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Critterguy / Critter Field Guide / Snakes
Critter Field Guide: Snakes of Michigan

The Massasauga rattlesnake is Michigan's only venomous snake. All other species are non-venomous and harmless to humans.


Identification Process

First...Indentify Group
Choose the group below that best describes the snake you are trying to identify. Some snakes might fit into more than one group, so if you don't find a match in the first group you choose, try the "next best" group.
Group 1: Striped snakes
A snake with a lengthwise pattern of yellowish stripes on a dark background; there may be spots between the stripes.

Group 2: Very small striped snakes
A very small snake (brown, gray, or black) with lengthwise stripes.

Group 3: Small shiny-scaled snakes
A small snake with smooth, shiny scales (black or green).

Group 4: Water snakes
A fairly large, dark snake found near water (lake, pond, or stream edge).

Group 5: Blotchy snakes without stripes
A snake with saddle-like blotches or many large spots running down the back.

Group 6: Very large, solid-colored snakes
A very large, dark, solid-colored (blue or black) snake with white chin and throat; baby snakes in this group have a blotchy pattern.

Group 7: Thick-bodied, bluffing snakes
A thick-bodied snake with a pointed tail and up-turned nose; often hisses, spreads neck, or "plays dead."

Group 8: Rattlesnakes
A snake with small rounded rattles on the tail tip and "cat-like" eyes.

Second...Identify Snake
Go to that group and read the decriptions and look at the photos.

Group 1: Striped snakes
    Butler's garter snake (Thamnophis butleri)
    Description: A small black, brown, or olive snake with three distinct yellow stripes down the back and a yellowish belly. Some specimens have dark spots between the stripes. The dark head is very small.
    Adult Length: 15 to 27 inches.

    eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
    Description: A medium-sized striped snake with variable coloration. Most are gray, brown, or greenish with three yellowish stripes down the back, and there may be black spots between the stripes, making the snake look "checkered". The belly is pale white, green, or yellow. The tongue is red with a black tip.
    Adult Length: 2 to 4 feet.

    northern ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis)
    Description: A very slender black or brown snake with three bright yellow or white stripes down the back. The head is black, though the scales above and below the mouth are white. The belly is white or light yellow.
    Adult Length: 18 to 38 inches.

Group 2: Very small striped snakes
    brown (Dekay's) snake (Storeria dekayi)
    Description: A small brown or gray snake with a light stripe down the back bordered by black dots. These dots may join to form crossbars. The belly is white, cream, or pinkish in color.
    Adult Length: 9 to 15 inches.

    northern red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata)
    Description: A very small brown or gray snake with faint stripes down its back. The belly is red, pink, or orange (without the double row of dots seen in the rare Kirtland's snake).
    Adult Length: 8 to 16 inches.

Group 3: Small shiny-scaled snakes
    northern ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii)
    Description: A small black or gray, shiny-scaled snake with a yellow ring around its neck. Michigan ring-necks have a plain yellow belly, sometimes with a few black dots down the midline.
    Adult Length: 10 to 24 inches.

    smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis)
    Description: A small, smooth-scaled bright green snake with a whitish or yellowish belly. Baby Green Snakes are olive, brown, or gray.
    Adult Length: 12 to 20 inches.

Group 4: Water snakes
    copper-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta)
    Description: A large brown or black snake with an unmarked reddish or orange belly. The young have a blotched pattern which fades with maturity.
    Adult Length: 3 to 5 feet.
    endangered

    northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)
    Description: A water snake with dark bands or blotches on a light brown or gray background color. Old adults may appear solid black or brown. The belly is white with reddish crescent shaped markings; some specimens have an orangish belly speckled with brown or black.
    Adult Length: 2 to 4 feet.

    queen snake (Regina septemvittata)
    Description: A slender gray or brown snake with a whitish or yellow stripe on each side of the body. Three narrow black stripes may be visible on the back. The light-colored belly has four dark lengthwise stripes.
    Adult Length: 15 to 36 inches.

Group 5: Blotchy snakes without stripes
    eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)
    Description: A slender, smooth-scaled snake with reddish or brown blotches on a gray or tan background. There is usually a light "Y" or "V" shaped mark just behind the head. The belly is white with a black checkerboard pattern.
    Adult Length: 2 to 4 feet.

    Kirtland's snake (Clonophis kirtlandii)
    Description: A small reddish-brown snake with four rows of black (often indistinct) blotches down its back, and a black head. The belly is pink or red with a row of black dots along each side.
    Adult Length: 12 to 18 inches.
    endangered

    western fox snake (Elaphe vulpina)
    Description: A large yellowish or light brown snake with dark brown or black blotches down the back and sides. The head may be reddish or orange, and the belly is yellowish, checkered with black. Two different species of fox snake occur in Michigan (see below); though they are similar in color, their ranges do not overlap.
    Adult Length: 3 to 5 feet.

Group 6: Very large, solid-colored snakes
    black rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta)
    Description: A large shiny black snake with a white chin and throat. Juveniles have dark blotches on a gray background; traces of this pattern are often visible in adult specimens. This is Michigan's largest snake.
    Adult Length: 3.5 to 8 feet.

    blue racer (Coluber constrictor foxii)
    Description: A large gray or blue snake with smooth scales. The head is usually darker than the body, and the chin and throat are white. The belly is light blue or white. Young racers have a blotched pattern.
    Adult Length: 4 to 6 feet.

Group 7: Thick-bodied, bluffing snakes
    eastern hog-nosed snake (Heterodon platirhinos)
    Description: A thick-bodied snake with an upturned "nose." Color is variable—some have dark spots and blotches on a yellow, orange, or brown background, but others are solid black, brown, or olive with little or no visible pattern. Easily identified by defensive behavior (see below).
    Adult Length: 20 to 40 inches.

Group 8: Rattlesnakes
    eastern Massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus)
    Description: A heavy-bodied, gray or brown snake with dark blotches and spots on the back and sides. The only Michigan snake with segmented rattles on the end of its tail and elliptical ("cat-like") pupils in the eyes. The neck is narrow, contrasting with the wide head and body. The belly is mostly black.
    Adult Length: 2 to 3 feet.
    venomous


Snakes, People, and Conservation

Snakes are probably the most misunderstood and feared of all animals in the state. This fear often begins in early childhood, as we watch television programs and read stories that portray the snake as an evil and dangerous animal. These fears are reinforced by watching a parent or friend react to a snake by either running from it or killing it. Fortunately these negative attitudes are beginning to change. More people now accept snakes for what they are—fascinating members of Michigan's wildlife community that, if given the chance, will avoid contact with humans. The vast majority are harmless, and the one venomous species can be easily identified and avoided when visiting natural areas. Some species consume rodent or insect pests and are beneficial to agriculture. All snakes play a role in the natural environment by contributing to ecological systems as predators and prey. They can best be conserved for the future by providing for their habitat needs and then simply leaving them alone.

The State of Michigan has enacted legislation to provide for protection and regulation of native reptiles and amphibians. Rare and declining species are now protected from persecution and exploitation, and all species are affected by limits on numbers that can be taken or removed from the wild. Shooting of snakes and other reptiles is prohibited. Anyone wishing to take or study reptiles or amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders) in Michigan should contact the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division for details and licensing requirements.


Recommended Books

Michigan Turtles and Lizards by J. H. Harding and J. A. Holman. 1990. Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service, East Lansing, Bulletin E-2234.

Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region by J.H. Harding. 1997. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America by R. Conant and J.T. Collins. 3rd Ed. (1998, 1991) Houghton-Mifflin, Boston.


Acknowledgement

James Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978
hardingj@msu.edu

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