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Kirtland's snake - Clonophis kirtlandii - is a rare, non-venomous reptile that resides strictly in the Midwest. Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and southern Michigan are the only places in the world that the Kirtland's snake makes its home. We are lucky enough to have them on our Beanblossom Bottoms preserve in Southern Indiana.
Though part of the snake family that includes garter snakes and water snakes, Kirtland's prefers being underground rather than in the water. Moist habitats such as wet prairies, meadows, muddy ponds and creeks make perfect homes for this particular snake, especially if crawfish are present. The Kirtland's snake is believed to use crawfish burrows for its hibernacula. Not only are these burrows dark and dank, but the snake's favorite prey - earthworms and slugs - are greatly accessible as well.
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What makes the Kirtland's snake so unique from other snakes is the coloring of their scaly skin. The dorsal background coloring varies from red to brownish gray, and is distinguished by the pattern of two rows of dark, roundish marks. Along with its bright red to orange-ish underbelly, it completes a combination unique to the Kirtland's snake alone.
Threats to the Kirtland's Snake and How We Can Protect Them
Habitat loss, land degradation and fragmentation are the biggest threats to the Kirtland's snake. Land development and agriculture has taken away much of the native wet prairies that the species prefers. Fortunately these snakes were able to migrate and adapt to living in a variety of environments including not-so-pristine locations like wayward urban streams and grassy areas near construction debris and other rubbish. Other threats are the threats to the crawfish community. Since Kirtland's snakes prefer crawfish burrows, it is important to worry about pesticides, water pollution and any other changes to the hydrology of the area in order to protect this endangered species. Our own two-stage ditch project helps alleviate this problem by creating a natural filtering process for agricultural chemicals and other harmful water pollutants.
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To keep the Kirtland's snake safe in Indiana, the protection and management of known habitats are vital. By sparing these sites from land development, researchers can continue to study the Kirtland's snake in order to understand how we can better protect them. The Center for Reptile and Conservation and Management recommends management strategies including minimal human disturbance in habitats, mowing schedules that alleviate mortalities (i.e. no mowing during breeding season) and controlled burns during the fall and winter to control ecological succession in these areas.
Similar Snake Species
There are a few snakes in Indiana that can be mistaken for the Kirtland's snake such as:
Midland Brown Snake - share similar habitats with Kirtland's; similar in looks but without the red-colored bellies
Northern Redbelly - shares a reddish belly, but no rows of dark-colored spots
Queen Snake - in similar habitats and that's about it; grey in color and yellowish underbelly
Interesting Facts of the kirtland's snake
Since the Kirtland's snake tends to be shy and secretive, little is known about its behavior. Here are a couple of interesting facts about this seldom seen snake:
- The Kirtland's snake not only hibernates in burrows during the winter, but also aestivates in the summer. Aestivation (or estivation) is a state of dormancy similar to hibernation except it takes place when a habitat is too hot and dry.
- When disturbed, the snake will flatten its body out to hide and protect himself from others. This ability also allows them to move through the small cracks in any habitat.
- Snakes are ectothermic meaning they use heat from their environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature.
- Many animals - including snakes - display sexual dimorphism meaning there is a difference in form between male and female members of the same species. For the Kirtland's snake, the difference is that the female is significantly larger than the male.