This spring, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources put out the call for people to report the herptiles – reptiles and amphibians – that they observe across the state. The request is part of an atlas project, designed to monitor the presence and distribution of “herps” across the state.
“It’s for all species, common or rare,” said Lori Sargent, a DNR wildlife biologist who keeps track of Michigan’s herptiles. “The other day I got a call about a spotted turtle (a threatened species) in an area where they’d never been spotted before.
A blue racer snake in Michigan“There are not a lot of people working on herps, even at universities,” she continued. “They’re not a game species. They’re not high-profile.”
While herps don’t usually evoke the same warm and fuzzy emotions folks often express about other wildlife, there’s one group of herptiles – snakes – that brings out the opposite reaction. Snakes have gotten a bad rap ever since Adam and Eve and that apple, and it doesn’t seem to have changed since.
“We’re hearing of more of kids who are afraid of snakes,” Sargent said. “Maybe this will help educate people that snakes are valuable at both ends of the food chain. They keep rodent populations in check. They’re important. And they’re cool.
“I get pictures of a dead snake with a note – what kind is it? People are so quick to kill them and then identify them. What did snakes ever do to you? They’re mostly harmless.”
Snakes are legless reptiles that inhabit a wide range of habitats, cold-blooded creatures unable to generate their own heat. They are most comfortable in warm weather and pass the winter in frost-free shelters, often below-ground burrows. They typically breed in the spring; some lay eggs, others deliver live young.
Michigan is home to 18 species of snakes. Some species of snakes are docile, retiring creatures; others are more aggressive and will strike if harassed. None of them – except for the rattlesnake — is harmful to people. Ordinary snake bites should be treated like any other cut or abrasion.
The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is the only poisonous specimen in Michigan, and it’s the smallest of rattlesnakes with the least toxic venom. It is shy and prefers to avoid confrontations, but will strike if threatened. The massasauga lives in wetlands and associated uplands and feeds largely on rodents. Massasaugas aren’t often seen; folks who spot them should enjoy the experience and leave them alone. If bitten by a rattlesnake, seek immediate medical attention.
Loss of wetlands habitat and other factors have made massasaugas a “species of special concern” in Michigan and given them a status of “protected.” Their status is under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if they deserve “threatened” status.
Adding to the massasauga’s woes is snake fungal disease, which can kill them. First discovered in Michigan in two specimens the Grayling area in 2013, a total of five tested positive for the disease among 16 rattlesnakes necropsied by the DNR in 2014. (Vehicular trauma was the most common cause of death.)
Perhaps the most common snake in Michigan is the garter snake. There are two species (eastern and Butler’s). Eastern garter snakes are more widespread, found in both peninsulas. They feed on earthworms, frogs and small mammals. Butler’s garter snakes have not been documented in the Upper Peninsula and prefer earthworms.
There are two species of water snake in Michigan, the northern and the copper-bellied. Northerns are common and widespread. Copper-bellied water snakes, among Michigan’s largest snakes, are listed as an endangered species in Michigan and are threatened nationally.
The largest snakes in Michigan are black rat snakes, which (rarely) can attain a length of 8 feet as adults. Found in woodlands, often near water in the southern Lower Peninsula, rat snakes are rare and declining. They are a “species of special concern” in Michigan and are protected.
Among the larger snakes in Michigan are blue racers, which can measure up to 6 feet in length. A species that was once common but is in decline – probably due to habitat loss and persecution – blue racers eat rodents, insects and other snakes.
Among the more fascinating snakes in Michigan is the eastern hognose snake, a slow-moving, thick-bodied reptile with an upturned snout (hence the name) that inhabits sandy woodlots and dunes. When accosted, hognose snakes will begin an elaborate ruse – inflating their hoods and pretending to strike – like a cobra. This has led them to being nicknamed “puff adders.” But if the show fails to deter the harasser, the hognose snake will roll over on its back with mouth agape and play dead. Roll it back on its belly, and it’ll roll back over on its back. Hognose snakes feed almost exclusively on toads and are completely harmless.
Among the more striking snakes in Michigan is the smooth green snake, a small, docile creature that feeds largely on insects. They have been recorded statewide, but have largely disappeared from southern Michigan, perhaps because of pesticides, given their diet.
Due to a strange wrinkle in state law, reptiles and amphibians are regulated by the DNR Fisheries Division. A fishing license is required to take snakes for personal use; they may not be shot with a firearm, air gun or bow.
People may not take or possess six species of snakes in Michigan: black rat snakes, eastern fox snakes, copper-bellied water snakes, Kirtland’s snakes, queen snakes or massasaugas.
The daily limit on snakes is three, with no more than six in possession.
Much more information on snakes can be found at the DNR website at www.michigan.gov/wildlife. Be sure to check out the “60-Second Snakes” videos on the DNR’s YouTube channel.
Snake (or other herptile) sightings may be reported to www.miherpatlas.org.