Did you know that there are as many as 21 kinds of snakes in Wisconsin? Wow, that's a lot! Only two of these snakes are venomous, the timber rattlesnake and the eastern massasauga. They are found only in specific habitats in the the southwestern part of the state. A few of Wisconsin's snakes are endangered including: the eastern massasauga, queensnake, western ribbonsnake and the northern ribbonsnake. Some snakes are the "protected wild animal" category which means that it is illegal to hunt or possess them.
Wisconsin Snake Check List
Download the Wisconsin Snake Check List and check off snakes you've seen.
Fun Facts About Snakes
- Snakes are ectothermic. Can you guess what that means? It means that they must rely on their surroundings to control their body temperature. So, in the heat of the summer, where do you suppose they go? They head underground or crawl into cool spaces or into areas with lots of vegetation. This keeps them cool in the heat of they day. On a cool day in the spring or fall, you might see a snake "sunning" itself out in the open where the sun can warm it up.
- Most snakes found in Wisconsin are constrictors. They squeeze the life right out of their prey. They do this by wrapping their body around the animal and tightening until the prey can't breathe any more.
- Snakes have no eyelids and cannot blink. That's why they just seem to stare at us from the garden.
- All Wisconsin snakes are predators. They eat anything from sowbugs to other snakes. Their meals and side dishes include animals like: mice, snails, earthworms, salamanders, spiders, voles, frogs, young squirrels, and leeches.
- You can find snakes living under boards and rocks, in brush piles, rocky ledges, stone walls or the edge of water.
- Snakes smell the air with their tongue. They don't sting with their tongue as some people think.
- Look carefully if you think you see a snake, it might just be a "molt" or cast-off skin that the snake grew out of. Snakes do this several times each year.
- Snakes have smooth dry skin. They are not wet and slimy. Their bodies are covered with scales, small diamond shapes on the top and long rectangles on the bottom side. The underside scales are called "scutes." Scutes help the snake move by catching on stones, branches and other irregularities on the ground.
- Snakes can climb trees, swim, and race. The common watersnake spends most of the time swimming in large lakes and open rivers in the southern half of Wisconsin. The gray ratsnake is arboreal, which means it loves to hang out in trees, and likes hickories and oaks that are 6-12 meters off the ground. The blue racer snake is one of the fastest moving snakes in North America, slithering at a speed of 4 miles an hour.
- Snakes are great. They eat lots of rodents and other small pests. We need snakes to keep the pests away. Unfortunately, many people kill snakes because of fear or they mistake a nonvenomous snake for a venomous one. Actually, until 1975 there was a bounty (a fee paid to people who kill "pest" species) in Wisconsin on rattlesnakes, paying up to 5 dollars a tail. In 1975 the bounty was lifted and the eastern massasauga was placed on the Wisconsin Endangered and Threatened Species List.
- If you see a snake and are frightened by it, or you don't know if it is venomous or not, it is best to move away if you can and just let it be. It is illegal to take or kill a "protected" snake unless you are in an immediate life-threatening situation involving human life or domestic animals. Remember that snakes, like all other wildlife, are extremely valuable in nature as both predator and prey, consuming rodents, amphibians and insects and providing food for a variety of birds and mammals.
Although you should never just pick up a snake or approach a snake because it's not always easy to tell the difference between a venomous snake and a nonvenomous snake, there are some ways you can tell the difference:
Nonvenomous Wisconsin snakes:
- round pupil in the eye
- stripes from head to tail or solid color like the North-American racer
- some have spots or blotches of color (some venomous ones have this too, be careful)
- spoon-shaped round head
Venomous Wisconsin snakes:
- elliptical pupil, like a cat's eye
- a rattle on the tail
- a triangular or arrow-shaped wide head
- small depression in their snout, half way between the eye and nostril. This is called a "pit" and is found on venomous snakes. The "pit" helps them sense heat to locate prey. Both of Wisconsin's venomous snakes belong to the "pit" viper family.
- live in southwestern Wisconsin
It's best not to get close enough to look for these snakes, unless you are a professional biologist working with snakes.