Snakes of New Jersey: Part One
This article is a part of the "Wild New Jersey" Series, a column about nature by Samantha Verdi '23. For reference see previous articles:
- The Chronicles of The Frogs: The Shed Frogs, Part One
- The Chronicles of The Frogs: The Shed Frogs, Part Two
- Tree Frogs of New Jersey, Native and Non-Native
Snakes are a type of reptile that sparks curiosity or sometimes fear in people. Their uncanny way of moving from place to place and their strange feel makes them seem out of this world. Though they may be unsettling for some, snakes are a very key part of our ecosystem. Without them, rodent populations would rise significantly, as well as other populations of snake prey.
If you see a snake, stay at least five feet from it for your safety and the snake’s safety. If you respect its space and don't approach it you will very likely not get bitten. Snakes don't attack you, they defend themselves. If they feel threatened they may bite. The only time they may ‘attack’ you is if you smell like a prey item they would eat. This does not happen often with wild snakes because they fear people. If the snake is in your yard and you're uncomfortable with it, either wait for it to go away or call your local humane society to relocate it. Ways to make your home or property unappealing for snakes is to remove places they or their food source (most commonly rodents) would hide. Take away any piles of wood, rock, blocks, etc. Note that it is nearly impossible to ward off snakes from your home completely. If you get bitten by a snake, go to your doctor immediately, if you think you were bitten by a venomous one, call 911 immediately. Ways to prevent snake bites are to not put your hands or feet where you cannot see them (under a bush, rock, back deck, porch, etc). If a snake is hiding under one of those places and you do not see it, it may get scared and possibly bite.
Do not kill snakes because under the under the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program, it is illegal to kill, collect, or hurt any of the 23 native snake species of New Jersey (*). Their populations are already threatened due to human development and deforestation (habitat loss).
Snakes exist in every continent but Antartica, with more than 3,000 species. New Jersey is home to 23 of these species. All of the species of snakes in New Jersey are on population decline, some more severe than others. The following are 6 of the 23 snakes of New Jersey.
1. Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon): Not to be confused with the venomous Copperhead snake
- Conservation Status (in NJ): Not ranked as a threatened species, but protected under the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program (*).
- Adult size: about 24-55 inches, with females larger than males at adult size.
- Eggs: breed April to June, give birth to live young (no eggs) during late summer. Reach maturity at 3 years. Female births around 99 offspring.
- Colors/patterns: Brown with darker brown splotches. Can be grayish-brown in color. Dark brown square splotches running down the sides of the lower back. The older the individual gets, the more faded the colors and patterns get. The pupils of the eyes (the black part) are round, compared to the venomous copperhead’s pupils that are slits (similar to a cat).
- Habitat: freshwater streams, bogs, lakes, ponds, swamps, and marshes
- Diet: mostly amphibians and fish
- Distribution: Middle of Maine down to Mississippi, west to about Kansas and Wisconsin
- Cool Facts: When threatened, they may dive underwater and hide at the bottom of the body of water they are in. They can stay underwater holding their breath for 90 minutes. They have keeled (triangle shaped) scales.
2. Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum):
- Conservation Status (in NJ): protected under the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program (*).
- Adult size: 24-36 inches, max size is 4 ft 25 inches. Males are typically larger than females.
- Eggs: females lay 4-12 eggs
- Colors/patterns: Varies in color and pattern, usually white or some type of off-white tan or gray with red/red-brown/brown large circular shaped blotches running down back with smaller circular shaped blotches in between.
- Habitat: Wooded slopes, hills, mountains, usually under rocks. They also inhabit fields, and sometimes riverbanks and other wooded areas.
- Diet: small mammals like mice, small birds, small reptiles or amphibians, and various insects like slugs and beetles.
- Distribution: Northeast Louisiana to southern Maine, to Minnesota in a triangular shape roughly.
- Cool Facts: Common names for this snake are Adder, House moccasin, chicken snake, or leopard spotted snake. The most common name, milk snake, came from the common (false) idea that these snakes drank milk from cows because they were commonly seen by farmers in barns. In reality, these snakes were only there to eat the mice, not steal milk.
3. Coastal Plain Milk Snake Integrate (Lampropeltis t. triangulum x L.t. elapsoides):
- Conservation Status (in NJ): protected under the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program (*). They are very rare due to the fact they are integrates (see Cool Facts below).
- Adult size: Unknown. The scarlet kingsnake reaches an adult size of 14-20 inches. The eastern Milk Snake reaches an adult size of 24-36 inches. Due to the fact these are the parent species of the Coastal Plain Milk Snake, the size is likely somewhere between 14-36 inches.
- Eggs: Unknown. The Scarlet Kingsnake lays 4-12 eggs, the eastern milk snake lays about 18 eggs. Due to the fact these are the parent species of this snake, the amount of eggs laid by this snake is probably about 4-18 eggs.
- Colors/patterns: yellow or white with red/red-brown/brown splotches that are outlined in black. Has a band of pale white or yellow around the back of its head, similar to the Scarlet Kingsnake, but can be told apart by the lack of the scarlet red covering their body.
- Habitat: found in areas the Eastern Milk Snake would inhabit, woods, riverbanks, mountains, slopes, or barns.
- Diet: Unknown. The Scarlet Kingsnake eats mostly lizards but also mice and small snakes. The Milk Snake eats mice, bugs, birds, and small reptiles and amphibians. The diet of this snake would likely be the same.
- Distribution: Southern New Jersey, seen in the mountains of northern Georgia and northwestern South Carolina.
