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Critter of the Week: Dekay’s Brownsnake

The warm weather this past Friday brought out an unexpected visitor.

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Dekay’s Brownsnake
Storeria dekayi

** Harmless **

Common Name:Dekay’s Brownsnake
Scientific Name:Storeria dekayi
Etymology: 
Genus:Storeria is in honor of David Humphreys Storer, an 18th-century, zoologist from New England.
Species:dekayi is in honor of James Ellsworth Dekay, a 19th-century naturalists.
Vernacular Names:Brown grass snake, Dekay’s snake, ground snake, house snake, little brown snake, rock snake, spotted adder, spotted brown snake.
Average Length:9 – 13 in. (23 – 33 cm)
Virginia Record Length:14.9 in. (37.9 cm)
Record length:19.3 in. (49.2 cm)

Dekay’s Brownsnakes are terrestrial, secretive, and seldom found in the open. They are nocturnal, but are most often found under surface objects such as boards, trash of all sorts, logs, and rocks. Their microhabitat may be described as the soil-humus layer. Habitats include hardwood forests, mixed hardwood-pine forests, pine woods, grasslands, early successional stages of abandoned agricultural land, woodlots, and urban areas. These snakes are frequently found under debris and in gardens in yards. More have been found in human-disturbed areas than in natural habitats. They are active primarily between 13 March and 20 October (museum records), although this snake has been found in every month of the year (two have been found in February). Noble and Clausen (1936) examined the aggregation behavior of S. dekayi and found that it occurs at all times of the year, but especially during winter hibernation. Hibernation sites include ant mounds and abandoned rodent burrows. Aggregations of more than two individuals have not been reported from Virginia.

Slugs and earthworms are the primary prey of S. dekayi in Virginia. Wright and Wright (1957) noted that snails, insects, small treefrogs, and fish were eaten by this snake. Known predators of S. dekayi in Virginia are free-ranging domestic cats (Mitchell and Beck, 1992) and Northern Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus). Ernst and Barbour (1989b) listed Northern Black Racers (Coluber constrictor), kingsnakes and milk snakes (Lampropeltis spp.), Virginia rails (Rallus limicola), loggerhead shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus), robins (Turdus migratorius), redshouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus), raccoons (Procyon lotor), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), weasels (Mustek spp.), and opossums (Didelphis virginiana). Linzey and Clifford (1981) mentioned that toads (Anaxyrus spp.) eat the young, but provided no observations.

This snake used to be commonly found in cities around abandoned lots and trash piles. The cleanup of these areas and the use of pesticides throughout Virginia (killing this snake’s food sources) are thought to have reduced many populations. Recognition as a species of special concern is not justified, but its apparent decline in numbers warrants continued vigil. Management options include the creation of forest litter habitat in city parks and urban areas, and the control of predators, such as domestic cats.

All information copied from the Virginia Herpetological Society.

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Richard Hayes is the co-founder of RVAHub. When he isn't rounding up neighborhood news, he's likely watching soccer or chasing down the latest and greatest board game.