Unless otherwise noted, information contained in each edition of the Kansas School Naturalist reflects the knowledge of the subject as of the original date of publication.

KSN - Vol 26, No 3 - Snakes in Kansas Cover photo: Joseph Collins, Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045.

Volume 26, Number 3 - February 1980

Snakes in Kansas

by Robert F. Clarke

PDF of Issue


Published by Emporia State University

Prepared and issued by The Division of Biology

Editor: Robert J. Boles

Editorial Committee: Gilbert A. Leisman, Tom Eddy, Robert F. Clarke, John Ransom

Online format by: Terri Weast

The Kansas School Naturalist is sent upon request, free of charge, to Kansas teachers, school board members and administrators, librarians, conservationists, youth leaders, and other adults interested in nature education. Back numbers are sent free as long as supply lasts, except Vol.5, No.3, Poisonous Snakes of Kansas. Copies of this issue may be obtained for 25 cents each postpaid. Send orders to The Kansas School Naturalist, Division of Biology, Emporia Kansas State College, Emporia, Kansas, 66801.

The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April of each year by the Kansas State Teachers College, 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas, 66801. Second-class postage paid at Emporia, Kansas.

"Statement required by the Act of October, 1962: Section 4369, Title 39, United States Code, showing Ownership, Management and Circulation." The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April. Editorial Office and Publication Office at 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas, 66801. The Naturalist is edited and published by the Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, Kansas. Editor, Robert J. Boles, Department of Biology.


Dr. Robert Clarke is Professor of Biology at Emporia State University. Reptiles are his research interest, and he has numerous publications in this area. He is also an accomplished artist. His Naturalist (Vol. 5, No.3) on the poisonous snakes of Kansas has been one of our most popular issues.

Snakes in Kansas

by Robert F. Clarke, Division of Biological Sciences

Thirty kinds of harmless snakes and six species of poisonous snakes are included in this booklet. Some of these are extremely rare or difficult to find; others are large and common, so are easily and often seen. There is a mistaken belief that all snakes are harmful, but that is not true at all, for most of the snakes that a person would ordinarily come in contact with are non-poisonous, harmless snakes. Not only are
most of the snakes harmless to man, but also some are definitely beneficial. Although the others cannot be shown to play a distinct role favorable to the economy of man, they are part of the intricate web of relationships that causes their environment to function, where each, and all, organisms have dependence on all others. Thus, it is not good ecological judgement to destroy any member of an ecosystem, although snakes are often killed when discovered.

Snakes are reptiles, as are lizards, turtles, and crocodilians. No snakes has legs, ear openings, or eyelids. All snakes are covered with scales, which may vary in size, shape, or number, depending upon the species. The tongue of snakes is forked and is utilized for testing the environment by the tongue constantly flicking out of the mouth. Minute particles of materials may be taken from the air or some object by the tip of the tongue and transferred to tiny pits in the roof of the mouth, where sensory cells relay messages to the brain. This functions as a taste-smell system. Although snakes cannot hear air-borne sounds, they are
quite sensitive to vibrations carried through the material that supports their body.

Snakes mate usually in the spring immediately following emergence from hibernation, and several weeks later, depending upon the species, eggs are laid in a selected spot in the ground, in rotting logs, or
under surface cover, such as rocks. Not all snakes lay eggs; in Kansas, live-birth is characteristic of such groups as water snakes, garter snakes, and all poisonous snakes.

Probably no other group of animals has been so grossly misrepresented as has the snake group. From the mildly incorrect concept that a snake is "slimy" (actually, they are dry to the touch) to the whoppers about serpents swallowing ships, there is a gamut of mistaken observations, legends, distorted facts, and deliberate falsehoods. Here are a few usual stories. . . but everyone has a new one.

A persistent tale involves a person coming across a mother snake with a brood of young. Upon seeing the intruder, the mother opens wide her mouth and the young all rush inside. The mother then glides away,
with the youngsters "safe." If this tale is true, it has never been documented by photos or by accounts of persons who are continually involved with snakes. An explanation given as a possible way that this story
could arise is by misinterpretation of an observation. For instance, quite a few common species of snakes give birth to living young. If a female is killed by being struck with a stick or axe, the abdomen might rupture, spilling out the young, which, if near full-term, would be quite active. The inference that might be drawn is that this is evidence of the snake swallowing her young, although the intruder did not actually see the swallowing performed.

