Summer and Reptiles in the Pine Barrens
Summer is a great time to find reptiles in the Pines! Learn what to look for.
By Carlos C. Martínez Rivera, PhDJuly 30, 2022
Summer is the best time to be out in the Pine Barrens. The (most of the time) cool mornings followed by hot sunny afternoons and then those sporadic evening showers mean long days full of activity from sunrise to sunset, and then again from sunset to sunrise. It doesn’t matter where you are or how muggy it is, there’s so much to do outside and so little time! Forage for food, soak up some sun, find a mate, go dig a nest and finally lay those eggs! Summer in the Pine Barrens is where all the fun is at! Especially if you’re one of the 20 or so species of snakes or one of the 10 species of turtles that call the Pine Barrens home.
The farther away you move from the equator, the more critical summer is for plants and animals. Energy is the currency of nature, and the sun provides the energy all life forms use on land. Plants use the energy from the sun to produce food, animals that eat plants get energy from the sun in the form of calories by eating those plants; predatory animals get the energy from the sun by eating the animals that ate the plants. That is the real reason animals have been dormant (or away somewhere sunny in the tropics as is the case with migratory birds) all winter and early spring. Not because it was too cold, but because there was little sunlight for plants to produce food for themselves and little to no food for animals to eat. So, everyone either goes to sleep or go somewhere else.
Reptiles, including snakes and turtles on the other hand, have no choice. They are poikilotherms, a fancy, more accurate word for “cold blooded” that means “of changing temperature”. Their body temperature changes with the environment so they also depend on direct sunlight and heat to warm themselves up and speed up their metabolism. In other words, they need the sun twice. However, the +14 hours of sun that we get all summer here in New Jersey, means they’re also busy using that energy from the sun, and is why we see so much wildlife around us.
The most iconic reptiles you can see in the Pine Barrens are Northern pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus), a large, robust tan or cream-colored snake with darker brown saddles and markings. They’re threatened and protected by the state. Pine snakes need pine forests and good habitat with a mix of pines and open spaces on sandy soils where they burrow with the help of a special scale on the tip of their nose. They can travel long distances looking for food and nesting sites and don’t mind crossing roads or your house on their way to their destination. Females are out now looking for places to lay their eggs.
Another beautiful snake is the eastern hognose (Heterodon platirhinos), its color pattern is very variable, some individuals are drab black, others have irregular markings that range from a few rectangular blotches to almost fully checkered. Colors can range from yellow, gray, brown, tan, or black, but some individuals have stunning reds and oranges as well. Their main food are toads and are considered mildly venomous. They rather perform an elaborate aggressive display, including death feigning than try to bite, but as with all snakes, it is best to leave them alone if you see one outside.
A pair of beautiful lookalikes are black racers (A) and black rat snakes (B). In both species, juveniles have a particular color pattern of irregular tan and brown markings that helps them blend in the leaf litter and forest understory. It also makes them look like timber rattlesnakes. As they grow the pattern in both species fades into black with white chin and light-colored underbelly, with some individuals having a very glossy jet-black color. Racers are thin and have a blunt, rounded face while rat snakes are more robust and larger.
All of the snakes above have one thing in common, at some point in their lives the color pattern consist of brown and tan markings over a lighter background color. This is considered a classic cryptic coloration that helps them blend in the forest floor and may also help them confuse predators while traveling. But the colors and pattern also make them look somewhat similar to a timber rattlesnake adult (A) or juvenile (B), the only truly venomous snake in NJ. Timbers are also iconic, but harder to come by unless you know where and what to look for. As with all venomous snake and wildlife in general, it is best not to disturb them when we encounter them in the wild.
Turtles are also on the move these days, especially females looking for nesting sites. Be on the lookout for Eastern box turtles, those lovely and beautifully patterned high-domed denizens of the forest. As their name suggests they can box themselves shut inside their carapace with the help of a special hinge in their underside and muscles to pull it shut.
Red-bellied turtle females are also out and about these days. They are the large black turtles with red underside that you will see at ponds and sometimes near a trail or road as they are digging up a cavity in the sand where to lay their eggs.
Summer is the time to see wildlife, especially reptiles, so stay on the lookout when you’re out on the pines, and let us know if you find anything interesting. If you do see a snake, take a picture if you can, but observe from a safe distance. If you see a turtle crossing the road and can help, please be aware of traffic and other cars around you. Helping a turtle cross the road is a noble act, but can also be risky.