This secretive, but easily recognizable, snake has 2 subspecies in Tennessee: Northern Red-bellied Snake (S. o. occipitomaculata), which occurs across most of the state, and Florida Red-bellied Snake (S. o. obscura), which occurs in the southwestern counties of the state (where the two subspecies interbreed as well).
Description: A small, keel-scaled snake (8.0 to 10.0 inches in length) with a plain reddish belly. The Northern Red-bellied subspecies has 3 light spots on the nape of the neck, and these spots are fused to make a distinct pale neck collar in the Florida Red-bellied subspecies. Body color is highly variable, but is usually gray or reddish-brown (rarely black) with or without 4 narrow, dark stripes or a broad, light mid-dorsal stripe. Belly is usually red, but can be yellow, orange, or pink. The head is usually darker than the body. Young are darker overall with a more distinctive neck collar.
Similar Species: DeKay’s Brownsnake has a yellowish, tan, or pinkish belly with very small black dots on the sides. Copper-bellied Watersnake and Red-bellied Mudsnake are much larger and their red bellies are not plain.
Habitat: Found under leaf litter, rotten logs, bark, and rocks in moist hardwood or mixed pine-hardwood forests and other moist sites such as bottomland habitat. Red-bellied Snakes can also be found around human habitations such as vacant lots where they hide under boards, trash, and other debris.
Diet: Primarily eats slugs, snails, earthworms, and other soft-bodied insects.
Breeding information: Courtship and mating take place in the spring and early summer, occasionally in summer or fall. Females give birth to a live litter (ovoviviparous) of 1-21 (average 7 or 8) young during late summer or early autumn. Research has shown that Red-bellied Snakes are very successful breeders.
Status in Tennessee: Locally common in some areas, but uncommon or absent in others; not protected by any state or federal laws.
- Red-bellied snakes have a habit of lip curling, which is thought to be related to their habit of eating slimy prey such as slugs, earthworms, and snails.
Best places to see in Tennessee: Moist woodlands, especially near wetlands or bottomlands.
For more information:
Atlas of the Reptiles of Tennessee
The Snakes of Tennessee web site
Conant, R. and Collins, J. 1998. Peterson Field Guides: Reptiles and Amphibians (Eastern/Central North America). Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. 616pp.
Jensen, J. B., Camp C. D., Gibbons, W., and Elliot, M. J. 2008. Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. 575pp.
Johnson, T.R. 2006. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri. The Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, MO.