Another good story is about the "Hoop Snake." This creature apparently lives in hilly country, for the story, in one variety or another, goes that a person is walking down a wooded path and hears a noise behind him. Upon looking around, he sees a snake that has emerged onto the path. Immediately, the snake throws itself into a loop, grasps its tail in its mouth, and flips up "on edge"-hoop-like. It then begins to roll downhill toward the observer, with ever-increasing speed. Upon which, the observer decides that he has
seen enough, and takes off downhill, also. The gap between the two rapidly decreases and, at the last moment, the intended victim dodges behind a tree. The snake slams into the tree, inbedding a "stinger" on the end of its tail into the tree. Subsequently, the tree dies. Again, there is no definite record of this type of encounter (although a colleague of the author almost got "whupped" by an old Arkansas native for
expressing disbelief of what the old timer described as an actual observation of such an event). There is, in southern swamps, a snake called the Mud Snake which some people think may have given rise to this tale or that could, improperly, be used as "evidence" that Hoop Snakes exist. This medium-sized black and red snake has a spine on its tail, but which has no venomous properties. Apparently the spine, a pointed tail tip, is utilized in assisting the snake in holding aquatic salamanders, which are a staple item of the snake's diet. In addition, this snake often forms itself into a coil when in semi-hibernation, so that when uncovered, there it is -- a Hoop Snake!

The "Milk Snake" really exists. That is, a snake exists that has this as its common name. It has a wide distribution, including Kansas. Milk Snakes belong to a group of snakes which, collectively, are called King Snakes. King Snakes feed upon a variety of animals, including other snakes, but one main element in
their diet is small mammals -- rodents. Since mice are found around barns, so are Milk Snakes that are where the food happens to be. Sometime in the past, a farmer's milk cows became "dry." This in itself is
not an uncommon occurrence, but this time the farmer saw a snake in his barn and, because snakes are capable of all sorts of dastardly deeds, this snake must have sucked the milk from the cow. The story has continued though the years, with elaborations, and many persons do believe that these small snakes are the cause of cow "dryness." So far, no snake has been induced to drink milk, and, can you imagine the shape of a small snake filled with the quarts of milk which a cow may contain at a milking? The mouth of a
snake is lined with needle sharp, back-curving teeth, so imagine, also, what that cow would do when those teeth latched onto the spigot!

Other stories continually crop up, such as a swimmer diving into a Kansas pond, quarry, or pit that, unknown to him, was filled with poisonous cottonmouths, resulting in the swimmer's death; or that Whip
Snakes actually "whip" with their bodies; or about a father killed by a rattlesnake that bit through his boot, and, years later, his son dies when he puts on the boot and the fang was still imbedded in the leather; or
that if you kill a snake, its mate will seek revenge. Don't believe them!

There is a snake in Kansas that does an injustice to itself because of its behavior. The Hognosed Snake, an inhabitant of loose soils and sandy areas, is a small to medium sized snake that exhibits characteristics
generally associated with poisonous snakes in the public mind. These snakes are stout-bodied, with a broad "triangular" head. When disturbed unexpectedly, they rear the front part of the body from the ground and spread the ribs of the neck region into a "hood." They hiss loudly and may even strike, but with the mouth closed. Continued disturbance will cause the snake to appear to go into convulsions, ending in "death", with the snake on its back. It may be handled or pushed around without eliciting a response, but, if turned over onto its stomach, the snake will promptly roll over onto its back again! Soon after being left undisturbed for a short time, the snake will raise its head, look around, right itself, and crawl away. An amazing recovery! The Hognosed Snake is not a snake dangerous to man. They feed on toads, for the most part, but they are unwisely persecuted because of their unfortunate appearance and behavior. There is even the belief that the breath of the snake is poisonous! (Thus another common name: Puffing Adder).

