Unusual Snake Surfaces in Southeast Missouri

By Jim Low, Missouri Dept. of Conservation

First posted on 08-29-2008

The recent discovery of a northern scarlet snake in southeastern Missouri has herpetologists rethinking the rare reptile’s habitat needs and possible distribution in the Show-Me State. For more information, visit http://www.missouriconservation.org/news. (Missouri Dept. of Conservation photo)

The scarlet snake looks very much like the more common red milk snake but has been found in only a handful of places in the Show-Me State.

CAPE GIRARDEAU—A rare snake has surfaced in southeastern Missouri, giving Show-Me State herpetologists confirmation that the species still exists here.

Natural History Biologist Bob Gillespie reported the discovery of a northern scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea copei) July 31. Prior to the most recent discovery, only five scarlet snakes had been documented in Missouri. State Herpetologist Jeff Briggler said the find resulted partly from luck and partly from scientific curiosity.

“Bob Gillespie and Brandon Blechle put out a few drift fences to see what herps they could find,” said Briggler. “It was a lucky catch.”

A drift fence is a low barrier that directs crawling animals toward a trap.

Briggler said Missouri and Arkansas mark the western extent of the scarlet snake’s distribution. They are fairly abundant along the East Coast. Nowhere are scarlet snakes seen as routinely as other species.

“They seem to be easier to find back east,” said Briggler, “but around here they have always been rare for a couple of reasons.”

One of those reasons, said Briggler, is that scarlet snakes are fossorial, which means they are adapted for digging and spend most of their lives underground, rarely emerging on the surface.

“We have had five official records of this species before this one, four in the Lake of the Ozarks-Fort Leonard Wood area and one south of Branson,” he said. “One of them was found under a rock on a glade. The others were found dead on roads. The last sighting was in 1978.”

“We think this species probably is more abundant than it would seem. One of them showing up in southeast Missouri is very interesting, because based on our records they are found more in the Ozarks. But when you think about it, out east they are found in sand flatwoods, so maybe they are more abundant in sandy areas here and people have never looked for them. Maybe you just have to trap them to come across them a little more often.”

Although the find is interesting, Briggler said he does not think the new discovery will change the way the species is classified. It might lead to more intensive study, however.

“It’s good to know it is still here and part of the biodiversity of the state,” Briggler said. “It probably won’t change the conservation status of the species, but this new discovery could focus more attention on it, so biologist start looking for it more.”

Briggler said the scarlet snake would be easy for amateur herpetologists to confuse with the red milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulatum). Although the two species’ overall appearance is similar, two fairly obvious characteristics distinguish the two.

The scarlet snake’s snout is pointed and red all the way to the tip, and its belly is unmarked. The red milk snake’s nose is more blunt, and it is not red at the tip. Furthermore, the more common species’ belly has dark blotches.

“With the discovery of a scarlet snake in southeast Missouri a lot of people might think they have found one when they really have a milk snake,” said Briggler. “We certainly don’t want people catching and keeping scarlet snakes, so in order to verify a sighting we need good photos of the tip of the snake’s nose and of its entire belly. Without those, it would be almost impossible to be sure it was a scarlet snake.”

Female scarlet snakes usually lay only three to eight eggs. What is known of the species food habits indicate it is especially fond of other reptiles’ eggs. It also eats frogs, salamanders, insects, slugs and earthworms.

-Jim Low-