Spotting the Snakes of Indiana

1Slithering into Spring!

The weather is gradually warming up and that means our tongue-flicking friends will emerge from hibernation and be on the prowl. Humans need not worry; we’re not on their menu.

Here’s a list of legless reptiles you’ll find across Indiana. The list is hardly exhaustive, considering there are roughly 33 native species that call Indiana home, but it does include those most commonly seen, some uncommon ones, and the four venomous species that you should give an even wider berth.

2Common Gartersnake

Likely the most familiar snake in Indiana, the common gartersnake loves hanging out by water, sometimes in droves. Look for three light stripes running down a dark-colored back roughly two feet long on a full-grown specimen). Since they tolerate cold better than many snakes, they’re typically the first to appear and the last to disappear.

Gartersnakes are harmless to humans, but studies have discovered they do deliver a very small amount of neurotoxic venom. They frequently hibernate in large numbers and given their close proximity to humans, this has led to some creepy encounters.

3Eastern Hognose Snake

A snake that’s all bark and no bite (unless you’re a toad or frog), the Eastern hognose snake displays very unusual threat-behavior. They’ll inflate and flatten their heads, mimicking a cobra, then release a long hissss, making any predator think twice. At this point, a responsible person should back away. if not, they may receive a nasty, non-venomous bite.

If the Eastern hognose snake STILL feels threatened, it will flip over and play dead, its long tongue dangling out of its mouth. Look for a two-foot long snake with a stout body and upturned snout.

4Gray Ratsnake

One of Indiana’s own constrictors, these species is commonly seen around old farmhouses, barns, virtually anywhere it can find its favorite meal: you guessed it, rats (or mice). That said, it is a handy species to have around.

Its long, thin body can stretch up to six feet, enabling it to climb trees and even old barn rafters in search of prey. If threatened, it will typically fold itself up and shake its tail, similar to a rattlesnake.

5Rough green snake

More common in the humid subtropical climate south of Indianapolis, the rough green snake is a harmless insectivore that occasionally snatches up snails and small frogs or toads. Its love of the prairie grasslands on the shoulders of Indiana roads have cost this species dearly; it is frequently struck by cars.

Its bright coloration and small size have made it a popular pet for the home, although its substantial length makes most home terrariums too small.

6Copperbelly water snake

Although not a common species, those in northern Indiana should keep an eye out for this species, since it is categorized as “threatened” across the Central United States, including Indiana.

This nonvenomous species frequently resides in marshy areas, including abandoned barns and buildings, as well as vernal ponds (ponds that only exist during spring and summer). Herpetologists have observed this species hunting tadpoles and small frogs in groups, a very unusual behavior for snakes.

7Northern water snake

Another nonvenomous Indiana water snake, the northern water snake has a thick body and light-colored rings around a darker, usually gray body. With an average size of three feet, the northern water snake alarms many people stumbling across it; since it takes to virtually any body of water, including landscaping pools, that happens often.

An adaptable species, they are commonly seen in city, suburbs and rural areas, almost anywhere they can find water and food, which consists of small fish, frogs and salamanders.

8Massasauga Rattlesnake

One of Indiana’s protected and very rare venomous species, the Massasauga rattlesnake is a better at hiding than fighting. Its coloration and pattern are ideally-suited for Indiana’s fallen foliage and branches. Because of habitat destruction, it is a protected species in Indiana.

Like most rattlers, its bite injects a cytotoxin, which destroys living tissue, allowing the rattlesnake to escape from possible threat. Those reportedly bit by the massasauga have typically stumbled across the snake as it hid or, more frequently, decided to handle it. Bad idea. Steer clear.

9Timber rattlesnake

A rare venomous species in Indiana, timber rattlesnake sightings have been confirmed in the hills of southern Indiana, including Brown County State Park. if a reader happens to stumble across one: first, step carefully back; second, take a picture; third, report it to the DNR. Like most snakes, they hibernate in winter. Come spring and summer, they enjoy sunning themselves on flat rocks out in the open. They will eat almost anything they can fit in their mouths, including other snakes (gartersnakes in particular).

Warning: it IS considered one of the most dangerous snakes in North America. Its large fangs deliver a potential lethal amount of venom. Although it is still a cautious and easily-frightened animal, its larger, five-foot body make it easy to spot. Less intelligent humans might be tempted to mess with it, and inattentive dog owners need to be mindful: its bite could easily and quickly kill a canine.

10Northern copperhead

Of the five copperhead species, this is the most prevalent and adaptable. A venomous species that resides in southern Indiana, it will hid anywhere it can find cover, a food supply and a little nearby water, making interactions with humans all too common. Males are more aggressive in the warmer, breeding months as well.

For the northern copperhead, size does not matter: juvenile and even newborn copperheads are nearly as venomous as adults, making them a species of which to be very wary. Young snakes hunt insects while larger ones hunt mice and other rodents, with them frequently seen using their yellow-tipped tails as bait for prey.

11Cottonmouth 

Also known as a “water moccasin”, the cottonmouth has only been found in the very southeastern tip of Indiana.  It earned its common Indiana name from its threat display: when frightened, it will open its mouth wide, revealing the bright-white interior. They typically grown from three to four feet in length and have thick, heavy bodies of a uniform color.

Although common across the US, its diminishing habitat in Indiana has placed it on our state’s endangered species list, so this species cannot be killed or captured. Despite its aggressive reputation, studies have shown the cottonmouth will run or warn humans long before biting, with tested species only biting once physically picked up.

12For more information…

MOST COMMON WAY TO SEE SNAKES…RUNNING AWAY

For those interested in learning more about Indiana’s slithering species, here are a few excellent resources…

The official page of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources on Indiana snakes, complete with species guide and general information about our 33 native snakes.

The Hoosier Herpetological Society: if you happen to be a snake-lover, forget everything you’ve read here and check out that page. It’s run by amateur enthusiasts and professionals.

For those interested in the darker side of snakes (venom), here’s an interested guide by the World Health Organization, including an international map of poisonous snakes and basic first aid. Interesting, yes. Also a bit morbid.

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