There is a snake that is not a snake -- it is a lizard. The so-called Glass Snake is a legless lizard, which, like many other lizards, has the ability to break off part of the tail when attacked. This particular lizard's tail makes up about two-thirds of its total length, and is so fragile that it may fracture into several pieces. Such brittleness gives rise to its common name. The story goes that if you wait awhile you will see the pieces crawl together and join to form a good-as-new "snake." It cannot accomplish such a marvelous feat, of course, but, given time, like other lizards that drop their tails, a new tail will grow. The new portion of
the tail, however, has an altered appearance and cannot function in the same manner as the old.

No one should carry the burden of fear of snakes. Each person should learn to recognize the kinds of poisonous snakes that might occur in his region and their preferred habitats. Then, whenever in that particular type of habitat, be cautious and keep his eyes open. But do not allow the sight of a harmless water snake or racer ruin a fishing trip or picnic.

This booklet has been prepared in an attempt to provide an abbreviated identification for the snakes known to occur in Kansas. It is not in the form of a dichotomous key as is the usual procedure. Instead, the shortest possible description is given which, hopefully, separates the species. In so shortening the description and deleting pertinent scale characteristics, there may be some confusion of forms. Utilizing all
of the information given for each species, including the generalized distribution in the state, should narrow the choice to one of two kinds, at any rate. I t will be necessary for the user to scan down the entire list,
looking at the distribution in the state, size, and color and pattern. Then, checking each of the descriptions carefully of all that appear at first to fit, until a satisfactory choice is reached.

Sizes are stated for adults. There is considerable variation in size, which makes the stated size categories only approximate. In general, though, small means up to 20 inches total length, medium 20 to 36 inches, and large over 36 inches. The distribution is general and simply gives an idea of where the snake may be found. For instance, if a snake is collected in one of the extreme western counties, but the description seems to fit a snake found only in the southeast corner, you had better check other descriptions, more carefully, of forms whose ranges include the western part of the state. Very little is included on habitat,
other than references to living in or near water or on land.

To clarify some terminology used:

Rough scales are those which have raised ridges lengthwise (keels). Snakes that have "rough" scales appear to have ridges that run the length of the body. Smooth scales, of course, do not have this ridge, and the entire body appears smooth.

The anal scale covers the anal opening on the underside of the snake. It may be divided (look like two scales upon close examination) or undivided. The anal scale indicates the beginning of the tail.

Scale rows are counted about one-fourth the body length back of the head. Count scales across the top of the body, starting on one side at the belly plates and ending at the edge of the other side. It is necessary to count upward and downward at an angle, as shown below. The count should be an odd number.

diagram of snake belly scales


  1. pupil of eye round (1 exception)
  2. no loreal pit
  3. two rows of scales under tail (1 exception)
  4. no enlarged teeth in front of upper jaw

diagram of snake head, see information below

  1. Blind Snake, Leptotyphlops - south central Kansas - small, burrowing, silvery-colored, scales alike all around body (no distinct belly scales).

  2. Worm Snake, Carphophis - eastern third of Kansas - small, black on top, pink underneath, colors meet along the middle of each side in a neat line.

  3. Ringneck Snake, Diadophis - all of Kansas except NW corner - small, slate colored on top, belly yellow with black dots, red under tail, yellow ring around neck.

  4. Hognose Snakes (2), Heterodon - entire state in correct habitat - small to medium - yellowish, with brown blotches, thick body, triangular head, nose turned up.

    diagram of snakes head, see information below
  5. Green Snakes (2), Opheodrys - southeast third of Kansas - small to medium in length but extremely slender, vine green on back, yellowish green underneath. Scales rough in common form.

  6. Racer, Coluber - entire state - medium - adult: olive above, yellow underneath, scales smooth. Young: gray with numerous dark blotches on top and sides, tail uniform dark green.

  7. Coachwhip, Masticophis - southwest two-thirds of Kansas - medium to large - slender, brown to black, tail ligh ter than front of the body, tail scales appear to be braided. Young are blotched and banded.

  8. Great Plains Rat Snake, Elaphe guttata - eastern two-thirds of Kansas - medium - gray with brown blotches on back, two rows of alternating smaller blotches on sides. Neck blotches reach forward on head and touch (or almost). Belly with large dark markings, underside of tail striped. Anal scale divided. (see sketch, below)

    diagram of belly markings of snake, see information above/below
  9. Black Rat Snake, Elaphe obsoleta - eastern half of Kansas - large - adult: black above, white underneath, belly with small dark marks, underside of tail not striped. Young: gray with dark alternating blotches, side blotches "Chevrolet" shaped.

    diagram of snake belly, see information above
  10. Glossy Snake, Arizona - western half of Kansas - medium - light gray with alternating dark blotches on back and sides, Belly immaculate white. Anal scale undivided.

