While snakes may not be a lot of people’s favorite animal, we do or did have some very interesting snakes in Indiana. One we did have, but apparently no longer lives in our state, is the western mud snake. This is a very attractive reptile that is not at all the color of mud. It is blue-black above with a red belly that is very bright and quite eye-catching. The red also extends along the sides of the snake. The mud snake can be up to six feet in length, and the sight of a reptile this size with a bright red belly and sides can be quite startling.
Never common in Indiana, the mud snake was only found in a few swamps in extreme southwestern Indiana. They like cypress swamps, and few of these most interesting swamps are left in Hoosierland. While there are still cypress swamps in Posey, Vanderburgh and Knox counties, most of our cypress stands have been cut over and drained.
Knox County is a classic example. There were once an estimated 20,000 acres of cypress swamps in Knox. Today only a few traces of these still remain. Extensive swamps once could be found in the area where the White River has its confluence with the Wabash River.
Another very large area of swamps once was located south of today’s U.S. 50 near Wheatland. This site is long gone as it was drained many years ago. You can see the drainage ditch as you travel along U.S. 50 west of Wheatland. This huge swamp was known as Montour’s swamp or pond, and was a very wild location where several animals no longer found in Indiana made their last stand.
The mud snake is a southern snake and ranges from the Gulf Coast north to Missouri, southern Illinois, and once, Indiana. It is now listed as extirpated in Hoosierland. The only two specimens of mud snakes in collections from Indiana are listed as taken from Montour’s pond near Wheatland.
Where the mud snake is more or less common in the south, they live in cypress swamps, marshes and roadside ditches. While they live in or near water, they usually are found burrowed in the mud; thus the name mud snake. They do, however, like to come out during rainy nights and this is when they are most often observed. Several are killed each year on southern highways.
In the south the mud snake feeds upon large eel-like salamanders that are usually not native to Indiana. This may be one reason they were never very common in Indiana. They do, however, feed upon fish, smaller salamanders and tadpoles.
Something very unusual about the mud snake is it is the only North American snake that takes the time to brood its eggs.
While it is not an aggressive snake, the mud snake does have a sharp spine at the tip of its tail. While not poisonous, when this spine comes in contact with the skin of a human it may feel like a sting. This has caused a lot of misinformation to become a part of folklore. While not a venomous snake, in some rural areas of the south it is called the stinging snake and is said to sting with its tail, and is a very deadly reptile to be given a wide berth.
Another legend states it can take its tail in its mouth and forms a hoop, then roll up to sting a person. Thus hoop snake is another name give to this most innocuous snake.
Hoop snakes are also part of our Hoosier lore and a past column on hoop snakes produced a lot of interest and response. I wish we still had the mud snake in Indiana and I hope in some swamp in southwestern Indiana a few may still survive.