Well, that's an easy one. First, I should preface my answer with an acknowledgement of just how popular this species is. For many herpetologists, reptile enthusiasts and even a small community on tumblr, hognose snakes (Heterodon) represent a lovable and perplexing snakes genus. Undoubtedly, they still succumb to the senseless persecution of ignorant people who equate all snakes with the mildly venomous Copperhead (also senselessly persecuted). However, hognose snakes rank somewhere near the top of many herp enthusiasts favorite species lists. The question then becomes, why? While I cannot speak for the Heterodon fandom as a whole, I've decided to take some time to highlight what I think makes this genus so captivating. More specifically, I'd like to express what I love most about Pennsylvania's representative hognose species, the Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos).
Let's start with the name: Hognose. As anterior as anterior can get, Hognose snakes possess an upturned snout, evolved for shoveling away sand and loamy substrates. This snooty adaptation allows this group of snakes to spend a large amount of their time underground. I typically only see two or so a year, usually within the same two or three weeks in May. This is likely attributed to the fossorial nature of the species. Personally, I think the pig-like nose provides them a degree of cuteness. I don't know that cute is an adjective normally applied to snakes, but I (and many others) stand by this opinion. Without deviating from their appearance, Eastern Hognose Snakes have evolved some striking color variations. This particular subspecies comes in one of two general types, a black morph and an orange morph (as pictured above). Some specimens possess an almost purple like sheen overlaying their black and bright orange coloration. Interestingly, despite displaying such striking colors, they can be very cryptic and tough to spot. However, their heavy bodies and sluggish movements through the leaf litter usually make enough noise to reveal their presence. What happens after the hognose is aware that YOU know it's there is perhaps the most amazing and perplexing aspect of the species. While the species itself is beautiful, its behavior is anything but. Take a look:
Evolution has come up with some spectacular behaviors, see most bird species. However, reptiles aren't known all that much for being lively or dramatic. Eastern Hognose, with their Oscar worthy theatrics are an exception to this notion. Upon approach, they'll do a few things. First, they'll expand their rib cage to make themselves look larger and more formidable, not dissimilar to a Cobra. Second, they'll let out an impressively loud hiss to scare off the encroaching individual. Third, if the potential predator (or admirer such as myself) still doesn't get the point, they may release a few close mouthed jabs but will almost never bite. If all else fails, with their tongue out they'll flip themselves upside down, writhe around and musk/throw up all over themselves. At that point, most predators want nothing to do with a seemingly deceased reptile covered in foul smelling excretions. As silly as this all seems, it must be an effective tool in warding off potential predators. Even more silly is if you stand still, the Hognose will slowly flip itself back, peaking out from beneath its body to see if the coast is clear. If you make another advance, the snake will commit to another performance and die for a second time. This can go on for a while, but I try not to bother the snake too much as it's wasting its time, energy, and stomach contents for my admiration. Here's a large individual I found recently, if you look you can see one of its deterrents dripping from its mouth. Pretty wicked!
My third and final reason for loving this species is its dietary preference. In regard to a species diet, we classify two primary types. There are generalists, which will eat a wide variety of prey, and there are specialists, who hone in on particular types of prey. Eastern Hognose Snakes have evolved a specific taste for toads, and only toads. I must say, I'm a big fan of toads, with their apathetic facial expressions and terrible hopping abilities, but I'm an even bigger fan of dietary specialists. The subfamily that the Heterodon genus belongs to has a number of specialists, such as the Mud Snake (Farancia abacura) which feeds primarily on amphiumas, an aquatic type of salamander, and Rainbow Snakes (Farancia erytrogramma) which feed almost exclusively on eels. I find it interesting that Eastern Hognose Snakes have specialized in eating an animal just as sluggish as they, but one with a demeanor that couldn't be any more different. Meaning, toads have a nonchalant nature about them, whereas Hognose really know how to bring the drama.
There's plenty to appreciate about this species and truthfully, you might find the same to be true about any snake species you read about. While not all species have quite the personality, there's always something interesting to be learned. Serpents aren't the deliverers of death society makes them out to be. Although, there are some that will readily portray death to avoid it.
Until next time, happy herping.