The first American Oystercatchers have arrived back to Jetties Beach, mourning doves are building nests right outside the Conservation Foundation office windows, and the increase of early morning bird song surely means that spring is on its way, whether it feels like it to the humans or not! But as one who likes to scamper among the wetter places on island, I don’t believe spring is here until the peepers are chorusing and I see the first salamanders, turtles and snakes emerging from their winter hibernacula!

On the warmer, sunny days turtles and snakes emerge to bask in the sun in order to raise their internal body temperatures. These creatures (reptiles and amphibians) are ectothermic and cannot regulate their own body temperatures. Their internal temperatures are dictated by the temperature of the surrounding environment. Basking in full sunshine is a behavior that allows their internal temperatures to rise more quickly which is important for the proper functioning of their metabolic processes.

Many people are often surprised to learn that we have snakes on Nantucket, let alone that we have six species! Have no fear! While some of them are notorious for putting on quite a show, all of the species are non-venomous and harmless to humans. Here’s a quick field guide to the snakes of Nantucket so you can ID what you see on your walks on Conservation Foundation properties!

ribbon and garter

Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) on the left; Eastern ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus) on the right.

Two of our most common species are the Common garter snake and the Eastern ribbon snake and their identification is often confused. Garter snakes, so named because of their resemblance to the once-fashionable striped garters used to hold up socks and stockings, are very common in aquatic habitats but can also be found in nearly every vegetation community on Nantucket. While they are often striped to some extent on the mainland, Nantucket populations all have a checkered pattern and lack stripes. Through a grant from the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative, Scott Smyers has been studying the drivers behind the differences in color patterns of the garter snakes of Nantucket and Tuckernuck. You can read more about Scott’s work here: Smyers et al. 2014.

Ribbon snakes are slender and speedy and are nearly always found by water. In contrast to the common garter snake, they are adorned with yellow stripes and have a taste for salamanders, small fish and frogs.

milk and water

Eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) on the left; Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) on the right

The Eastern milk snake is sadly saddled with a name that came from the bizarre idea that they drank milk from the udders of cows. They have a beautiful blotched pattern, and are secretive snakes that are most commonly found under wood piles or fallen logs. Northern water snakes are also quite pretty snakes with a blotched pattern that is more visible when they are dry but they are most often seen in the water where they appear black. While not venomous, they can be quite aggressive when threatened, and when handled, will emit a pungent musk that would deter the most determined predator.

green and ring-necked

Ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus) on the left; Smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis) on the right

Even those most afraid of snakes would be enthralled by the ring-necked snake. They are small, beautiful, timid and dainty little snakes. Ring-necks are slaty-grey with a yellow-ish belly and collar around the neck. They can frequently be found in the Squam area as they are woodland snakes that tend to hide under rotting wood, stones and logs. Salamanders are a favorite food source which are also in abundance in the forests in Squam. Nantucket’s rarest snake is the smooth green snake which has only one small population on Coatue! They are called smooth because they lack a keel, or central ridge, on their scales – as opposed to their congener, the rough green snake. They are known to eat spiders and insects.

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends on contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions, and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us!