- Cool Facts: The Coastal Plain Milk Snake is a natural hybrid of the scarlet snake and the Milk Snake. This is why this snake is called integrate. In regions where the two species share space, or integrate, there are Coastal Plain Milk Snakes as a result of these two snakes breeding with one another. Little is known about them because of how rare they are. The Scarlet Kingsnake (L. triangulum elapsoides) is not Native to New Jersey.
4. Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata guttata):
- Conservation Status (in NJ): This is a state endangered species, meaning its population is declining rapidly in the state of New Jersey. This snake is protected under the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program (*).
- Adult size: about 30-48 inches long
- Eggs: females lay about 18 eggs.
- Colors/patterns: red, orange, brown, or gray with big blotchy rounded squares on back, the blotches outlined in black. Identifiable by a black and white checkered belly.
- Habitat: habitat destruction has restricted this snake to now mostly the Pine Barrens of New Jersey (in terms of NJ habitat), found in oak-pine woodlands near the ground. Can be found in the ground level of abandoned structures. Typically under logs or in leaf litter. They are good climbers.
- Diet: Constrictor snake, meaning it does not kill with venom, rather it kills with body mass and body strength. Prey items include lizards, small birds, and small mammals.
- Distribution: From NJ to Florida, most of Southern U.S.
- Cool Facts: These snakes have domesticated counterparts that are commonly kept as pets and have been bred to have morphs like bright orange scale colors or clear white coloration. It is illegal to take a snake out of the wild and keep it as a pet, so if you want a corn snake, go to the pet store instead of keeping a wild one. Wild snakes tend to have to be tamed and cured of diseases before they can be safely kept as a pet, so for the safety of you and the snake, do not take snakes from the wild. They have keeled (triangle-shaped) scales. They have been described as the ‘red rat snake’ due to their genetics connecting them to the rat snake. They have been described to have a body shaped ‘like a loaf of bread’. Report sightings of this snake to NJ Fish and Wildlife so they can monitor populations in our area. The link to this forum is https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/rprtform.htm
5. Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea copei): Not to be confused with the Scarlet King Snake
- Conservation Status (in NJ): A threatened species,which means their population is on decline but not as bad as endangered. This snake is protected under the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program (*).
- Adult size: about 13-32 inches at adult length
- Eggs: females lay 2-9 eggs in summer
- Colors/patterns: Yellow or white with red/orange bands reaching almost around the body. Black bands separate the red/orange bands from the yellow or white base color. These snakes have pointed red/orange heads. Behind their orange/red head is a thick band of yellow or white encased in two black bands.
- Habitat: under logs, leaf litter, rocks, spends most of its time underground. Lives in damp forests.
- Diet: reptile eggs, small mammals and birds, bugs, amphibians, and other reptiles.
- Distribution: From NJ to Florida, most of southern U.S.
- Cool Facts: The Northern Scarlet Snake's coloration is supposed to look like the venomous coral snake to keep predators away, since the scarlet snake has no venom. The coral snake is not native to NJ, but the saying ‘red-touch black venom lack (scarlet snake), red-touch yellow can kill a fellow (coral snake)’ can be used to tell these snakes apart by band order. Report sightings on NJ Fish and Wildlife form so they can monitor their population in our area at https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/rprtform.htm
6. Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula getula): Not to be confused with the Scarlet King Snake
- Conservation Status (in NJ): Listed as a species of Special Concern in NJ. Special Concern means population decline, but not as rapid as Threatened or Endangered. Although, in other places such as Florida where this snake is also native to, populations are starting to disappear. The reason for its population decline in general is getting hit by cars, habitat loss, direct killing (people actively seeking and hunting it), illegally captured for the pet trade, etc.This snake is protected under the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program (*).
- Adult size: 36-82 inches at adult size. This snake can get around 6 feet long (the record is 7 feet long). Females are larger than males.
- Eggs: females lay 3-24 eggs in summer.
- Colors/patterns: dark gray or black with cream/white/yellow chainlinks/circles around the body.
- Habitat: Native to Southern half of NJ; Pine forests, rocky terrain, swamps, fields or farmland. Can find them under logs or debris, or basking under the sun in the open.
- Diet: This snake eats the venomous snakes native to NJ. There are 3 venomous snakes native to NJ, they are the Timber Rattlesnake, Copperhead, and Cottonmouth; The Kingsnake eats all three species. They also eat small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, and turtle eggs. They do not rely on venom to hunt, rather they use their body mass and strength to hunt; they are constrictor snakes, not venomous.
- Distribution: From Southern NJ to Florida to Alabama.
- Cool Facts: This snake is immune to the venom of pit-vipers, this includes the three venomous snake species of NJ. Because the three venomous snakes of NJ rely on their venom as opposed to their body mass or strength to hunt or defend, and their venom is useless against the Eastern Kingsnake, so they are the prey of the Kingsnake. Eastern Kingsnakes are active mostly in the daytime and summer, although they can be seen on summer nights. Another name for this snake is the ‘Chain Snake’. Report sightings of this snake to NJ Fish and Wildlife so they can monitor populations in our area. The link to this forum is https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/rprtform.htm
Stay turned for Part Two of Snakes of New Jersey coming soon!
Report rare wildlife sightings at NJ Fish and Wildlife here: https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/rprtform.htm
My experiences and observations
Nj Fish and Wildlife:snake_broch.pdf
Queensland Health (Australia): https://www.health.qld.gov.au/news-events/news/what-to-do-if-you-get-bitten-by-a-snake
Humane Society of the United States: https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/what-do-about-snakes
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory: https://srelherp.uga.edu/snakes/nersip.htm
University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web: https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Nerodia_sipedon/
Reptiles and Amphibians of NC: http://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/reptiles/snakes/eastern-milk-snake/eastern_milksnake.php
Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ: