From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sand Adders: Hognose Snakes?

Native snake of the Nebraska Sandhills


When I was a child on the ranch in the Sandhills, the three snakes we saw most often were garter snakes, bull snakes, and sand adders.

In the previous sentence, I linked the words "bull snakes" and "garter snakes" to photographs, but I didn't link "sand adder" because I've never been completely sure what sand adders are!

Toad Eaters

Apparently, "sand adder" is a local name for the snake. A Google search for "'sand adder' Nebraska" has only one result -- Shirley Baker Jipp's mention of the sand adder in the online sample chapter from her book, Sand Beneath My Shoes. "Occasionally a saucy, brown sand-adder, gliding through the sandy path, startled us."

After reading about and looking at snakes on the internet this evening, I suspect that the sand adder was a hognose snake. The size, coloration and markings of the hognose are compatible with the sand adder.

I found several types of hognose snakes mentioned as residents of Nebraska -- plains hognose, western hognose, and eastern hognose. They are all fairly similar in appearance, and apparently all of them like sandy areas.

One other reason that I believe the sand adder was a hognose snake is that hognoses eat amphibians, especially toads. I remember several times finding a sand adder in the process of consuming some poor toad.

My mother was always very fond of the toads in her garden, and she once killed a sand adder with her hoe because he was eating one of them. I don't know what happened to the toad. I hope he survived!

Hognoses have an upturned upper lip which is the surefire identifying characteristic of this snake. I never looked closely enough at a sand adder's mouth to know if its upper lip was curled or not.

Dangerous As They Look?

Many Sandhill folk believed that sand adders were poisonous snakes, or at least had heard that they were poisonous and weren't taking any chances to disprove the rumor. As children, we certainly believed they were poisonous, and a few years ago, I mentioned sand adders to my Sandhills friend, Sammie, and she too had grown up thinking they were poisonous.

Despite our fear of the sand adder, I've never seen it listed as one of Nebraska's poisonous snakes. But after researching them this evening, I understand why sand adders (which were probably hognoses) were widely rumored to be poisonous.

The Fort Riley (KS) Army website notes, "These snakes have an interesting defense mechanism. When threatened, they will first hiss loudly and flatten their hood similar to a cobra. If that doesn't work, they will then regurgitate food, roll over and play dead."

The Audubon Magazine gives more detail:
It is probably no coincidence that the eastern hognose sometimes resembles the timber rattlesnake, while the western hognose appears to be modeled after the prairie rattlesnake.

Also known as "puff adders" and "blow vipers," hognose snakes respond to perceived threats by coiling and rattling their tails against leaves or grass, puffing up their bodies and flattening their necks, hissing and striking (though almost never biting).

If this fails, they roll on their backs and feign death, sometimes emitting drops of blood from gaping mouths and cloacae. Turn a "dead" hognose on its stomach and it will roll over on its back again.

The nonvenomous hognose lacks fangs, but it has enlarged rear teeth, perhaps designed to puncture toads that have inflated themselves as a means of defense.

I never threatened a sand adder, so it never had to go into the radical Phase 2 behavior with me. Phase 1 was enough to send me speeding away.

Trailquest.net comments that the easiest way to distinguish between the eastern hognose and a cottonmouth moccasin is the hognose's upturned lip. Apparently they look a lot alike, otherwise.

The University of Nebraska's website, "Poisonous Snakes in Nebraska," urges caution of snakes with a triangular head that is larger than the neck, then comments, "However, several other snakes, including garter snakes, hognose snakes, and bullsnakes may also display this characteristic, especially when alarmed."

Reasonable Caution

All in all, it's not surprising if Sandhill folks thought the sand adder (hognose?) might be poisonous. Our parents and grandparents wisely passed on to us a message of caution that they had heard in their own childhood days about this little snake.

I was an adult before I had a flash of insight one day and realized that the name of the snake was "sand adder" not "san-dadder" as I had always heard, pronounced and visualized the word. Now it seems I must admit that they weren't even poisonous. Somehow, I'm a bit disappointed.


Hognose

Western hognose snake
Photographer: LA Dawson
Animal courtesey of Austin Reptile Service

6 comments:

Collagemama said...

How fun! I wasn't around snakes as a kid, so I grew up believing they were all poisonous or else going to swallow me like the boa constrictor in the Peter, Paul, & Mary song.

As a young married first-time homeowner and first-time mom, I had my introduction. We had garter snakes everywhere in our little Omaha tract house because it was along an easement. Snakes lurking alongside the steps to the kitchen door, which I hacked up irrationally with a spade, and small snakes in the basement which I eventually learned to pick up with my fingers and carry outside. The neighbor who shot at snakes in his backyard was much scarier than any reptile, and I gradually started cheering for the other side.

"Sand adder" calls to mind an image of an ancient, toga-clad mathemetician walking along the beach writing geometric proofs with a long stick. I hope you got to tell your father about the San-Dadder confusion. I recently explained to mine that I believed our storage unit was a Story Junit. We kept books in it, so it made sense to me. Dadder and I had a good laugh.

threecollie said...

My grandpa used to call milk snakes spotted adders and had fits when we kids handled them. This was a very interesting post. Thanks

Sammie said...

I just about stepped on a sand adder a few days ago. They still scare me and I give out a little scream and jump. My dad also thought they were maybe poisonous and we were warned not to play with them. He didn't believe in killing snakes and I remember how angry he was about mom having the hay men kill a huge bullsnake that wandered into her yard too many times. We thought of that bull snake as "dad's pet". He hung around the rafters in our old shop and ate the barn swallow eggs. We kids thought dad had him to keep us out of the shop as we liked to haul dad's tools off.
I still don't really like snakes but like mice less.

Genevieve said...

Thank you all for your interesting comments!

Collagemama, your remarks about "snakes everywhere" reminded me of a tangled mass of hibernating garter snakes that I once saw.

Threecollie, I am not surprised that your grandfather thought milk snakes were dangerous. They're vividly marked like some poisonous snakes are!

Sammie, I'll bet your dad never had any mice in his shop as long as his snake was there! We had a meeting with a big bullsnake when we camped along the Niobrara River at Valentine several years ago. I will have to write that down and post it -- one of these days -- along with some garter snake stories!

Jeff said...

Which county in Nebraska did you see the hognose snakes? I was in the sand hills of NE once north of Hyannis. I seen tons of bull snakes ( over 20 ) some western racers and a few milk snakes. Didn't see one hognose though!

Genevieve Netz said...

We lived in Rock County. See this link for more information about hognose snakesin Nebraska.

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