  11. Bullsnake, Pituophis - entire state - large - yellowish with dark brown to black markings as blotches on back and sides, which become bands around tail. Scales rough, nose scale narrow and long curling up on top of snout a bit.

  12. Prairie Kingsnake, Lampropeltis calligaster - entire state except in NW corner - medium - light brown with dark brown alternating blotches on back and sides, anal scale undivided, neck blotches extend forward onto head but do not join or nearly so (as was the case with the Plains Rat Snake).

    diagram of snake head - see information above/below
  13. Speckled Kingsnake, Lampropeltis getulus - entire state - medium - black with yellow or whitish spot in almost every scale, sometimes forming a "ladder" in middle of back.

  14. Red Milk Snake, Lampropeltis triangulum - entire state - small to medium - pattern of red blotches or bands bordered with black and separated by white bands. Scales under tail in two rows.

  15. Longnose Snake, Rhinocheilus - southwest corner of Kansas - medium - pattern of dark blotches with alternating blotches on sides on light body color. Red patches between blotches and on sides. Scales under tail in a single row.

  16. Ground Snake, Sonora - southern half of Kansas - small - reddish brown above, white underneath. Pattern variable: no markings, which is unusual, one black blotch behind head, or several black saddle markings along back. 15 scale rows, anal scale divided.

  17. Flathead Snake (2), Tantilla - 1) western half, 2) eastern half except NE corner - small - reddish brown above, light underneath, head darker than body, no body blotches, 15 scale rows, anal scale divided.

  18. Night Snake, Hypsiglena - extreme southwest central - small - many spots (dark) on brown or gray body color, white or yellowish underneath, dark line downward at an angle from back of eye. Pupil of eye a vertical slit. Large dark blotch on sides of neck.

    diagram of snake head, see information above/below
  19. Blotched Water Snake, Nerodia erythrogaster - southeast half of Kansas - medium - light gray with dark gray or black blotches on back alternating with squarish blotches on sides like a checkerboard, blotches behind head form only one or two bands before the checkerboard begins, belly yellow in adults. Belly marked as show below, scales rough. Found in or near water.

    diagram of snake head, belly - see information above/below

  20. Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon - entire state except SW corner medium - coloration like above with the following exceptions: 7 to 15 (approximately) bands behind head before checkerboard pattern begins, belly not yellow and has numerous dark or red crescent-shaped markings, scales rough. Found in or near water.

    diagram of snake head, belly - see information above/below

  21. Diamondback Water Snake, Nerodia rhombifera - medium to large - dark brown to reddish brown with yellow belly and belly marked as #19. Pattern on back and sides as shown (appears diamond-shaped from above), scales rough, found in or near water.

    diagram of snake scale pattern

  22. Graham's Crayfish Snake, Regina grahami - eastern half of Kansas - medium dark gray with a light stripe lengthwise on lower sides three scales wide, stripe bordered below by narrow black stripe. Belly may have a series of large central dark blotches toward rear end that extend onto underside of tail, scales rough, anal scale divided. Found in or near water.

  23. Brown Snake, Storeria dekayi - eastern two-thirds of Kansas - small - brown with light line down middle of back, line bordered by a line of black dots, some of which may be joined by line which makes a ladder-like pattern across the light line, black collar across neck, scales rough and in 17 rows.

    snake diagram, see information above/below

  24. Redbelly Snake, Storeria occipitomaculata - extreme eastern Kansas - small - gray or brown with light wavy-edged light stripe down middle of back, belly light near head but reddish farther back. 15 rows of rough scales.

  25. Earth Snakes (2), Virginia - extreme eastern part of Kansas - small - gray to brown or olive, no markings, 17 scale rows, scales rough.

  26. Checkered Garter Snake, Thamnophis marcianus - southwest corner - medium - brown, with 3 light stripes: one down middle of back and one low on each side. Side stripe occupies the third row of scales above the belly only (this is on front part of body). Two rows of alternating dark vertical markings on lip scales, scales rough, anal scale undivided. Dark blotch on side of neck preceded by light vertical stripe.

