern hognose has a type one Duvernoys gland, which is to say that a fair amount of mucous is produced along with any proteins, acting almost as a buffer and thus producing a less dangerous venom like secretion.
It has also been suggested that the hognose snakes have toxic properties in their saliva simply as a result of perfusion of toxins through their own body tissues, a result of the food products that they eat, I.e., poisonous frogs and toads. Lastly, some folks suggest no toxic properties at all and as mentioned before, the rear fangs are simply an adaptation for securing difficult food items. Clearly an area for further research.
There have been no serious accounts of injury related to the bite of any American hognose snake.
The species name Platyrhinos directs to the snake's upturned snout. This enlarged, upturned rostral scale aids this fossorial snake not only as a tool to root out their preferred diet of amphibians from a daytime retreat beneath the earth’s surface, but also as a tool for burrowing into loose substrate.
In general body structure, the Eastern hognose is a relatively short, stocky snake with mildly keeled scales and may reach lengths in the neighborhood of 48 inches with most individuals being considerably smaller.
The Eastern hognose is an extremely variable snake in respect to its coloration. Often times they are found in shades of beige or cinnamon brown to striking colors of red, yellow and orange. Total or partially melanistic specimens are very common and are not restricted to higher elevations which seems to be the case with some other species of North American snakes. “The occasional albino specimen is sometimes discovered and one such specimen lived at the Trailside Museum outside of Boston for many years.” (John F. Breen 1974) The museum is located at the Blue Hills Reservation and the surrounding area is most notable for its populations of the Endangered Timber rattlesnake Crotalus horridus.
Many Eastern hognose snakes display incredible disruptive patterns and colors which make them virtually invisible in nature. Coloration from hatchling to adult seems to be flexible. It seems that although many young specimens will retain the pattern and coloration that they were born with, it is not uncommon for some individuals will reflect brighter coloration as adults while still others will become considerably darker with age, obscuring any natal pattern they once had.
Eastern hognose snakes sometimes tend to mimic in appearance the venomous snakes of a given area. One author produced an excellent outline of these mimicries.
In the field:
Here in Massachusetts, the Eastern hognose is certainly bound to be the highlight of any snake hunters’ day. In his brilliant piece of work “This Broken Archipelago,” author Skip Lazell Jr., states “Hognose snakes on Cape Cod are scarce enough to make finding one an exciting event, but common enough so it is likely a good hunter will get one with patience.” (James D. Lazell, JR. 1976) This statement couldn’t be any closer to the truth! The difficulty in finding the hognose can be blamed primarily on the snakes superior camouflage and its tendency toward remaining completely still when danger approaches and when escape is difficult.
Many discoveries involve specimens encountered out in the open. Much of the time it is simply a matter of just focusing on the nearly invisible snake while you are visually scanning the ground during snake hunting. Finding a hognose in the open is not unlike finding the hidden 3D image in computer generated art!
Eastern hognose snakes can be found in many situations. I have encountered specimens alongside abandoned buildings, amongst refuse, in back yards and I once found a hatchling, crawling alongside a restaurant foundation in a parking lot which abutted a main roadway beneath the Bourne Bridge on Cape Cod.
Eastern hognose can be a rewarding species to hunt, however, please keep in mind and be respectful of laws governing these snakes and others. Many states have regulations as to what species may or may not be kept. In Massachusetts, the Eastern hognose holds a Species of Special Concern status and may not be possessed without the proper permit. They may not be removed from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under any circumstances.
The Captive Hognose
Although the Western hognose (Heterodon nasicus) has found a permanent home in herpetoculture over recent years, captive Eastern hognose husbandry is still within its infancy in American collections.
There are many stereotypes revolving around this species which may leave a prospective keeper weary. One such stereotype is the fact that many folks believe Eastern hognose are strict amphibian feeders. Although in the wild, Eastern hognose snakes are often encountered while swallowing the toads with which they frequently feed upon, captive keepers have learned that the diet of this snake is actually quite diverse. Even the juveniles are opportunists, taking insects as well as lizards and possibly other reptiles in addition to amphibians.
