Glade & Glade Snakes
by Ben Dalton
If you’re not from this neck o’ the woods, you might know a glade as a clearing in a forest. However, glades have a special meaning to those of us who live in the Ozarks:
A glade is a unique ecosystem that is drier, rockier, and more resembles a prairie than the surrounding woodland.
While hiking around these hills, you might notice a prickly pear cactus, or you may have seen a roadrunner speeding past. While these plants and animals are common in states like Texas and Arizona, you probably don’t associate them with the Ozarks. Indeed, glades are special ecosystems colonized by plants and animals commonly found farther into the south and west.
Glades provide a perfect habitat for many types of reptiles. Rocks of all sizes litter the glades — usually as a result of being exposed to the elements — and make great hiding places and decent areas to thermoregulate. Rocks maintain heat into cooler nights and stay cool into the warming morning.
Both prairie grasses and forest plant species can be found in glades and the great variety of plant life supports an equally great variety of insects. While the cold winters do prevent many of the high-heat reptiles from spreading into the Ozarks, several more tolerant southwestern reptiles have adapted. You’ll find Collared Lizards, Texas Horned Lizards and several snake species. There are many shapes and sizes of glade-loving snake species (e.g., Coachwhip, Speckled Kingsnake), but it’s the smaller snakes that seem most abundant. These snakes are so small, in fact, you won’t find them unless you’re looking for them.
In particular, there are three species of snakes that are fairly common throughout Ozark glades:
The Ringed-neck Snake, the Worm Snake, and the Flat-headed Snake.
Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus arnyi) are probably the most recognizable and well-known of the three species. Ring-necked snakes rarely grow over a foot long and are usually thinner around than a pea. Their defining characteristic, and their namesake, comes from the white “necklace” coloration at the base of the head.
Otherwise, you might think them dull snakes, being a gray-brown down the entire length of their back (until you flip them over).
Ring-necked snakes have bright yellow bellies — often speckled with black spots — which end with a vivid orange tail. When you’re a small snake you have lots of predators. If you cannot defend yourself then your best bet is to scare predators away. If you startle a ring-neck, they’ll flip over and show the bright coloration of their bellies, often releasing a foul-smelling musk at the same time. If it looks bad, and smells bad, you might not want to eat it, right?
The genus name Diadophis comes from a combination of diadem and the Greek root for snake (“ophios”). The species name punctatus shares a root with punctuation, referring to the small black spots on the bellies.
Ring-necked snakes feed on small worms, insects and salamanders. Realistically, its prey choice is limited by the size of its mouth (which is too small to even latch onto the pinky finger of this herpetologist).
Despite the size, there’s another surprise ring-necks are hiding: they possess venom! Now, I’d hesitate to call them venomous (although they technically are) because: 1) they’re too small to bite people; 2) their fangs are in the rear of their mouths, so if one somehow managed to latch on, it would have to effectively swallow before it could inject its venom; 3) their venom is aimed at earthworms and salamanders — to humans it’s less aggravating than poison ivy.
Not everything is quite as scary as it seems, huh?
Worm Snakes (Carphophis vermis) are probably less-known than ring-necks but are also common in the glades of the Ozarks. Roughly the same size as ring-necks, worm snakes are dorsally black (almost iridescent) and ventrally red-to-pink. If you thought the mouth of a ring-necked snake was small, the mouth of a worm snake is even smaller — they have a smaller gape than ring-necks and as such feed primarily on worms and ants. Part of the reason they have a differently shaped mouth and skull is because they burrow more so than ring-necks.
Their name might also be called worm snakes because, like ring-necks, worm snakes flip over when threatened and display their red belly — making them easy to mistake for a big angry worm.
The genus name Carphophis comes from the Greek root for dry (“karphos”) and again ophios for snake. Vermis is Latin for worm. A more aptly-named creature you cannot find.
