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The “Drama Noodle”

September 7, 2021  |  Permalink

Every time I step out onto the trail in one of our state parks or natural areas I never know what I will see, but after many years of hiking adventures there is one constant – I always discover something special.

Our hike into Savage Gulf State Natural area with our Swimming Hole tour group was no exception! We took to the Savage Falls Day Loop Trail on an oppressively hot August morning, seeking out the icy waters of the plunge pool beneath the falls. On our way we encountered many interesting plants and animals, but one creature was especially enthralling. I am typically the “sweep,” bringing up the rear on our hikes, and I often get to spot things that the front of the group may have missed. Slithering along a log at the trailside was a vibrantly marked little snake that caught my eye. I was thrilled to realize what it was – an Eastern Hognose Snake! This was my second ever encounter with this species, and what a little beauty it was.

I gently caught it and held the wriggling creature in my hands, calling back our group to come and admire it with me. While this species is pretty common in sandy forests across Tennessee and the eastern US, it is rarely encountered.

How did I know it was a Hognose? Snake identification is important, especially if you ever want to attempt picking up a wild snake (which I strongly advise against if you have any doubts!). A fear of snakes is incredibly common, and is often a big hindrance to those who wish to enjoy the great outdoors. Learning your snakes is the best way to help overcome these fears. One good rule of thumb when it comes to identifying a snake (or any species, really) is to be able to point out at least 3 characteristics that help tell you what you have.

Luckily, the Hognose is an extremely distinctive species. While it may look viper-like to many with its stocky body and large head, its distinctively upturned spade-shaped nose is unlike any other species.

Its color and pattern is quite variable, but it typically has dark rectangles extending down its back. This pattern is much more vibrant in a juvenile, and tends to fade as they age. It is easy to see, even at a several feet away, that it has round pupils. (Note: using pupil shape to distinguish venomous and non-venomous species ONLY works in broad daylight. The elliptical pupils of a venomous species will dilate in low light making them appear round.)

Often, it is their behavior alone that can identify them for you. Most individuals will spread the skin on their necks and hiss loudly to try and scare you away. If this doesn’t work they will throw themselves on their backs and writhe around dramatically, imitating the throes of death. This performance is often enhanced by them regurgitating their last meal and emptying the contents of their other end. Their bodies go limp, their mouth gapes and their tongue hangs out. They are such dedicated actors that they continue this performance even if picked up. They only time they break character is if you attempt to sit them upright on their bellies. They immediately flip themselves back on their back as if to say, “No, I’m dead!”

Our little guy must have felt pretty at ease with all its admirers, so it never went into its defensive display, but if you would like to see the full performance here is a YouTube video: (238) Eastern Hognose Plays Dead - YouTube

These behaviors, as well as their appearance, have inspired a long list of entertaining nicknames such as “spread’n adder”, “puff adder”, “blow viper,” “calico snake,” “spread-head” or my favorite, “drama noodle.”

It’s worth mentioning their scientific name Heterodon platirhinos, because the genus Heterodon means “different tooth.” This species is actually rear-fanged and produces a very mild venom which isn’t considered medically significant to humans (they rarely bite humans anyhow). This venom is meant for their prey, which is primarily amphibians like frogs and toads. The fangs also serve another interesting purpose. These snakes are actually considered toad specialists. The spade-shaped nose helps them to dig buried toads out of the loose soil. When a toad is threatened it fills itself up with air, inflating like a balloon. This, combined with the toxins secreted their skin, helps make them less appealing to predators. The mild venom produced by the Hognose’s saliva helps to neutralize these toxins, and the fangs are used to puncture the inflated toad, causing it to deflate like a flat tire!

The only other Eastern hognose I have seen in the wild was in the summer of 2019, also in Grundy county. This one was swallowing a toad.

The little hognose we found on the trail was thoroughly admired by group before being safely released to continue on its merry way.

Swimming Hole Tour guest, Lisa Lemza, getting a closer look at the little Hognose.

If you have ever encountered one of these snakes in the wild consider yourself lucky! If you wish to see one, trails in sandy forests such as those on the Cumberland Plateau are your best bet. They are active during the day, so be on the watch for them whenever you visit. If you happen to find one, be sure to take lots of photos, but never take the snake from its home. This is not only unlawful, it is harmful to the snake, which will not thrive in captivity.

Whether or not you love snakes they are a vital part of the ecosystem, serving as both predator and prey, and they deserve a safe and healthy home just like we do.

About the author

Holly Taylor got her start with Tennessee State Parks as a Seasonal Interpretive Ranger in 2006, working six years at Edgar Evins State Park before working as a wildlife presenter for the Natural History Education Company of the Mid-South. She took time off to stay at home with her son before returning to TN State Parks as the assistant to State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath in 2018. She graduated from TTU in 2009 with a B.S. in Conservation Biology and also serves as the chapter coordinator for the Cumberland Mountain Chapter of the Tennessee Naturalist Program.