Red-bellied Snakes are small snakes, between 20 and 40 cm in length. They are brown, reddish-brown, or gray in color, with a narrow neck and small head. Their upperparts may have 3 to 4 dark stripes that run along the length of the body, or these may be missing. This coloration makes them difficult to see in leaf litter and on soil. The chin and throat are white but the belly is usually bright red, though it can range from pinkish to yellowish, or even gray. There are several white spots along the neck that may fuse to form a white collar. Their scales are keeled (with a ridge along the length of the scale) and males and females are similar in size, though males have slightly longer tails. Young Red-bellied Snakes range in length from 7 to 11 cm and tend to have brighter, more contrasting colors than do adults.
Red-bellied Snakes are found throughout North America east of the Rocky Mountains, north of the Gulf of Mexico, and south of southern Ontario, Minnesota, and Saskatchewan.
Red-bellied Snakes are found in woodlands and open meadows, prairies, pastures, marshes, and bogs. They prefer moist soils but are also found in drier sites. Red-bellied Snakes spend much of their time underground or under logs, boards, rocks, or debris.
Red-bellied Snakes breed in the spring or sometimes in late summer. Females give birth in late summer or fall to from 1 to 21 live young, though usually 7 or 8 are born. The young snakes develop quickly and can double their length in their first year. They become mature in their second year.
Female Red-bellied Snakes nurture their young in their bodies until they are born. At that point there is no further parental care.
Red-bellied Snakes have been known to live 4 years in captivity. They may live longer in the wild but this is poorly known.
Red-bellied Snakes seem to be fairly cold tolerant, as they are common in the northern parts of their range. They are active during the day and night, but may become mainly nocturnal during hot weather. Red-bellied Snakes are solitary, except when they congregate with other snakes at hibernation sites. They hibernate in anthills, abandoned animal burrows, in rock crevices, or buildings. Mass migrations occur in the spring (April) and fall (October or November) when these snakes travel to and from their hibernation sites. Much of their time is spent hiding under logs or other cover, but they can be found basking in the open, even climbing small bushes to bask.
Red-bellied Snakes communicate with each other primarily through touch and smell, especially during breeding. Outside of the breeding season they do not interact much with other snakes. 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.
Red-bellied snakes eat mainly slugs and earthworms, but will also eat snails, pillbugs, insect larvae, and small salamanders. Red-bellied snakes have special adaptations of their teeth and jaws that allow them to extract snails from their shells, similar to brown snakes.
Red-bellied snakes are eaten by a number of predators, including American crows, milk snakes, hawks, shrews, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, raccoons, and domestic cats. They do not bite in response to a threat but will flatten their bodies and curl their upper 'lips' as a form of warning. These snakes are very small, though, and their teeth wouldn't harm any but the tiniest of predators. They can emit a foul-smelling substance and smear it on their attacker if harassed. Some will stiffen and roll onto their backs when harassed, playing dead. This exposes their bright red belly and may be enough to startle a predator momentarily and allow escape.
Red-bellied Snakes help to control populations of slugs, snails, and earthworms. They are also a valuable food source for the animals who prey on them.
Red-bellied Snakes help to control populations of slugs and snails, which are common garden pests.
Red-bellied Snakes are widespread and seem to be abundant in some areas. Because they migrate to and from hibernation sites they are often killed in roads in spring and fall. Snakes such as Red-bellied Snakes remain vulnerable to habitat changes and contamination through human activity.
Matthew Gates (author), Michigan State University, James Harding (editor), Michigan State University.
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