The third small snake of our glades is the Flat-headed Snake (Tantilla gracilis). Of the three, this is probably the most wide-spread — from South America to the Eastern Seaboard, Tantilla abound. Flat-heads are somewhat smaller than worms or ring-necks, and are also thinner. Their smaller size — in conjunction with their flat-head namesake — helps them squeeze into tight spaces between rocks and logs. With such a small head, they are restricted to preying on the smallest of the insects of the glades (mostly ants).
The genus Tantilla is Latin for little and the species name gracilis is Latin for thin. Taxonomists aren’t a particularly creative bunch when choosing to name a little, thin snake.
Flat-headed snakes are tan with a dark brown head. In other areas of the country, closely-related species of Tantilla have been named things like the Crowned Snake (T. coronata) where the pattern on their head takes on a more crown-like shape. Again, the flat-headed snake sports a brighter, reddish-colored belly.
If you’ve noticed a pattern here, it’s no coincidence. I’ve explained the reasons why warning coloration might be helpful for survival — startling predators — but why do so many glade species have it?
Consider this scenario: You are friends with your neighbors to either side when a troublesome neighbor moves in across the street. You decide this is just the opportunity you’ve been looking for to build a new fence in your front yard.
You draw up a plan, go to the hardware store down the road for materials, then set to work.
When you’re almost finished, your friendly neighbors both come back from the same hardware store with materials for their own fences. Later, you all step back and look at the finished project:
Your wood fence is bordered by a stone fence on one side and a hedge row on the other.
Although they don’t look exactly the same, the obtrusive view is blocked all around. Without talking to your neighbors, you three found a similar solution to the same problem, using what materials were readily available.
This is similar to the snakes we’ve talked about today. Animals that are similar in life-history often face the same set of problems in many parts of the world. In our situation, this could be small, thin-bodied snakes in danger of being eaten by birds.
Plants and animals have similar sets of materials to pull from and will use what best accomplishes their task. If a bright belly helps snakes survive better than other means of defense, you can expect that characteristic to show regularly. Whether it be a red belly, pink belly, or yellow belly, all solve the same problem.
Glades are representative of a special type of habitat with a unique environment. Plants and animals from different parts of the country that might not be found together (and have evolved separately from each other) are present because of the special oasis our Ozark glades create.
Sometimes this takes the form of small, fascinating snakes that like dry rocky hillsides. Other times it takes the form of plants, or insects, or birds. The list goes on. While glades are fascinating, they’re also fragile. Hikers trample sensitive plants, flip rocks that snakes, lizards, and other animals use for cover, and leave trash behind. Our glades are our treasures. Be respectful.
As the Park Service says, “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures.” Next time you’re near a glade, take a moment to look around, and try to guess if the life you’re looking at comes from the east or the southwest.
Above, the Coachwhip Snake (Coluber flagellum). This snake gets its name from the patterning on the posterior side of the body, where the coloration goes from a dark brown (or black) to a “braided” appearance resembling a whip. These snakes are long and thin, allowing them to prey upon quick lizard species. Formerly Masticophis flagellum. — Ben Dalton
Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus arnyi) are probably the most recognizable and well known of the three species.
The third small snake of our glades is the Flat-headed Snake (Tantilla gracilis). Of the three, this is probably the widest-spread — from South America to the Eastern seaboard, Tantilla abound.
There are many shapes and sizes of glade-loving snake species (eg. Coachwhip, Speckled Kingsnake), but it’s the smaller snakes that seem most abundant.
Worm Snakes (Carphophis vermis) are probably less-known than ring-necks but are also common in the glades of the Ozarks.
Herpetologist Ben Dalton graduated in 2013 from Missouri State University-Springfield and continued teaching biology labs at MSU — and biology at Ozark Technical College. He is a laboratory supervisor in the biology department at MSU. His undergraduate Puerto Rican coqui frog (Eleutherodactylus coqui) research and Ozark zigzag salamander (Plethodon angusticlavius) thesis work have been published in peer-reviewed journals.