“It will also eat frogs, tadpoles, insects and even nestling birds.” (Conant and Bridges 1939)
In captivity, Heterodon platyrhinos have been known to thoroughly enjoy frogs, toads and salamanders, as well as lizards, chicken and fish. They can be and are with more frequency, conditioned to a diet of rodents in captivity.
Although they are said not to compose part of their natural diet, it is possible with some effort, to switch juveniles to a rodent diet when using the scenting technique. Individuals can usually be coaxed into eating pink mice after the mouse is first coated with the scent of an amphibian, fish or lizard. I have even been successful using chicken broth as a scent to disguise a rodent’s odor.
Some keepers prefer to switch a juvenile platyrhinos to rodents by the force feeding technique. Although this does sometimes work, it is not always an easy process – especially when the small hognose inflates its lung and uses it to create a barrier which works quite well at preventing the pink mouse from being pushed down the snakes’ throat! Still, other individual hognose are quite willing to swallow once the mouse is started downwards.
A healthy captive born Eastern hognose will feed with a motivation not unlike that of the hungriest rat snake! It is quite comical to witness a juvenile Eastern hognose in active pursuit of a live lizard. There is nothing graceful about it! The hognose spots the lizard and then it’s a full force effort to catch the tiny saurian. These little hogs are remarkably quick, but much better at catching up to pre-killed lizards than active ones!
Although it is beneficial to have a rodent feeding Eastern hognose, I must stress the importance of feeding a well-rounded diet. My personal collection is given a rodent diet primarily but is also supplemented with frogs, toads, lizards and the occasional fish.
There is also the importance of cleanliness. Eastern hognose snakes should always have a fresh, shallow water container readily available to them and should never be handled in the event that you are ill.
I have found the Eastern hognose to be highly susceptible to respiratory infections. Oddly, in my experience I have found these infections to manifest themselves quite unobtrusively. It is often too late when you discover the snake is actually sick. Rarely have I seen nasal discharge from an Eastern hognose suffering from respiratory infections and they will often continue to feed right up until the day before their final hours. It is best to avoid the possibility of illness. I keep a heat pad available to the snakes year round and pay close attention to ambient temperatures, avoiding extremes. Avoid chills in the snakes’ captive environment and wash your hands before handling your captives.
Parasites may also manifest themselves within your hognose collection, most notably Mites. Interestingly, mites seem to have a fondness for some reptile species over others. Eastern hognose snakes as well as Northern black racers and Southern alligator lizards seem to be mite magnets! Be diligent in your cleanliness and make daily inspections so that if a problem begins it can be kept within the boundaries of control.
Eastern hognose snakes should be given a lot of room to roam in their captive environment. Although much of the time they are rather sedentary animals, other times they will do quite a bit of active foraging and will even utilize climbing structures in the tank.
A wide variety of ground medium is available. Although many keepers will choose the simplicity of newspaper or artificial turf, I personally prefer a more naturalistic approach, sometimes using a thick layer of shredded pine bark mulch or sand which I sprinkle with a few pine cones and some pine needles.
I prefer not to use a hide box for the simple reason, if you give it to them, they will use it and this will usually leave your captive obscured from view. I prefer the snake to hide beneath the substrate when it is seeking seclusion. Much of the time when it is buried, it will lay just beneath the surface with its head still exposed above ground, much like a soft-shelled turtle in an aquarium! This setup gives the keeper a little more feel to the animals’ natural behavior.
I generally keep the air temperatures around 78 to 82 degrees f., (a bit cooler at night) and this can be accomplished by heating the entire room or just the tank. An overhead light can be used to raise temperatures, just be careful not to overheat your captives.
