This time of year, as snakes are out and about in the great outdoors, the Department of Natural Resources gets many questions about Michigan’s snakes. Michigan is home to 17 different species of snakes, 16 of which are completely harmless to humans.
There are two that are very similar and often cause a stir when people encounter them. Eastern hog-nosed snakes, when threatened, puff up with air, flatten their necks and bodies and hiss loudly. (This has led to local names like “puff adder” or “hissing viper.”) If this act is unsuccessful, the snakes will writhe about, excrete a foul-smelling musk and then turn over with mouth agape and lie still, as though dead. Despite this intimidating behavior, hog-nosed snakes are harmless to humans.
The eastern massasauga rattlesnake, the only venomous species found in Michigan, is quite rare and protected as a species of special concern due to declining populations from habitat loss. As the name implies, the massasauga rattlesnake does have a segmented rattle on its tail. It should not be confused with the other harmless species of snake in Michigan that do not have segmented rattles but will also buzz their tails if approached or handled.
Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are shy creatures that avoid humans whenever possible. Also known as “swamp rattlers,” they spend the vast majority of their time in year-round wetlands hunting their primary prey, mice. When encountered, if the snake doesn’t feel threatened, it will let people pass without revealing its location. If humans do get too close, a rattlesnake will generally warn of its presence by rattling its tail while people are still several feet away. If given room, the snake will slither away into nearby brush. Rattlesnake bites, while extremely rare in Michigan (less than one per year), can and do occur. Anyone who is bitten should seek medical attention immediately. To learn more about the massasauga and for more snake safety tips, visit http://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/emr/index.cfm.
Those who encounter a snake of any kind should leave it alone and should not try to handle or harass the snake – this is primarily how snake bites happen. A snake can only strike roughly one-third of its body length, so it is physically impossible for people to get bitten if they do not get within 24 inches of the snake’s head. Michigan snakes do not attack, chase or lunge at people or seek out human contact. Simply put, if left alone, Michigan snakes will leave people alone.
The DNR asks Michigan residents to consider reporting any reptile or amphibian sightings to the Michigan Herp Atlas research project to help monitor amphibian and reptile populations in Michigan and protect these valuable resources for future generations. Visit www.miherpatlas.org for more information.
To learn more about Michigan’s snakes, visit www.michigan.gov/wildlife, click on the “Wildlife Species” button and select “Amphibians and Reptiles.”