Smooth Earth Snake
Valeria Biddle Blaney (1828-1900) collected the first specimen in Maryland.
Smooth Earth Snake Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- Virginia valeriae
Smooth Earth Snake Conservation Status
Smooth Earth Snake Locations
Smooth Earth Snake Facts
Smooth earth snakes are docile little snakes that help keep the insect population in check. They’re reclusive and aren’t seen during the day, but at night when their prey is on the move. They’re prevalent across the southeastern United States and can tolerate at least some habitat changes.
3 Incredible Smooth Earth Snake Facts
- These small, fossorial snakes are part of the insect-control crew and keep the population of snails, slugs, and earthworms from exploding.
- They give birth in the summer to 3-12 babies that are only about 3-4 inches long.
- Smooth earth snakes are often mistaken for other small snakes like ring-necked snakes and De Kay’s snakes.
Scientific Name and Classification
The smooth earth snake’s scientific name is Virginia valeriae. Its specific name of valeriae came from Valeria Biddle Blaney (1828-1900), who collected the first specimen.
This nonvenomous snake is a member of the Colubridae family in the Natricidae subfamily. The subfamily includes many 37 genera of very common snakes such as European grass snakes and garter snakes.
3 Types of Smooth Earth Snakes
Currently, three subspecies of the smooth earth snake, including the nominate subspecies, are valid among herpetologists. That said, there’s also discussion regarding moving one or more into full species status, and some already consider the mountain earth snake (Virginia valeriae pulchra) its own species and not a subspecies.
The three subspecies are:
- Western earth snake (Virginia valeriae elegans): This reddish to grayish-brown snake occurs in southern Indiana through Tennessee and western Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Central Texas. It has 15 scale rows, weakly keeled scales, and a belly with a light greenish-yellow tint.
- Mountain earth snake (Virginia valeriae pulchra): This subspecies inhabits the mountains of West Virginia, western Maryland, and western Pennsylvania. With weakly keeled scales on its whole body, it has 15 scale rows anteriorly, and 17 rows midbody and posteriorly.
- Eastern earth snake (Virginia valeriae valeriae): The furthest east of the smooth earth snakes, it occurs from New Jersey to Georgia, then west through Tennessee, southern Ohio, and northern Alabama. This subspecies has 15 scale rows and is primarily gray or light brownish-gray, has small and scattered black dots on its back, and is covered mostly in smooth scales.
While the rough earth snake contains “earth snake” in its name, it is a different species of snake: Haldea striatula. Other similar but separate species include the De Kay’s brown snake and the rim rock crowned snake.
Evolution and History
The smooth earth snake belongs to the Colubridae family, which contains the largest number of snakes. The earliest colubrid snakes can be traced to the Oligocene Epoch, between 33.9 million to 23 million years ago. There are no known fossil records for the smooth earth snake.
As this snake is a fossorial species, meaning it lives mainly underground, part of its evolution was the adaptation of digging or burrowing in soil. Other animals who share this adaptation include beetles, clams, meerkats, and wasps. The earliest records of fossorial animals come from the late Ordovician period more than 440 million years ago.
Smooth earth snakes are small and only measure about 7-9.8 inches in length. Their coloration is varying shades of brown to light fawn and lighter colored belly.
However, the description may not be 100% accurate in the case of adults. It seems that the original description was made using a preserved specimen. Sometimes colors are washed out in the preservation liquid, giving a somewhat distorted idea of the organism’s living colors.
According to an article by Charles W. Myers in Herpetologica, published in January 1963, there may be an ontogenic color shift. He observed a female in Missouri that had given birth to several babies. The adult female had a yellow-green belly color, whereas the babies’ bellies were grayish-white. He also noticed that the newborn snakes were darker brown on their backs than were adults; however, he noted that this could become less obvious after their first shedding cycle.
