Eastern Hognose snake identification

What does an Eastern Hognose Snake look like?

What does an Eastern Hognose Snake look like? Well, it varies a lot. Let’s look at some clues that can help you identify the species…

What does an Eastern Hognose Snake look like? Well, it varies a lot. Let’s look at some clues that can help you identify the species…

What do Eastern Hognose snakes look like?

The Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platyrhinos) is a stout, heavy-bodied snake with a pointed and slightly upturned rostral scale (snout). Its head is large and indistinct from the neck. Often the head is the same width as the body, which itself is a similar width all the way down to the tail.

When it comes to pattern, the Eastern Hognose generally has large, slightly rectangular blotches along its back. On the back of the head, it also usually has two strong black markings behind each jaw. These markings are present in other Hognose species, but not as dark.

The flanks of the Eastern Hognose also have a row of dark blotches, which may even be black. Again, these blotches tend to be darker than in other Hognose species.

A key feature that helps identify the species is its belly. Eastern Hognoses tend to have either a light yellow or grey belly. Often, it has no blotches or flecks on it, though not always. This is in contrast to other species which often have patterned or even black bellies.

Last, but not least, Eastern Hogs almost always have a lighter colour on the underside of their tail than the belly. This is another key feature to look out for.

When fully grown, Eastern Hognose Snakes are a chunky two to three feet long (60 to 90cm).

Let’s look at some other clues to their identification, including colour variations (morphs), distribution, and habitat.

Colour variations

The problem with identifying the Eastern Hognose snake is that the species is polymorphic. Polymorphism is when an animal occurs in several different colour variations. The value of this tactic is that it helps to fool predators.

Predators learn which prey is tasty and edible or not over time. So, if most Hognose Snakes in an area are black, then predators will eventually try eating a few and realise they aren’t poisonous. After that point the predators then associate black Hognose Snakes with food.

Hognoses occur in a range of colour morphs, however. So, when predators start targeting one colour variation, another one crops up to replace it. Those same predators that learnt to eat black Hognose Snakes won’t have seen many bright red ones, and will be afraid to eat them in case they are poisonous or highly venomous.

What happens then is that more baby red Hognose Snakes survive and multiply, eventually becoming more common than the black snakes until the predators catch on. When they do, the cycles starts again. In a few years’ time, black and yellow Hognoses might be the most common, then black Hognoses again, then red ones again, and so and so on…

List of Eastern Hognose Snake colour variations:

1. Melanistic (black)

Eastern Hognose Snake appearance
Melanistic Eastern Hognose Snake

2. Red

What does an eastern hognose snake look like?
Red Eastern Hognose Snake

3. Tan/brown

What does an eastern hognose snake look like?
Tan Eastern Hognose Snake

4. Black and yellow

What do Eastern Hognose snakes look like?
Black and yellow Eastern Hognose Snake

Similar species

Another problem with identifying the Eastern Hognose Snake is that it has some very similar relatives. You’ve probably heard of the Western Hognose Snake, for example, which is one of my favourite pet species (you can check out the Western Hognose Care Sheet here).

Nonetheless, these species do have subtle differences with the Eastern Hognose, and with a little investigation you can tell them apart.

When reading the list, don’t forget that Eastern Hognoses almost always have a plain yellow or grey belly and a tail that is a shade lighter.

1. The western Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus) A.K.A. Plains Hognose

This species is much less variable in the wild. It tends to have a dorsal pattern of dark blotches on a lighter background, which is similar to Rattlesnakes.

How Western Hognoses are different from Eastern Hognoses:

  • Snout more upturned than Eastern Hognoses.
  • Snout larger than both Southern and Eastern hognoses.
  • Dorsal blotches tend to be smaller and more regular.
  • Belly more brightly patterned, often with black and orange.
  • Tail similar colour to belly.

2. Dusty Hognose Snake (Heterodon gloydi)

The Dusty Hognose is very similar to the Western Hognose, but does tend to be a little darker.

How Dusty Hognose snakes are different from Eastern Hognose Snakes:

  • Belly and underside of tail are black, often with white flecks.
  • Snout more upturned than Eastern Hognoses.
  • Snout larger than both Southern and Eastern hognoses.