Full spectrum light is always beneficial, if not for the physical health benefits, then for the psychological benefits to the snake. Full spectrum lighting also improves the appearance of the captive environment by enhancing overall natural colors.
Avoid moisture in the captive environment aside from the water dish. A moist substrate will only create an environment for harmful bacteria and this may create problems against the sensitive skin of the Eastern hognose snake.
Captive Breeding the Eastern Hognose Snake
Conditioning is not unlike that of most other typical North American colubrids. A gradual seasonal cooling period of 45 to 50 f., in late fall or early winter for two to three months is sufficient pre breeding conditioning.
Be sure that captives are heavy when put into dormancy. Under no circumstance should you attempt to cool down an individual known to be ill or under optimal weight. It is always best to fast your snakes for a couple of weeks just prior to hibernation or brumation in specimens of the deep south. This allows the snake to clear its bowels, eliminating the potential for internal problems such as impaction or rot. Problems have been known to occur when partially decomposed food is not completely expelled before the cooling down period. After dormancy, the snakes can gradually be brought back up to appropriate activity temperatures and feeding should commence right away. Your goal is to fatten up your captives over the next thirty days or so before the snakes begin breeding. This will be a step in the right direction for the healthy production of eggs.
After brumation about two weeks to 30 days later, a male hognose will actively pursue a female which will be emitting pheromones, a chemical signal which attracts the male to the female. He will often move along side of her, contorting his body to fit her curves and he may position himself over her as well. Once the female feels receptive, she will allow copulation to occur by simply raising her tail off of the ground which allows the male access to her cloaca. It is best at this point to turn down the lights and put on some Barry White, the snakes will take care of the rest.
Copulation may last anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes or longer and may occur several times over the next couple of weeks before he loses interest.
After a gestation period of around 30 days, the female will deposit her clutch of eggs in a provided nest box, beneath the water bowl or perhaps under some other tank decor. It is best to gently remove the eggs as soon and as carefully as possible, to prevent desiccation or other potential problems with them. Care should be given not to rotate the eggs, as this may damage the contents.
Eggs should be incubated at temperatures of between 82 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit for a period of 45 to 90 days, (60 being more typical) and a medium of dampened pine shavings, vermiculite and even moist paper towels have worked well with some breeders.
Eastern Hognose Hatchling Care
Hatchlings sometimes have a problem staying hydrated, so it is vital that a relatively high humidity is maintained, this can be accomplished by lightly misting one half of the enclosure daily. Avoid saturation as a wet environment is dangerous and undesirable for proper hatchling care. Fresh drinking water should always be present in a shallow water container.
Hatchlings are often ready and willing to feed shortly after hatch and often before their first shed. A supply of small toads, frogs or salamanders should be ready and waiting before the babies hatch out.
I recommend waiting at least a month before starting on anything other than small amphibians. These small prey animals are very easy for the newly hatched snakes to digest. Neonatal eastern hognose snakes will often consume one another which will ultimately lead to the death of both snakes involved. To avoid cannibalism, separate offspring.
Neonatal Heterodon platyrhinos sometimes suffer drop dead syndrome, this is when the babies die with no apparent cause. This dying off is more typical within the first few weeks of life.
The Eastern hognose has its little quirks in captivity, but the positive side of things greatly outweigh the negative. It is a wonderful and inexpensive captive, it can be a rewarding experience for individuals when cared for properly. Although eight years is suggested, longer lived captive individuals are not unheard of. Additionally, if any snake species would make a great selective breeding subject, it is the Eastern hognose snake and perhaps the Eastern hognose will one day join its Western relatives as a staple in the heart of American collections.
Leo Spinner owns and operates “The Spotted Turtle Herpetological Institute” & “Skin & Scales Exotic Reptile and Amphibian Presentations.” located on Cape-Cod in Massachusetts. The Author has been an avid Collector, Breeder and Researcher of Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates for over 45 years and currently resides in Massachusetts with his family.