This small snake is rather nondescript when viewed from above, but its underbelly has a brilliant red center lined with two rows of dark spots. They range in color from brown to rusty red and have large black blotches down the length of their body. There is a distinctive black hood on the head extending to just above the mouth. The belly is pink, red, or orange, and bordered by round black spots. Most adults grow to around a foot (30 cm) long but some may approach two feet (60 cm) in length. Juvenile Kirtland’s Snakes are darker than adults, and their dorsal blotching may appear indistinguishable from background.
This is the only blotched snake with a black hood in Indiana and only one of two small snakes with a red belly. The Red-Bellied Snake lacks any black spots lining the red belly. In all cases the Kirtland’s may be differentiated by its reddish belly that is bordered by round black spots.
Ecology and Conservation
The habitat preferences of Kirtland’s Snake have yet to be extensively quantified. However, this species is chiefly and occupant of moist, open meadow or wet prairie habitats. The Kirtland’s Snake is a reclusive species that spends the majority of its time out of sight: it may be largely nocturnal. The presence of crayfish burrows, particularly those of the chimney crayfish, also seems to be an important factor influencing the presence of this species. Crayfish burrows are presumed to be used by Kirtland’s Snakes for hibernation, aestivation, and as refuge sites. The diet of the Kirtland’s Snake is comprised of predominately earthworms, and to a lesser extent slugs (Conant 1943). Courtship and mating occurs in the spring, and has been observed in very early May. Female Kirtland’s Snakes give birth in late summer and early fall and clutch size has been observed to range from 4 to 15.
The Kirtland’s Snake is considered imperiled in all states where it occurs. It is listed as state Endangered in Indiana and Michigan, and state Threatened in Illinois and Ohio. In Missouri the Kirtland’s Snake is listed as a species of possible occurrence. It has no federal protection. Habitat loss and degradation are important factors contributing to the decline of this species. Ecological succession, as a result of the alteration of adjacent habitats, or through natural processes, also threatens this species, especially as remaining populations are isolated in highly fragmented patches of habitat. The pet trade industry has also had an important effect on the abundance of this species. Because of their preference for chimney crayfish burrows, any activity affecting the crayfish will consequently affect Kirtland’s Snake populations. Mortality on roads also poses a threat to this species.
The protection and management of all remaining habitats of known Kirtland’s Snake populations should be foremost among management plans for this species. In particular, habitat must be spared from future urban and agricultural development and encroachment. Controlled burns or other suitable management measures may be necessary in certain areas to control ecological succession, thus maintaining the habitat requirements of this species. The implementation of proper mowing schedules would alleviate mortality, particularly in urban settings. Due to the Kirtland’s Snakes seeming reliance on chimney crayfish, all effort should be made to preserve and maintain conditions that favor the continued presence of these animals.
Found almost exclusively in the Midwest, the bulk of the Kirtland’s Snake’s range centers around Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Kirtland's Snakes are found throughout Indiana, but are only locally abundant. They are apparently rare or absent throughout much of southwestern Indiana and extremely localized in the northern half of the state. They inhabit relatively flat, seasonally wet areas with abundant crayfish burrows and are common in the Muscatatuck lowlands and upland flatwoods of southeastern Indiana. Within the Midwest, populations are isolated and widely separated.
No subspecies of the Kirtland's Snake are currently recognized.
Bavetz, M. 1994. Geographic variation, status, and distribution of Kirtland’s Snake (Clonophis kirtlandii Kennicott) in Illinois. Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science 87:151-163.
Conant, R. 1943. Studies on North American Water Snakes – 1. Natrix kirtlandii (Kennicott). American Midland Naturalist, 29:313-341.
Conant, R. 1951. The reptiles of Ohio. The American Midland Naturalist, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.
Ernst, C. H. and R. W. Barbour. 1989. Snakes of eastern North America. George Mason University Press, USA.
Harding, J. H. 1997. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.
Minton, S. A. 2001. Amphibians and Reptiles of Indiana. Indiana Academy of Science, Indianapolis.
Powell, R. and J. S. Parmerlee, Jr. 1991. Notes on reproduction in Clonophis kirtlandii (Serpentes: Colubridae). Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society, 26:32.
Tucker, J. K. 1976. Observations on the birth of a brood of Kirtland’s Water Snake, Clonophis kirtlandii (Kennicott) (Reptilia, Serpentes, Colubridae). Journal of Herpetology 10:5354.
Tucker, J. K. 1994. A laboratory investigation of fossorial behavior in Kirtland’s Snake, Clonophis kirtlandii (Kennicott) (Serpentes: Colubridae), with some comments on management of the species. Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society 29:93-94.