3. Mexican Hognose Snake (Heterodon kennerlyi)

Though incredibly similar in appearance to the Western Hognose, Mexican Hognose Snakes are a good deal smaller, and – as you might have guessed – occur further to the south.

How the Mexican Hognose is different from the Eastern Hognose:

  • Snout more upturned than Eastern Hognoses.
  • Snout larger than both Southern and Eastern hognoses.
  • Belly pattern similar to Western Hognose.
  • Tail similar colour to belly.

4. Southern Hognose (Heterodon simus)

This species tends to have lighter and smaller blotches on its flanks, instead of dark blotches like Eastern Hogs. It also tends to be bright, and incredibly beautiful.

How the Southern Hognose is different from the Eastern Hognose:

  • Slightly slimmer build and overall daintier appearance.
  • Almost never exceed 20 inches (50cm) in length.
  • Underside of tail sometimes lighter than belly, but both are patterned rather than plain.
  • Snout small but more sharply upturned than that of Eastern Hognose.

Where do Hognose Snakes live?

The North American Hognose Snakes of the genus Heterodon occupy a huge natural range. They can be found from Massachusetts and Ontario in the east, all the way to Saskatchewan to the west. Heading south, they can be found as far afield as central Mexico.

The Eastern Hognose is probably the most widespread of the species, having a range that covers most of the Eastern United States. West of the Mississippi, they live as far west as northern Texas.

In many of the eastern states, the Eastern Hognose is the only Heterodon species present, making identification much easier.

States where only the Eastern Hognose is present

Only Eastern Hognose present:Other Hognose species also present:
New Hampshire
Rhode Island
Connecticut
New York
New Jersey
Maryland
Virginia
West Virginia
Ohio
Pennsylvania
Kentucky
Tennessee
Arkansas
Louisiana
Michigan
Wisconsin
Ontario (CAN)
Indiana
Illinois
Minnesota
Iowa
Missouri
Nebraska
Kansas
Oklahoma
Texas
Mississippi
Alabama
Florida
Georgia
South Carolina
North Carolina

Eastern hognose snake habitat

This species likes areas with loose, sandy soil. Such habitat allows them dig down with their snout to find prey. They also venture into riverain habitats, and even open fields, though in many areas they do seem to favour sparse woodland. Occasionally, they may also wander into backyards and suburban areas.

Though they enjoy sandy soil, it doesn’t mean that they like sand on its own. For instance, in one study researchers found that Eastern Hognoses actively avoided open dune habitat. You can read more about it here: Spatial ecology and habitat selection of eastern hognose snakes.

Eastern Hognose snake identification

What do Eastern Hognose Snakes eat?

The Eastern Hognose Snake is known for being a toad specialist. The upturned snout that they are known for is in fact a handy tool that they use to dig out toads and lift their head out of the dirt so that they can start swallowing them.

Toads aren’t their only food, however. They are also known to consume frogs, small mammals and salamanders on a regular basis. From my experience, I’d say that around three out of four meals they consume are toads (this is a rough estimate only!).

Conclusion

Eastern Hognose Snakes are a unique species, but highly variable. In some circumstances, they can look very similar to related species.

Use a combination of factors to identify them. Common colour variations are a good start, but you also need to look at their distribution and preferred habitat.

If you find a black Hognose Snake in northern Michigan, for example, don’t bother looking for any more clues – it’s an Eastern Hognose Snake.

If, on the other hand, you find a brightly coloured Hognose Snake in Florida or east Texas, you’ll need to analyse its pattern and other physical attributes we’ve discussed to ID it.

To be honest, identifying snakes can be tough, especially when you’re dealing with a group of related species like the Hognoses. What I can tell you though is that it is definitely a rewarding hobby!

That said, if you do get truly stuck, just leave a comment and I will be glad to help.

Related articles:

Do Hognose Snakes make good pets?

Top 5 Western Hognose Snake Morphs

Tricolor Hognose Snake Care Sheet (Approved by a Herpetologist)

Resources:

Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) – SREL …

Eastern Hognose Snake -Heterodon platirhinos – New …

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake – Virginia Herpetological Society

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