Both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan are known for the plethora of wildlife that call the Great Lakes State home. The many wooded areas, countless lakes and rivers make an ideal habitat for deer, elk, and bears. It comes as a surprise to many, but despite the cold, long winters, a staggering 18 different species of snake call Michigan their home. Over the years, many misconceptions have been formed about what snakes are found here. Despite what you may have heard, copperheads and cottonmouths are NOT among the species found here. In fact, there's only one venomous snake in the whole state and encountering it is extremely rare because it is endangered.
In hopes of clearing up some of these myths and establishing once and for all exactly what serpents call Michigan home, we've compiled a quick rundown of these species and the main things you need to know about each of them. This list roughly goes in order from smallest to largest except for the venomous one, which we saved for last because it's the least likely one to encounter on this list. The rest of these guys may bite if they feel threatened, but they are completely harmless. We also tried to group similar species together because Michigan has several snakes that are regularly mistaken for one another.
1. Eastern Garter Snake
This is one of the most common snakes in Michigan. I've seriously lost count of how many of these non-venomous critters I've seen in the field over the years. They're literally everywhere. This snake only grows about two to four feet long and features three stripes running the length of its body. The stripes can vary in color from orange to brown or even bluish in color but are usually yellow. You're most likely to find these guys hanging around grassy areas, but they can be found just about anywhere. They mainly only eat small things like frogs, mice, and earthworms. They might also eat the occasional fish or bird if they can catch one.
2. Butler's Garter Snake
This snake is very similar to the eastern garter, and it can be easy to get them mixed up. One tell-tale giveaway is that this species doesn't get nearly as large as the eastern variety. The butler's garter usually only grows to a little over two feet. I've found these little guys in grassy and marshy areas, and they're usually more afraid of you than you are of them. Much like the eastern garter it has a row of vertical stripes that can vary in color from orange to brown, but you'll usually see them as yellow. There's really no need to worry about these guys, because of their small size, they mostly eat worms. This species is also non-venomous.
3. Northern Ribbon Snake
This snake is also often confused with garter snakes because the northern ribbon snake also has three rows of vertical stripes. A tell-tale feature of this non-venomous species that might set it apart is some scales under the black-colored mouth which are usually white. Sometimes the stripes take on this white color too, but most you'll see have yellow stripes. Much like the butler's garter, this snake doesn't get very big. Most are only a foot and half to two feet in length and they like to hang out in marshes where they feed on frogs, fish, worms, and insects. This is another highly skittish species that will likely flee at first sight of you. I see a lot of these guys in grassy fields throughout the spring and summer months.
4. Northern Ring-Necked Snake
This one is a bit harder to find than the garter snakes. To the point that I've still never observed one myself in the wild. Even the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has had difficulty monitoring this one. That's because this snake is mostly nocturnal in nature. The ring-necked snake doesn't get very big, only about 10 to 20 inches in length, helping it all but disappear into the grass and leaf litter. The good news is it's easy to identify. This is not one you're likely to mix up with another species. The snake is usually solid black or blue/blue gray in color. The northern ring neck's signature mark is a brightly colored yellow or orange belly with a colored ring around its neck. Ring necks to hang out in wooded areas and is non-venomous.
5. Northern Red-Bellied Snake
Another snake that proves extremely elusive due to its small size. This snake tops out at about 16 inches at the largest. Most are much smaller than that. They like to hang out in a variety of areas including forests, marshes, and grassy fields. The markings on this species are rather mundane. They are usually just brown, red-brown, or gray in color, which helps them blend in perfectly with leaves or dirt, hiding them from predators. You're not likely to see it, but the belly is a different story. It's usually pink to bright red in color. Some specimens might have a subtle striped pattern on their backs. This non-venomous snake species eats worms or very small slugs.
6. Brown Snake
Another very small snake species for Michigan. See what we mean about many of them being similar? The brown snake is another micro serpent, only reaching around 15 inches long at the largest. In many ways, this one closely resembles the various garter snake species, but is much lighter in color. It usually appears as brown or tan. Some may have darker stripes and splotches running down their body. Like many of the other small species of snake in Michigan, this one mostly eats small insects and worms. It is non-venomous and likes to hang out in a variety of areas including grasslands and marshes to wooded areas. You'll need to keep your eyes peeled to spot one of these guys. They are very shy and one of the toughest snakes to observe in the wild.
