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World Snake Day: These 18 species of snakes are found in Michigan

Massasauga rattlesnake/Tim Vicekrs/Wiki
Massasauga rattlesnake/Tim Vicekrs/Wiki

They're scaly, slithery and sassy. They're snakes. 

In Michigan, about 18 species of snakes are found and they are actually very important to our ecosystem.

Snakes can survive in a variety of habitats such as forests, grasslands, lakes, rivers, marshes, farms, and cities. Seventeen of these species are non-venomous, with the only venomous snake being the Easter Massasauga Rattlesnake. 

Related: Venomous brown recluse spider found in 10 Michigan counties

Snakes are one of the most misunderstood and feared of all animals in Michigan. Snakes are fascinating members of Michigan’s wildlife community that, if given the chance, will avoid contact with humans. Snakes do not chase, attack, or otherwise, approach humans.

Related: 11 invasive species to watch out for in Michigan

To celebrate World Snake Day on July 16, here are some of the snakes you can find around Michigan:

Gray Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta)

Description: A large shiny black snake with a white chin and throat. Young rat snakes are patterned with dark blotches on a gray background, and traces of this juvenile coloration are often visible in adult specimens. This is Michigan's largest snake. Adult length: 3.5 to 8 feet.

Range and Status: Gray Rat Snakes occur in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, but are rare and declining. They are listed as a "species of special concern" by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and are protected by state law.

Blue Racer (Coluber constrictor foxi)

Description: A large gray or blue snake with smooth scales. The head is usually darker than the body, though the chin and throat are white. The belly is light blue or white. Young racers are grayish, with a pattern of darker blotches and spots. Adult length: 4 to 6 feet.

Range and Status: Racers have been found through most of the Lower Peninsula (except the northernmost sections) and the southern tip of the Upper Peninsula. Once common, their numbers have fallen in many places. Needless persecution by humans as well as habitat loss are probable factors in this decline.

Brown 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.

Range and Status: Found throughout the Lower Peninsula and the southern tip of the Upper Peninsula, brown snakes can be common even in farming and residential areas.

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.

Range and Status: This species is locally common in the eastern and southern Lower Peninsula.

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.

Range and Status: This species is the most common Michigan snake. They inhabit both peninsulas and survive even in urban areas.

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.

Range and Status: The snake can be found throughout the Lower Peninsula, and is locally common where suitable wetland habitat exists.

Copper-bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta)

This snake is extremely rare in Michigan. Its population is so low that it is listed as an "endangered" species in Michigan. It has also recently been listed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a nationally "threatened" species.

Habitat for the copper-bellied water snake has declined dramatically. Wetlands drainage and development in preferred habitat has limited distribution to only a few small populations. It has been found only in the southern third of the Lower Peninsula. Indiscriminate killing of snakes has also been a problem in local areas. It is listed as ENDANGERED by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and is protected by law in the state. Any sightings of adult copperbelly water snakes should be reported to the DNR Wildlife Division in Lansing.

Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Description: A thick-bodied, slow-moving snake with a flattened, upturned "nose." Color is variable some have dark spots and blotches on a yellow, orange, or brown background, but other specimens 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.

Range and Status: Though recorded from most of the Lower Peninsula and the southern tip of the Upper Peninsula, Hognose Snakes are most common in the western and northern LP. Their numbers have declined in many places, in part due to persecution by humans who mistakenly believe they are dangerous.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus)

Michigan's only venomous snake is a rare sight for most state residents. Historically, they could be found in a variety of wetlands and nearby upland woods throughout the lower peninsula. During the late spring, these snakes move from their winter hibernation sites, such as crayfish chimneys and other small mammal burrows in swamps and marshlands, to hunt on the drier upland sites - likely in search of mice and voles, their favorite food.

Massasaugas are found throughout the Lower Peninsula, but not in the Upper Peninsula (thus there are no venomous snakes on the Upper Peninsula mainland.) They are becoming rare in many parts of their former range, throughout the Great Lakes area, due to wetland habitat loss and persecution by humans. They are listed as a "species of special concern" by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and are protected by state law.

Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)

Description: This is a slender, smooth scaled snake with reddish or brown blotches on a gray or tan background color. There is usually a light "Y" or "V" shaped marking just behind the head. The belly is white with a black checkerboard pattern. Adult length: 2 to 4 feet.

Range and Status: Milk snakes are fairly common throughout the Lower Peninsula, but are rare in the Upper Peninsula.

Western and Eastern Fox Snake (Elaphe vulpina and Elaphe gloydi)

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 species of the fox snake occur in Michigan (Western and Eastern) but their ranges do not overlap. Adult length: 3 to 5 feet.

Range and Status: The western fox snake is found in the Upper Peninsula, where it is often called a "pine snake." The eastern fox snake, of the Great Lakes marshes in the southeastern Lower Peninsula, is listed as a THREATENED species by the Michigan DNR and is protected by state law. Their numbers have been reduced by habitat destruction and, locally, by pet trade exploitation.

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.

Range and Status: The few recent records for this species have been in the southern Lower Peninsula. Kirtland's Snake is listed as ENDANGERED by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and is protected in the state. Any sightings should be reported to the DNR Wildlife Division in Lansing.

Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)

Description: A water snake with dark bands or blotches on a light brown or gray background color. Some old adults may appear solid black or brown. The belly is white with reddish half moon shaped markings; some specimens have an orange belly speckled with brown or black. (The endangered Copper Bellied Water Snake has an unmarked reddish or orange belly.) Adult length: 2 to 4 feet.

Range and Status: Northern water snakes are found throughout the Lower Peninsula and the eastern Upper Peninsula. Needless persecution by humans has eliminated water snakes from many places where they were once common.

Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata)

Description: This is 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.

Range and Status: Queen Snakes are found in the southern two thirds of the Lower Peninsula, and are generally uncommon and local in Michigan.

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.

Range and Status: These snakes are locally common throughout Michigan.

Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardii)

Description: A small black or gray, shiny scaled snake with a yellow ring around its neck. Michigan ring-neck snakes have a plain yellow belly, sometimes with a few black dots down the midline. Adult length: 10 to 24 inches.

Range and Status: Ring-necked Snakes have been recorded throughout Michigan, but are generally rare and local. They are common on some of the larger islands in Lake Michigan.

Smooth Green Snake (Liochlorophis vernalis)

Description: A small, smooth scaled bright green snake with a whitish or yellowish belly. Young green snakes are olive, brown, or gray. An occasional adult specimen will retain the juvenile color. Adult length: 12 to 20 inches.

Range and Status: Smooth green snakes have been found throughout Michigan, but seem to have disappeared from much of the southern Lower Peninsula. Their insect diet may make them vulnerable to the effects of chemical pesticides.

Here's more info on snake conservation from the Michigan DNR.

Snakes are undoubtedly the most misunderstood and feared of all animals in the state. This prejudice begins in our early childhood as we watch television programs and read stories that portray the snake as an evil and dangerous adversary, to be routinely avoided or destroyed. These fears are reinforced by watching a parent or friend react to a snake by either running from it or killing it. Fortunately the negative attitudes are beginning to change as people are exposed to environmental science programs at schools, nature centers, museums, and camps, and favorable publicity in the media.

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 venomous species can be identified with minimal training and avoided with simple precautions when visiting natural areas. Some species that consume rodent or insect pests 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 the protection and regulation of native reptiles and Michigan recently 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.


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