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One day, when I was 10 or 12 years old, I was in my dad’s garden, rooting around, looking for a snack. Dad was in another section of the garden, digging or weeding or whatever it was that he did; at that age, I was interested in the ready-to-eat aspect of the garden, and not much else. I had pinpointed the strawberry patch as my most likely prospect, and was kneeling down, brushing the leaves aside to look for ripe fruit, when I almost touched a snake. I leapt back quickly and yelled SNAKE!”, and Dad came over to investigate.
“It’s a hognose. Here, come look at this.”
Walking toward the snake wasn’t really what I had in mind, but I followed my dad. The snake was medium gray in color, patterned, a little more than two feet long, and thick. Thicker than a black snake; maybe two inches in diameter. The snake’s nose was broad and flat and slightly upturned; a pug. Dad poked at it with a stick.
“Dad! Shouldn’t we just leave it alone?”
“No, watch.”
Feeling threatened by the waving stick, the snake coiled, raised its head, puffed out its neck like a cobra, and hissed. Afraid that it would strike, I yelped and backed away. Dad kept poking. Apparently, the snake decided its scare tactics were not working; it flipped itself over onto its back and played possum. Dad touched it with the stick; it writhed around a bit, and then was still, mouth open, tongue lolling. Using the stick, Dad flipped it right-side up; the snake quickly flipped itself back to the belly-up position, feigning death. Its underbelly was cream-colored, and the snake was still. The show was over; we walked away. As soon as the coast was clear, the hognose righted itself and crawled away.


The Eastern Hognose Snake, Heterodon platirhinos, is known by many other names:

puff adder                                                                                          hissing adder
               spreading adder                                              banana viper                    puff viper
                           black adder           spreadhead moccasin                                            puff head     possum snake
                                           blowing viper                                                                               bull adder

The general coloration of the Eastern Hognose varies; they can be spotted, or plain gray or black; red, orange, yellow, olive or brown pigmentation is also possible. The belly is mottled and light colored—pinkish, greenish, yellow to cream, or light gray. The body of the hognose has been described as stout and chunky, and they are usually less than four feet long. The hognose is diurnal, and its diet consists mainly of toads, athough they have been know to eat frogs, tadpoles, snails, small mammals, lizards and their eggs, salamanders, and birds. Prey are swallowed live.

Heterodon comes from the Greek heteros, different, and odous, tooth; this genus has different sized teeth, used in deflating toads to make them easier to swallow. Platirhinos is also Greek; platys meaning flat or broad, and rhinos meaning snout. The snake’s nose—the large, flattened, upturned rostral scale—is a most distinctive feature.

Found in the eastern half of the United States, these snakes are non-poisonous and, according to at least two sources other than my dad, will not bite in self-defense. This great pretender depends on its elaborate displays for protection. An accidental bite reported by the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service “resulted in mild envenomation of the victim:

…he was handling the snake. The hognose snake was feigning death. The writhing snake, with its mouth open, caught its teeth on the victim's arm. The symptoms were swelling, pain similar to a strong bee sting, dark purple discoloration around the wound changing to redness and nausea. Although H. platirhinos is not considered venomous, the saliva is apparently toxic to some people. Caution should be exercised when handling this snake.”1

Well, that seems like pretty good advice for people coming into contact with any snake...


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