7. Kirtland's Snake
The Kirtland's snake is another that is hard to find in Michigan. However, this one is so rare, they are listed as endangered. This small snake only grows to about two feet in length and is characterized by a red, gray, or brown body speckled with darker blotches. This snake has a small range across Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, some parts of northern Kentucky, and a very small range in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, it is listed as threatened or endangered in almost all those states. It may look dangerous, but this species is non-venomous and mainly likes to hang out in areas where there is water.
8. Queen Snake
Another snake you'll be unlikely to encounter. The Michigan DNR has the Queen snake listed as a species of special concern. Unfortunately, the queen snake has lost many of its areas of natural habitat. That habitat consists mostly of small streams with rocky bottoms. They may eat minnows, tadpoles, and other small water creatures, but their favorite food is crayfish. This beautiful snake is characterized by a mostly dark gray or brown coloration, but they also usually have a yellow stripe on both sides of their bodies. This coloration usually extends to their throats and chins. This non-venomous species generally doesn't get very big; larger adults generally get about 36 inches long at the largest.
9. Smooth Green Snake
This is the easiest snake species to identify in the Michigan due to its distinctive coloration that is unlike every other species. This small snake only gets about two feet long at the largest and is usually bright green or a pale yellow in coloration. This is not a species that can be confused with any others in Michigan. The smooth green snake likes a variety of habitats including grassy areas, forests, and marshy or lake areas. But this non-venomous species is getting harder to find in Michigan and their numbers are being closely watched by wildlife authorities. Smooth green snakes are a threat only to the insects that make up most of this species' diet.
10. Western Fox Snake
Now we're finally getting to some of the larger species that call Michigan home. The western fox snake lives in the Upper Peninsula and grows anywhere from three to five feet in length. It is characterized by a lighter-color body speckled with splotches that can vary in color from yellow to dark brown. Unfortunately, this non-venomous species is unjustly killed often because many people think it looks dangerous. Fox snakes are often confused with rattlesnakes because they sometimes shake their tail in a similar manner. The snake gets its name from a distinct musky odor it may give off when cornered, like a fox. The western fox snake is one of special concern to Michigan authorities as it faces habitat destruction of the woodlands and prairie lands it calls home. It is too bad, too. This snake is a helpful species that likes to feed on mice and other rodents that can be a nuisance to humans. This snake's name is sometimes used interchangeably with the next snake on the list, the eastern fox snake.
11. Eastern Fox Snake
This species is nearly identical to the western fox species. It is also probably one of the reasons you'll hear conflicting statements on the number of snakes that call Michigan home. Although the DNR says this species is isolated to the southeastern part of the state. It grows between three and five feet long. This species is usually characterized by dark splotches on a lighter body. This one is found mostly in marshes and wetlands. The eastern fox snake does face some threats, mostly because they are popular as pets and are often taken from the wild. It's too bad they have a bad rap because this non-venomous species also helps with controlling rodent populations. Unfortunately, their habit of coiling up and sometimes shaking their tails may lead to them being killed after someone mistakes them for a rattlesnake.
12. Eastern Milk Snake
Another harmless species that can get up to four feet long, the eastern milk snake (lampropeltis triangulum) is a particularly beautiful species. This one is usually characterized by a gray or tan body with brown splotches over the length of its body. They usually have a belly that is pale in coloration. We could easily make an argument on this being the best-looking snake species in the state. You are not likely to run into one of these while out and about on your outdoor adventures though. These non-venomous predators mostly hunt at night for the insects that consist of their primary diet.
13. Eastern Hog-Nosed Snake
The eastern hog-nosed (heterodon platirhinos) is one of the more interesting snake species in the state of Michigan. This one is often confused with venomous species because of the way it acts. This snake will often flatten out its head and neck when it is cornered. It almost gives off the appearance of a cobra's hood. The other interesting behavior the hognose exhibits when threatened is rolling onto its back and playing dead. They do have venom, but it is only dangerous if you are a frog, toad, or salamander, which are their preferred meals. They grow to about 40 inches in length. The color varies wildly. Sometimes they are solid in color, other times they are marked with irregular spots or patterns. The unique coloring and behaviors often lead to this species being mistaken as dangerous and results in them being needlessly killed.
