Wondernose: What Animal Pretends to be Poisonous, yet is Actually Harmless to People?

by Rebecca Martin | Mar 26, 2021 | 0 comments

For a description of our mystery animal, we’ll start with its nose. It resembles the snout of a barnyard pig, because it’s slightly turned up at the end. The resemblance is so strong that “hognose” is part of the animal’s name.

I suppose any further description will give away the answer to my riddle. This animal is long and round and thin. The back part of its body tapers off to a whip-like tail. Its skin is scaly. Often there are colorful markings. This animal has no legs—

Of course it’s a snake, Wondernose. What else could it be? And in my very first paragraph, I’ve given away the descriptive part of its name. So yes, the answer to our riddle is the hognose snake—one of the world’s more than 3000 kinds of snakes.

Hognose snakes are unusual among harmless snakes. Most snakes that aren’t armed with venom will glide away quickly when you approach. Getting out of sight is their main means of protection.

Not so the hognose. It has a whole bag of tricks it wants to try out on you! First it will start hissing and striking at you. Usually it is all a sham. Their mildly venomous fangs are in the rear of the mouth for their prey, but do not seriously harm people. However, I confess I would probably turn and run if a snake were to rear up like that and hiss at me.

Have you ever heard of cobras? Those are a kind of poisonous snake found in Africa. If threatened, they will lift their heads, spread their neck ribs, and inflate their lungs. This results in a sort of “hood” spreading out on either side of their necks.

A hognose snake can do something similar. It will inflate the front part of its body until a kind of hood forms. Such behavior has resulted in names like “puff adder,” “spreading adder,” and “hissing sand snake” for the hognose.

So that menacing hood still hasn’t scared you, Wondernose? Some hognoses will also open their mouths wide to show the colorful lining. This mimics the poisonous cottonmouth snake.
Because of all this ferocity, people tend to kill any hognose snake they encounter. But if you don’t kill it—and if you don’t run away—you’ll be treated to still another trick. When all else fails, a hognose snake will play dead! After giving one final twitch, it’ll roll over on its back and lie still with its mouth hanging open.

Other than its impressive repertoire of tricks, the hognose is like most other harmless snakes. It likes to eat small rodents, frogs, and toads. Especially toads! And, like other snakes, it swallows the prey whole, starting with the head.

Hognose snakes lay from twelve to thirty leathery white eggs in a damp place. As time goes on, the eggs begin to swell. Just before they hatch, they’re one-third larger than when they were laid. Emerging from the eggs, the new little snakes are from 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) long. Rather than the brownish hues of the parents, the babies are grayish.

Not all adult hognose snakes are the same color either, even if they’re of the same species. Their coloring varies with their habitat. In sandy desert areas they’ll have lighter hues than in forested areas.

Wondernose, some people might insist that hognose snakes are dangerous. They will use names like “checkered adder” and “sand viper” to describe them. (Vipers and adders are poisonous, you know.) While the hognose snake can put on quite the show, it is neither a viper nor an adder.

Wondernose, hognose snake,
Hognose Snake. Photo © Chas53/iStockPhoto.com

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