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What is a Grass Snake?

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet

A grass snake is a non-venomous snake native to continental Europe and parts of the United Kingdom. Its most significant distinguishing feature is the “collar” of striped skin found directly behind its head. During the warm months, the grass snake is frequently found near bodies of water, while it often winters by hibernating underground. It mates during the spring months, and its eggs hatch during the summer. As it is non-venomous, it sometimes defends itself by feigning aggression, playing dead, or emitting a foul odor.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of the grass snake is the “collar” of striped skin which encircles the area directly behind its head. This collar usually ranges from yellow to ivory in color. The rest of the snake’s skin is usually dark olive or brown with black spots, except for its cream-colored underside.

It is possible for mature grass snakes to reach a length of up to 6 feet (about 1.83 meters). Grass snakes of this length are unusual, however. More commonly, adult specimens grow to between approximately 2 and 4 feet (0.61 and 1.22 meters).

A grass snake may eat frogs.
A grass snake may eat frogs.

The grass snake’s diet consists primarily of small amphibians, such as frogs and toads. Consequently, it is often found near the bodies of fresh water that make up its prey’s habitat. It is capable of swimming and sometimes hunts in the water. Generally, it eats only live prey, which it swallows whole.

As a reptile, the grass snake is cold blooded, and thus its body cannot adapt to cold European winters. Therefore, it burrows beneath the ground to hibernate when the weather cools. It typically remains underground, protected from the elements, until late March or April.

Grass snakes mate in the spring, shortly after emerging from hibernation. An impregnated female generally lays from eight to 40 eggs, which hatch after approximately ten weeks of incubation. The eggs must be well protected during the incubation period, and grass snakes sometimes seek out the warmth of backyard compost heaps to deposit their eggs.

While the grass snake is non-venomous, it has several tactics it can employ to defend itself from predators. It can assume a coiled, aggressive-looking pose which frightens larger animals away by suggesting it is preparing to attack. In addition, it is capable of playing dead by going limp while letting its mouth hang open. Finally, it can drive away predators by emitting a foul-smelling fluid from its anal glands.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a grass snake and where can it be found?

A grass snake, also known as the ringed snake or Natrix natrix, is a non-venomous reptile native to Europe and parts of western Asia. It thrives in wetland habitats but can also be found in grasslands, forests, and near bodies of water. According to the IUCN Red List, grass snakes are widespread and not considered endangered.

How can you identify a grass snake?

Grass snakes are easily identifiable by their distinctive yellow and black collar, olive-green to brown coloration, and sleek body. They typically measure between 90 to 150 cm in length. Their eyes have round pupils, and they exhibit a characteristic 'S'-shaped neck when threatened. This species is often mistaken for the adder, but lacks the latter's zigzag back pattern.

What do grass snakes eat?

Grass snakes primarily feed on amphibians, especially frogs and toads. Their diet can also include small fish and occasionally small mammals. They are adept swimmers, which aids in hunting aquatic prey. According to a study published in Herpetological Journal, grass snakes play a crucial role in controlling amphibian populations in their ecosystems.

How do grass snakes reproduce?

Grass snakes are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs. Mating occurs in spring, and by late summer, females lay 10 to 40 eggs in warm, moist locations like compost heaps or rotting vegetation. The eggs incubate for about 40 to 60 days, with hatchlings emerging at about 18 cm in length, as noted by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust.

Are grass snakes dangerous to humans?

Grass snakes are not dangerous to humans as they are non-venomous and typically shy, preferring to escape rather than confront. If handled, they may release a foul-smelling substance from their anal glands as a defense mechanism. They pose no threat and are beneficial for controlling pest populations, as highlighted by the Wildlife Trusts.

How can we protect grass snake populations?

Protecting grass snake populations involves conserving their natural habitats, such as wetlands and grasslands. Creating wildlife-friendly gardens with ponds and compost heaps can provide suitable environments for them. Additionally, supporting legislation that protects their habitats and raising awareness about their ecological importance are vital steps, as recommended by conservation organizations like the Herpetological Conservation Trust.

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    • A grass snake may eat frogs.
      A grass snake may eat frogs.