Southern Hognose Snake (Heterodon simus)

Photos by Amanda Hurst unless otherwise noted

Description: Southern hognose snakes are fairly small, heavy-bodied snakes that reach about 24 in (61 cm) in length. These snakes are easily distinguished from most snakes in our region by their pointed, upturned snouts. Unlike eastern hognose snakes (Heterodon platirhinos), which occur in several color patterns, southern hognose snakes are always gray, tan, or reddish in color with a series of dark brown blotches down the center of the back and alternating smaller blotches along the sides . They are never solid black like the eastern hognose. Southern hognose snakes can be distinguished from eastern hognose snakes by examining the tail. In southern hognose snakes, the underside of the tail is the same color as the belly (the underside of the tail is lighter than the belly in the eastern hognose). Southern hognose snakes also have more sharply-upturned snouts than eastern hognose snakes. Although generally less elaborate than those of the eastern hognose, southern hognose snakes also often put on threat displays (including neck spreading, hissing, and playing dead – see Behavior, below) when confronted by a predator. Female southern hognose snakes are larger than males and the young resemble miniature adults.

Distribution and Habitat: Southern hognose snakes were historically found in the Coastal Plain of the eastern United States from southern North Carolina to southern Mississippi and in most parts of Florida. However, this species has declined in recent years (see Conservation Status, below) and is now only found in scattered locations in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Although both species of hognose snake in the Southeast prefer sandy areas, southern hognose snakes are found almost exclusively in sandhill, pine flatwood, and coastal dune habitats, and in the sand ridges of central Florida. Because of their fossorial habits, hognose snakes sometimes persist in suburban or agricultural areas with sandy soils. The Savannah River Site is one of the few areas where southern hognose snakes are still relatively common.

Habits: Southern hognose snakes are active strictly by day and are often seen on warm mornings in the spring and fall. They are highly fossorial (living underground) and are most often encountered crossing roads that pass through sandy habitats. When confronted, hognose snakes often put on an elaborate threat display: they hiss; spread the skin around their head and neck (like a cobra), and feign striking. Eventually, they will even play dead, rolling on their back and opening their mouth. Despite this fairly convincing show, southern hognose snakes virtually never bite.

Hognose snakes feed almost exclusively on toads, although they will occasionally consume other prey. They seem to be immune to poisons produced by toads, and are equipped with enlarged teeth (called rear fangs) in the back of their mouths that are used to puncture inflated toads so that they may be more easily swallowed. Female southern hognose snakes lay 6 – 14 eggs in sandy soil or logs in the early summer. The eggs hatch in September – October.

Conservation Status: Southern hognose snakes have apparently declined in recent years and are of conservation concern throughout their range. They have not been found in Alabama or Mississippi since the 1970’s and are restricted to scattered locations in the states where they still occur. Although introduced fire ants have been implicated in the decline of southern hognose snakes, they have certainly also suffered from loss of longleaf pine forest, urban sprawl, and conversion of upland habitats to agriculture. Unfortunately, the secretive habits of this species have hampered study of their ecology and population dynamics. Southern hognose snakes are protected throughout the state of Georgia.

Pertinent References:

Tuberville, T. D., J. R. Bodie, J. B. Jensen, L. LaClaire, and J. W. Gibbons. 2000. Apparent decline of the southern hog-nosed snake, Heterodon simus. Journal of the Elisa Mitchell Scientific Society 116:19-40.

Enge, K. M., and K. N. Wood. 2002. A pedestrian road survey of an upland snake community in Florida. Southeastern Naturalist 1:365-380.

Account author: J.D. Willson