Although some populations may have slightly keeled scales, these snakes, true to their name, have relatively smooth, glossy scales. A distinguishing feature many have is a small black ring around their dark eyes and white under the chin. Along the dorsal side are darker-colored spots; some may also have a faint stripe that runs the length of their body.
For such a common snake, smooth earth snakes are surprisingly difficult to observe. They’re extremely reclusive and, at first glance, can be mistaken for worms themselves. They hide under rocks and logs, in loose soil and compost, and under debris in and around gardens.
This docile snake is very unobtrusive. They are nocturnal and take refuge under logs and rocks during the day, coming out at night to hunt. As small, nonvenomous snakes, they have few defenses against predators themselves and typically choose flight over fight. The most they can do to defend themselves is to musk a perceived threat.
If you find one and need to relocate it, be gentle because it’s a little snake. Surprisingly, snakes are far more delicate than you would think. They’re all spine and ribs, and this species is completely harmless to people and pets — unless your pet happens to be a slug, earthworm, or snail.
Smooth earth snakes are prevalent, if secretive, throughout their range in the United States. They’re found from Texas, north to Iowa, east to New Jersey, and south to Florida. They live in various habitats including in pine and hardwood forests, at forest edges, on rocky hillsides, in fields, and around some suburban areas.
These snakes are fossorial and spend much of their time underground, either sheltering from the sun or hunting. They, like their prey, prefer moist, dark locations with loose soil and lots of leaf litter or debris under which to hide. Smooth earth snakes are often found under logs, rocks, around compost piles, and in other similar places.
This species only eats soft-bodied invertebrates. Earthworms, larvae, snails, and slugs make up the smooth earth snake’s diet. They help keep insect populations in check by feasting on these slow-moving creatures.
Predators and Threats
Their tolerance for habitat changes and typical prey sources gives them a pretty good chance for survival as a species. On an individual basis, these snakes are prey for many animals, including other snake species, birds, mammals, and domestic house cats. Smooth earth snakes are very small and don’t move very fast, so they’re easy prey for animals that can get to their daytime hiding spots or catch them out at night when they’re hunting.
Reproduction and Lifespan
These snakes most likely become sexually mature when they have enough physical mass instead of by age. Smooth earth snakes mate sometime in the spring, then the females give birth to 3-12 babies in mid to late summer. Similar to the rough earth snake, they’re very reclusive so there is limited information available, with even less research on smooth earth snakes’ lifestyles. Their lifespan in the wild is a bit of a mystery, but if theirs is similar to others, it’s probably a few years, possibly as many as seven.
Conservation and Population
The IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species lists them as a species of least concern. They’re not endangered and have no significant threats. Judging from the number of sightings in their typical range, smooth earth snakes probably have a rather large population of more than 100,000 adult individuals.View all 293 animals that start with S
Smooth Earth Snake FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Where do smooth earthsnakes live?
They’re pretty common across the eastern half of the United States.
How do smooth earthsnakes hunt?
They seek out their prey, rooting under loose soil, debris, and whatever else after food.
What do smooth earth snakes eat?
Any small, soft-bodied insect, but they prefer earthworms, slugs, and snails.
Do smooth earth snakes bite?
They don’t usually try to bite, but even if they did, these snakes are so small that they couldn’t hurt you — and there’s no venom to be concerned with either.
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- Hammerson, G.A. 2007. Virginia valeriae. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2007: e.T64003A12733555. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2007.RLTS.T64003A12733555.en. Accessed on 16 September 2022., Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/64003/12733555
- Anthony, Travis 2019. Herpetological Survey of Appomattox-Buckingham State Forest and Holliday Lake State Park, 30 September, 2018. Catesbeiana 39 (1): 3-9 , Available here: https://virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/catesbeiana-pdf/cat39n1/cat39n1.pdf
- Charles W. Myers Herpetologica Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jan. 22, 1963), pp. 273-274 (2 pages) Published By: Herpetologists' League, Available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3890200