14. Blue Racer
The blue racer is another contender for the title of most beautiful snake species in Michigan. This species is usually dark blue to bluish gray with a lighter-colored belly. This snake often grows quite large, from four to six feet in length. Getting a close look is a real challenge, as they don't particularly like humans. In fact, if you see one, you'll immediately know where the "racer" part of the name comes from. They tend to quickly zip out of the area at first sight of a human. I've never gotten closer than about ten feet from one myself because they are so fast. This species can be helpful to humans by feeding on rodents, but it also will cannibalize smaller snake species. You'll generally find this snake hanging out in drier areas.
15. Black (or Gray) Rat Snake
Easily the largest snake species in Michigan, the black rat snake can reach lengths of eight feet if conditions are right. These snakes are easy to spot because of their large size and black or dark brown coloration. Younger snakes might have slight patterning. Adults are sometimes mistaken for blue racers, but a racer will likely run from you immediately. Rat snakes are a little bolder in the presence of humans. This is a constrictor species which sometimes coils up and shakes its tail when cornered. This is probably because it hopes you'll think it's a rattlesnake. But these snakes are non-venomous and actually kill their prey by constricting them like a python or boa. This species is another that is helpful to humans because it preys on pests like mice and rats. Cut this snake a break if you come across it, especially since the DNR is becoming concerned with how these snakes are becoming less and less common. The DNR considers the black rat snake and the gray rat snakes as pretty much one and the same these days.
16. Northern Water Snake
This species, (nerodia sipedon), is commonly found in rivers and streams. We suspect this species is responsible for most of the mistaken reports of cottonmouths or water moccasins here. In truth, they are non-venomous and grow from two to four feet in length. Water snakes are usually dark in color with splotches that are usually rectangular in shape. They also have a "half-moon" shape on their bellies. This species gets killed a lot simply because it can get quite defensive when cornered. It's too bad because they only like to eat minnows, frogs, and other amphibians. As the name suggests, they are amazingly talented swimmers. I usually see these in wetlands habitat on river kayaking trips. Sometimes they can be found basking in the sun in the branches of river side trees.
17. Copper-Bellied Water Snake
Another species often found in water-logged areas, this snake can grow quite large, up to five feet long and is usually solid in color, either black or gray. This one is a little harder to find than the northern water snake. Copper-bellied snakes sometimes have a pattern, but it is usually quite light in coloration. The easiest way to tell this apart from something like the northern water snake is the belly. A copper-bellied water snake usually has a distinctive bright orange belly with no markings. This non-venomous species likes to eat frogs, small fish, and salamanders. Unfortunately, this species is endangered in Michigan, which is why they are such a rare sight.
18. Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake
This is the ONLY venomous snake species living in Michigan. Don't listen to your crazy friend who swears he saw a cottonmouth that one time. They were likely mistaking it with another species. That said, the eastern Massasauga (sistrurus catenatus), is very uncommon snake. I've lived here my whole life and have never once run across one. Which is not surprising due to the endangered status of this species. Massasaugas are one of the smaller rattlesnake species here in the United States, only growing to about three feet at the largest. It is usually gray or tan and covered with dark splotches over most of its body. The Michigan DNR describes them as being similar in shape to a bow tie or video game controller. Like all rattlesnakes, it has a distinctive rattle at the end of its tail which should be a dead giveaway. While this species is venomous, your odds of being bitten are quite rare. Even then, the venom is said to be mild for a rattlesnake. Much like the blue racer, they try to shy away from humans as much as possible. Massasaugas are a threatened species in Michigan mostly due to habitat loss. As a result, they fall under numerous protections. The species is seen so little that Michigan DNR encourages the public to report all sightings of this snake immediately.
READ MORE: HERE ARE 5 QUICK SUMMER SNAKE ID TIPS
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