Kirtland's Snakes can grow to 36 to 62 cm in length. They have keeled scales (scales with a raised ridge along their length) on the upper body that are grayish in color, with two rows of small dark blotches and a row of larger dark blotches along the midline of the snake. These blotches can be faded and difficult to see in both young and older individuals. This coloration on their backs makes them difficult to see. The belly is reddish with a row of black spots on each side. The head is dark with a white chin and throat. Males tend to be somewhat shorter than females. Newborn Kirtland's Snakes are from 11 to 17 cm long and are darker than adults, with a deep red belly.
Kirtland's Snakes can be found in southeastern Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and north central Kentucky.
These snakes prefer open damp areas like marsh edges, wet prairies, fens, and pastures. They are not aquatic but are usually found in the vicinity of streams, marshes, or ponds. Kirtland's Snakes are also sometimes found in suburban areas and abandoned urban lots.
Little is known about lifespan of Kirtland's Snakes in the wild. They are shy and secretive and have become rare in many areas. They are coveted as pets by snake enthusiasts but rarely live longer than a year in captivity. They almost certainly live for 5 years or more in the wild, once they have survived their first year.
Kirtland's Snakes are very secretive and spend most of their time underground or otherwise under cover. They are well-adapted to their burrowing lifestyles, being able to flatten their bodies to near the thickness of a ribbon. Kirtland's Snakes are most active from late March to early November. They use burrows as hibernation sites in the winter. Kirtland's Snakes appear to be mainly active at night and are relatively solitary, though they may cluster in areas of good habitat and prey density and during hibernation in suitable sites.
Little is known about communication among Kirtland's Snakes. Like most snakes, Kirtland's Snakes rely heavily on their sense of smell. They use their forked tongues to collect chemicals from the air and insert these forks into a special organ in the roof of their mouth, which interprets these chemical signals. Snakes are also sensitive to vibrations and have reasonably good vision.
The diet of Kirtland's snakes consists mainly of earthworms and slugs. They may also eat terrestrial leeches.
Kirtland's snakes spend much of their time under cover so are less vulnerable to predation than many other kinds of snakes Squamata. They are most vulnerable to burrowing predators such as milk snakes, shrews, and weasels. They may be preyed on by hawks, owls, foxes, raccoons, weasels, skunks, and cats when they are aboveground. When they are threatened by a predator, Kirtland's snakes flatten their body and remain stiff. If touched they will writhe violently and attempt to dart into cover. They may even try to strike and bite, but they are relatively small and harmless.
Kirtland's Snakes control populations of their prey, earthworm, leeches, and slugs. They also act as prey items for larger snakes and other medium-sized predators.
Kirtland's Snakes will help to control populations of slugs in areas where they are abundant.
Kirtland's Snakes are considered rare throughout their range. In Michigan they are considered endangered and in Indiana they are considered threatened. Because Kirtland's Snakes are sometimes found around big cities they encounter development and pollution, and populations are continually being lost this way. Kirtland's Snakes occupied the wet prairie regions of the Midwest, which have been virtually eliminated throughout this region, so they have lost almost all of their native habitat.