  27. Red-sided Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis - entire state - medium - 3 stripes as above except that side stripe is on the second and third scale rows above belly, lip scales have vertical dark markings, pattern on body as above consisting of two rows of dark squares which alternate (checkerboard), areas between these dark blotches on sides are red, scales rough, anal scale undivided.

  28. Plains Garter Snake, Thamnophis radix - entire state - medium - brownish yellow with 3 stripes as above except that side stripe at front of body is on the third and fourth scale rows from belly, lip scales with vertical dark markings, pattern of dark squares as above, scales rough, anal scale undivided.

  29. Ribbon Snake, Thamnophis sauritus - entire state except NW corner - small medium - slender - 3 stripes just as above (#28), body color blackish with tiny white flecks, lip scales white and without any vertical markings, scales rough, anal undivided.

  30. Lined Snake, Tropidoclonion - eastern two-thirds of Kansas - small - 3 light stripes, body color brown, belly with two rows of prominent black marks, scales rough, anal scale undivided.

    diagram of pattern on snake belly - see information above/below


  1. vertical pupil of eye
  2. loreal pit present
  3. single row of scales under tail
  4. fangs present
    (two greatly enlarged teeth in front of upper jaw; fold against roof of mouth; covered by a membranous sheath)

diagram of parts of snake head

  1. Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix - eastern third of Kansas - medium - light brown with dark brown blotches that are narrow at mid-back and wider on the lower sides, top of head copper red, no rattle or button on tail tip. Found on land.

  2. Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus - extreme SE corner, RARE - medium - dark gray or with markings somewhat like above, not narrow at mid-back, top of head not copper red, no rattle or button on tail tip. Found in or near water.

  3. Massasauga, Sistrurus - entire state except NW one-fourth - small medium - gray with series of dark kidney-shaped blotches along midback and with rows of smaller less distinct alternating dark markings on sides, scales on top of head in large plates (see A below), button or rattle on tail tip.

    diagram of snake head
  4. Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox - extreme south-central, RARE - large - reddish brown with series of dark light-bordered "diamonds" on back, tail with black and white bands, button or rattle on tail tip, scales on top of head about same size, small (see B above).

  5. Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus - eastern one-fourth of Kansas - large - yellowish with black or brown bands across body, tail in adult velvety black, button or rattle on tail tip, scales on top of head as in B above.

  6. Prairie Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis - western half of Kansas - medium to large - greenish with markings quite like #3 above, tail is colored and marked like body, scales on top of head as B above, button or rattle on tail tip.

For better - more complete - identification and other information, see one or more of the following:

Clarke, Robert F. 1959. Poisonous snakes of Kansas. The Kansas School Naturalist, 5 (3):1-16.

Cochran, D. M., and C. J. Goin. 1970. The New Field Book of Reptiles and Amphibians. G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 359 pp.

Collins, Joseph T. 1974. Amphibians and Reptiles in Kansas. Univ. of Kansas Mus. Nat. Rist., Pub. Ed. Ser. No.1 283 pp. ($5.00)

Conant, R. 1975 A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America (2nd edition). Roughton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass. 429 pp.

Karnes, D., R. E. Ashton, and T. Swearinger. 1974. Illustrated Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Kansas -- an Identification Manual. Univ. of Kansas Publ. , Mus. Nat. Rist., Public Educ. Ser. No.2. 14 pp.

[The following was from the February 1980 date of this issue; it is included here to provide some history of the KSN.]

The present editor of the Kansas School Naturalist will retire next year after some 40 years of teaching and over a dozen years at the Editor's post. It was always one of his aims (hopes?) to publish an issue in color before he left the Editor's job. Though a few hundred dollars have accumulated in the Naturalist Fund from donations by some of our subscribers, it is still insufficient to meet the costs of color plates for the issue.

Would any of our readers like to sponsor such an issue (e. g., Kansas flowers, Kansas birds, Kansas
scenes, etc.)? The issue would be dedicated to the sponsor(s), and their pictures and a short bibliography
included with the issue. Write the Editor if your are interested. (It will help reduce your income tax!).

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