The Western Hognose snake (Heterodon nasicus)

Red Phase Western Hognose
Red Phase Western Hognose

The Western Hognose snake’s ( Heterodon nasicus) unusual appearance has earned this species its descriptive name and makes this snake truly unique in the reptile world. I would describe this snake as almost ‘cute’, just as one would describe many animals with unusual facial features ie ‘pugs’. Its strange up-turned ‘nose’ gives it a pig-like appearance and is thus responsible for the ‘hognose’ part of its name. This ‘nose’, however, is not actually a nose but rather a modified scale that is used to dig up toads in the wild. The Western Hognose’s natural geographic distribution is North America and northern Mexico. The Western Hognose has three slightly different subspecies the Kennerlyi, Glodyi and Nasicus. The Western Hognose has proven to be the best species of hognose to keep in captivity. It has adjusted very well to a diet of only rodents and breeds very well in captivity. These snakes are fairly small and stocky, only reaching a length of about 60cm, and can also be easily handled. Their fangs are situated right at the back of their mouths where a human finger is unlikely to venture, but aside from that the venom is very mild and is manly use to kill the primary food source in the wild which is toads. The Western Hognose may also use its rear fangs to puncture the toads making them easier to swallow as they inflate themselves in self defense. There is always a chance that some people may react to the venom of the Western Hognose. If bitten and mild pain and swelling occurs get medical treatment immediately.

Snow Western Hognose
Snow Western Hognose

The Western Hognose is quite variable in colour but most have dark brown patterning on a lighter beige background. You will also notice that their colouring in some way resembles a rattle snake. Their tails are a lighter in colour than the rest of their bodies resembling a rattle. Due to captive breeding there have been some lovely colour morphs such as albinos, anerythristics, snows, hypos and extreme red albinos. As far as I am aware unfortunately we do not have any of these colour varieties in South Africa yet, but I hope as the interest for this snake increases we will start seeing these beautiful colour morphs around! The Western Hognose also has ‘rough scales’ that have a raspy feel, similar to a puff adder. They are very stout snakes and do not seem to have much distinction between their heads and bodies in a sausage-like shape. When these snakes feel threatened they will often spread their hoods in a similar way to the much more dangerous cobras. They will also open their mouths, puff up their bodies and let out a hissing noise, whilst raising their heads in the air. If this method does not deter the predator then they have one last trick up their scales which is very clever! They will turn over and lie belly up with their mouths open and tongues sticking out, acting as though they are dead, in hope that the predator will then lose interest! I often find as I open the cage these little snakes will put on a great show in order to intimidate you, making you think that they are about to kill you! They stand up, hiss and puff and spread their hoods and as you put your hand in they will often lunge at you as if they are going to bite, which I find they rarely do. Once you have picked them up and they are in your hand all the ‘special effects’ are turned off and they remain very calm. They then look quite funny as you know that all that commotion was only a dramatic act of self defence!

Due to the fact that these snakes don’t grow very big they do not need a large enclosure. I keep in them in a racking system where my plastic tubs are 60 x 30cm. As a substrate I use sawdust, and I make sure to always have a clean bowl of water in the enclosure. Western Hognose snakes are not fussy snakes and can be kept in almost any enclosure. Whatever enclosure you chose to keep your snakes in, make sure that it has a heating pad under one end of the enclosure providing a sufficient temperature gradient. Try and make sure that the temperature on the heating pad is about 29 ̊C, and the opposite end of the enclosure a few degrees cooler. With these few requirements met they will thrive and seem to grow rather quickly, especially the females as the males are much smaller! Although Western Hognose snakes are predominantly toad-eaters in the wild, they seem to be opportunistic and will not hesitate to take pinkies from their first feed. As these snakes grow, slowly increase the size of the prey item. I always recommend staying on the smaller side with Western Hognose snakes, and rather feed them two small mice than one big mouse. Try and feed pre-killed mice as this takes away the risk of the rodent injuring your snake or, even worse, killing it!

In captivity Western Hognose snakes will reach sexual maturity as young as two years old. Females are much larger than the males and, because of this, when breeding rather put the female into the male’s enclosure. I would recommend a cooling period of about two months where the snakes are kept somewhere dark and at temperatures between 14 -18 ̊C. During this time the snakes must only have water; do not feed them. After the two month period slowly start raising the temperature over the next week until it is back to normal. You may then start feeding again and after about two weeks of feeding, you may start introducing the female to the male. Courtship should then begin but is often not seen as it may happen at night when you not observing the enclosure.

Western Hognose morphs

Generally two weeks before they are about to lay they will have a pre-lay shed. I use this as a marking point to place an egg laying tub. An egg laying tub can be an ice-cream tub with a whole cut into the lid with moist sphagnum moss inside. The Western Hognose may lay anywhere between 4 to 23 eggs. Once the eggs have been laid they will need to be removed from the egg-laying tub and placed in another tub with moist vermiculite and a few small wholes in it. I find that a 1:1 weight ratio of water and vermiculite works well. Just make sure to keep a close eye in the last three weeks as a bit more water might need to be added. This tub can then be placed in an incubator with the eggs inside. The eggs will need to be incubated at about 29 ̊C. At this temperature the eggs will hatch at about 60 days. Once the baby hognose snakes have hatched they will need to be placed into a separate tub. I put them all into one large tub with paper towel and a water dish. I moisten the paper towel slightly on the one end in order to increase the humidity slightly as these babies will shed in about a week to 10 days. Once they have shed I separate the babies into individual cages where I will start offering them food.

In the end the Western Hognose snake is a great addition to a collection for a beginner or and experienced reptile breeder. Their unique features are appealing in a peculiar way and for some reason they seem a lot more alert and interactive than other snakes, especially when it comes to feeding time!

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