Kirtland’s Snake

Clonophis kirtlandii (Kennicott, 1856)

Kirtlands snake
Kirtland’s snake, Piatt Co., IL photo by A.R. Kuhns

Key Characters: Red or orange belly bearing a contrasting row of black spots along each side; keeled scales; divided anal plate.

Similar Species: Dekay’s Brownsnake, Red-bellied Snake. See the Key to Snakes of Illinois for help with identification.

Subspecies: None recognized.

kirtlands snake
Kirtland’s snake, McLean Co., IL
kirtlands snake
Kirtland’s snake, Ford Co., IL photo by C.A. Phillips

Description: Small (up to 47 cm TL), stout snake with gray or brown back sporting four rows of 46-57 rounded black blotches. Belly bright red to faded orange and distinctively marked by two rows of dark spots. Juvenile darker on the back and sides, and less conspicuously blotched.

Habitat: Prairie wetlands, wet meadows, and grassy edges of creeks, ditches, and ponds, usually in association with crayfish burrows. Has been found in damp habitat remnants in vacant lots of urban settings.

Natural History: Secretive and nocturnal, it shelters beneath logs and surface debris, or in crayfish burrows, by day. When threatened, it flattens its body and becomes rigid. This viviparous snake mates in May and gives birth to 4-15 young in August or September. Newborn are 10-17 cm TL. Diet includes earthworms, leeches, and slugs. Predators include other snakes and birds.

Distribution Notes: At present this species is known in Illinois from McLean, Ford, Piatt, and Will counties.

Status: Threatened in Illinois. Threats include drainage of wetlands, destruction of native prairie marshlands, and reduction of earthworm populations by herbicides and pesticides.

Etymology: Clonophis – klon (Greek) twig, slip, clon; ophios (Greek) meaning serpent, reptile; kirtlandii – (New Latin) in honor of Jared P. Kirtland (1793-1877).

Original Description: Kennicott, R. 1856. Description of a new snake from Illinois. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia. 8:95-96.

Type Specimen: Holotype, USNM 1514, collected by R.W. Kennicott.

Type Locality: Northern Illinois, restricted to West Northfield, Cook County, Illinois by Conant, 1943.

Original Name: Regina kirtlandii Kennicot, 1856

Nomenclatural History: This species has been moved to several genera including TropidoclonionTropidonotusIschmognathusReginaOlonophis, and Natrix.  Davis & Rice listed this species as Tropidiclonium kirtlandii in their 1883 list of Illinois species.