Recognized Subspecies in VA: Eastern Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae valeriae) | Mountain Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae pulchra)
Size: 8 - 15 inches
Range: Statewide, but rare in southern Blue Ridge | Mountain subspecies is found in Highland Co.
Status: Least Concern
The Eastern Earthsnake is a subspecies of the Smooth Earthsnake, as is the Mountain Earthsnake. These snakes are very different in some regards; in fact, it’s been argued in the past if these two are actually different species. I feel it is best to talk about the Eastern Earthsnake first, and then “sprinkle” in some Mountain Earthsnake details, as honestly in Virginia, probably more than 99.5% of the Smooth Earthsnakes herpers encounter are Eastern Earthsnakes.
Eastern Earthsnakes are almost statewide (excluding parts of Highland Co. where it is replaced by the Mountain Earthsnake). Smooth Earthsnakes are predators of Earthworms, and live mostly in leaf litter, but often wind-up under logs, rocks, or debris. I have found this species more often while raking leaves than by flipping, but finding them by flipping is not a bad way to search for them.
I will say, in my opinion, I am kind of disappointed that this species is not the official state reptile. It’s genus is after all Virginia, and it is only one of two snake genera named after a state (the other genus is the Glossy Snakes (Arizona)). I guess they just aren’t as charismatic as the Eastern Gartersnake… but I digress…
Eastern Earthsnakes are smooth-scaled snakes, though it seems many have fine lines of pigment down the center of the scales that in photos can look as keels. They are normally gray as juveniles with a black line from the nostril, around the eye. This line fades in adults, and often this gray turns more tan. This subspecies have a white underbelly with a pink tint. It seems that often adults have a thicker body than say an Eastern Wormsnake or Dekay’s Brownsnake, and a tiny (almost out of proportion) head. Their tail often appears too small for the rest of the snake on older adults as well. All ages usually have random “pepper-flakes”, as in small black spots down the body. Sometimes there is a row of cleaner, black spots down the dorsal on both sides of the spine.
Mountain Earthsnakes are usually darker, often redder than their Eastern counterparts. Their patterns are often bolder, and they sometimes exhibit stripes down the dorsal. What really stands out with Mountain Earthsnakes is they have keeled scales on most of their dorsal scales. Mountain Earthsnakes also have a dorsal scale row count or 17, instead of 15 like the Eastern Earthsnake.
Similar Species: It seems these snakes are so often confused for Dekay’s Brownsnakes, that personally don’t look similar at all unless you only catch a piece of the animal. Brownsnakes have larger, rounded heads, and much bolder patterns. The Dekay’s Brownsnake also had a clear dark cap, thinner bodies, and keeled scales. I have seen Eastern Earthsnakes with black “TV static”-type patterns in the head, but not a clear “cap”. Eastern Wormsnakes are very similar (especially in shed) and can overlap in color, but they lack clear pupils (they eyes look like black pin-pricks), have a spine at the end of their tail, lack those “pepper-flakes”, and display an iridescent sheen across the body. Obviously, the most similar species there is is the Rough Earthsnake. Rough Earthsnakes have keeled scales, like Mountain Earthsnakes, but live in the Coastal Plains; therefore the two do not have overlapping ranges. Rough Earthsnakes often, but not always, have a collar. The dorsal scale count row of the Rough Earthsnake is 17 instead of 15 as the Eastern Earthsnake has, and Smooths have 2 supralabials under the eye (instead of one) and a split internasal scales. Finally, Rough Earthsnakes have a split anal scale, and a few fused post anal scales past the vent that all of our other colubrids lack.
Maps and External Sources
Eastern Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae valeriae)
Mountain Earthsnake (Virginia valeriae pulchra)
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