It’s a cool Saturday morning—the perfect time to pick those pesky weeds that have taken over your garden. There, creeping out from below a flowerpot, you spot an abnormally long earthworm. With closer inspection, though, you determine that this tiny wriggling body has scales and eyes. It's not a worm at all, but a snake!
Growing up to 13 inches in length, eastern worm snakes can be found all across the eastern United States, from Southern New England to Central Georgia and as far west as the Mississippi River. These snakes spend their time burrowing in a wide variety of habitats from wetlands and swamps to deciduous woodlands, and other areas with loose soils and leaf litter—like gardens.
If you happen upon a worm snake, don’t be frightened. The eastern worm snake is both blind and, like most species of snake, non-venomous. It defends itself by pressing its pointed tail against predators and releasing a musky smell, which is avoidable if no physical contact is made.
At first glance, it's easy to see why this species is so often mistaken for an earthworm. Both have a pale, brownish-pink coloration and are similar in size and shape. Their bodies are elongated with heads that are indistinguishable from the rest of their body.
With closer examination, though, the differences between the two become more clear. Unlike the earthworm that has only a thin layer of skin, the eastern worm snake has 13 rows of small, smooth scales covering its entire body and a dark, pointed tail.
Even though eastern worm snakes hatch with zero vision, they still have small, black rounded eyes that sit on either side of their heads. Earthworms, on the other hand, are eyeless, instead using light receptors to navigate.
Since eastern worm snakes have backbones and earthworms do not, the biggest distinction between the two animals is their movement. Those vertebrae allow the snake to swiftly slither through various terrain. Earthworms are known for much slower movement, using “setae” (small bristles covering their body) to anchor their posterior and extend their muscles to move forward.
Ironically, the eastern worm snake actually preys primarily on earthworms. When worms are unavailable, this little snake will settle for slugs, spiders, snails and caterpillars. Because they can’t see, eastern worm snakes must rely on their other senses when hunting for food. When the snake catches the scent of its prey, it enters predator mode and begins tracking. Once close enough to its target, the snake will swallow it whole.
While the eastern worm snake spends most of its time hidden, it is still highly susceptible to predation. Large lizards and snakes, birds and small mammals pose the greatest threat. To escape these predators, the eastern worm snake initiates a variety of survival tactics such as burrowing beneath rocks or leaf litter, attempting to flee or camouflaging itself.
When worm snakes aren't escaping the heat, hunting for food or hiding from predators, you can find them protecting their eggs. Mating season begins in late spring and continues throughout the summer. Throughout July, female eastern worm snakes will scope out depressions under rocks and rotting logs to safely lay two to eight eggs. Until the eggs hatch in late August, females will spend 75% of their time guarding them from predators.
Have you spotted an eastern worm snake while on a hike or in your garden? Let us know in the comments!