By Molly Bilker | Photo by Bruce D. Taubert
Western hognose snakes are sometimes called “bluffers” or “faux vipers” for their dramatic playacting when they feel threatened. At first, they’ll spread the skin on their necks for a cobra-like hooded appearance, and puff up their entire bodies. They hiss and strike with their mouths closed. Finally, if these snakes still feel threatened, they’ll pretend to die — rolling onto their backs, thrashing back and forth, and eventually going limp. Their mouths will hang open with their tongues sticking out, and the snakes might even bleed from their mouths or throw up the last meals they consumed.
This theatrical defense may be necessary for snakes like Western hognoses, which are stocky and have heavy bodies, making them relatively slow and clumsy. The name “hognose” comes from their pointy, upturned snouts, which they use to dig through the dirt for toads, their main source of food. But Western hognoses also eat other reptiles and amphibians, such as frogs, lizards, snakes and reptile eggs. They subdue prey with slightly toxic venom — hognoses aren’t dangerous to humans — that flows from their large rear teeth. They also eat mice and birds that nest on the ground.
Western hognoses live in areas that are flat and dry, with little vegetation. Prairie areas are most suitable for these snakes, which thrive in loose, sandy soil where they can burrow. They live throughout much of the United States, including Arizona, and in parts of Canada and Mexico.