About Snakes

Ribbon snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon
Ribbon snake © Joy Marzolf, Mass Audubon

Snakes are reptiles, like turtles and lizards. Early snakes first appeared during the time of the dinosaurs, and they now live on every continent except Antarctica. Though snakes often get a bad rap, the vast majority of species aren’t venomous. They also provide a valuable service by eating potential pests, like mice and slugs.

In fact, snakes have more to fear from us than we do from them. Many species have suffered from persecution and habitat loss. Three snake species are listed as Endangered in Massachusetts, and one is listed as Threatened.

Identification

There are 14 species of snakes that call Massachusetts home, most of which are non-venomous, including those most often found in yards or basements: the eastern garter snake and eastern milk snake. The two venomous species, the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead, are very rare, and prefer rocky, forested hillsides. Learn more about Massachusetts snake species 

Behavior

Snakes are ectotherms, which means that they can’t regulate their body temperature from within, as humans do. Instead, they use their environment, basking in the sun to keep warm or slipping underground to cool off.

Snakes prefer to avoid people, and will generally only bite when they are picked up, stepped on, or otherwise provoked. Though most of our snakes are harmless, several species have defensive displays, like exuding a smelly musk or rattling their tails. These harmless behaviors often cause frightened people to kill the snake. Learn what to do instead

Life Cycle

Snakes breed during the warmer months; most of our species mate in the late spring, and have young in the summer. Some species, like the eastern milk snake, lay eggs. Others, like the timber rattlesnake, give birth to live young.

In the fall, snakes seek shelter in places like rock crevices and mammal burrows. It’s not uncommon for snakes of different species to den together in the winter.

Snakes never stop growing, and every now and then, they must shed the skin that they’ve outgrown. Younger snakes, which grow more quickly, may shed a few times a year, and mature snakes shed less frequently.

Food

All snakes are carnivores, which means they eat meat. Their diet varies with size and species, and can include insects, worms, amphibians, fish, small mammals, and occasionally birds.

Situations & Solutions

For some people, spotting a snake in the wild is an exciting and special experience, but for others, it may provoke anxiety. Fortunately, the snakes you’re likely to find in your yard in Massachusetts aren’t venomous. The two venomous species, the northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake, are endangered, and they prefer rocky, forested hillsides. Find out what to if you encounter a snake