Plants and Animals

Clonophis kirtlandii Kirtland's snake

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G.A. Coovert
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D. Brown
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C. Strong
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C. Strong
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C. Strong
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C. Strong
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William Westrate
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Key Characteristics

The Kirtland's Snake is a small (total adult length 14-24.5 in/36-62 cm, average 14-18 in/36-46 cm), reddish to dark brown snake with four rows of alternating dark, round blotches on the back and sides. A faint stripe is sometimes visible along the middle of the back. The key characteristic is its bright red, pink or orange belly which is conspicuously bordered by two parallel rows of black spots. The head is mostly black or dark brown above with light cream-colored, white or yellow labial scales, chin and throat.

Status and Rank

US Status: No Status/Not Listed
State Status: E - Endangered (legally protected)
Global Rank: G2 - Imperiled
State Rank: S1 - Critically imperiled


CountyNumber of OccurrencesYear Last Observed
Allegan 1 1985
Berrien 2 2000
Cass 2 2017
Eaton 1 2004
Hillsdale 1 2019
Kalamazoo 2 2022
Lenawee 1 1932
Muskegon 3 1996
Oceana 1 2016
Ottawa 1 1976
Van Buren 1 1965
Washtenaw 4 1960

Information is summarized from MNFI's database of rare species and community occurrences. Data may not reflect true distribution since much of the state has not been thoroughly surveyed.


Kirtland's Snakes are usually found in open wetlands such as wet prairies, prairie fens, wet meadows and marshes, but they also occur in openings or along the edges of forested wetlands and floodplains (e.g., grass/sedge openings in tamarack swamps). These habitats generally have loose, organic rich soil which is well-suited for the fossorial nature of the Kirtland's Snake. This species also has been found in suitable open habitats in or near urban centers or large metropolitan areas such as open, grassy areas in parks, cemeteries, and vacant lots. Kirtland's Snakes are frequently found in burrows or under leaf litter, logs, boards, rocks or other cover objects within their habitats. They hibernate in crayfish or other animal burrows.

Specific Habitat Needs

Downed woody debris needed in: Emergent marshFloodplain forestMesic prairiePrairie fenRich tamarack swampSouthern hardwood swampSouthern wet meadowWet prairieWet-mesic sand prairie.

Natural Community Types

For each species, lists of natural communities were derived from review of the nearly 6,500 element occurrences in the MNFI database, in addition to herbarium label data for some taxa. In most cases, at least one specimen record exists for each listed natural community. For certain taxa, especially poorly collected or extirpated species of prairie and savanna habitats, natural community lists were derived from inferences from collection sites and habitat preferences in immediately adjacent states (particularly Indiana and Illinois). Natural communities are not listed for those species documented only from altered or ruderal habitats in Michigan, especially for taxa that occur in a variety of habitats outside of the state.

Natural communities are not listed in order of frequency of occurrence, but are rather derived from the full set of natural communities, organized by Ecological Group. In many cases, the general habitat descriptions should provide greater clarity and direction to the surveyor. In future versions of the Rare Species Explorer, we hope to incorporate natural community fidelity ranks for each taxon.

Management Recommendations

Known extant populations and critical habitats should be identified and protected. Fens, wet meadows, and open tamarack swamps are important habitats for this species in Michigan. Active management of these areas may be intermittently required which would include prescribed burning. The fossorial nature of the Kirtland's Snake combined with typical cool burns in wetlands should minimize the potential for adverse impacts to this species from prescribed burns. Mowing should be conducted when snakes are inactive or less active (e.g., late fall or winter from November through February). Maintaining or providing cover objects and crayfish or other animal burrows also would benefit the species. Flooding or draining wetlands for waterfowl management could make the habitat unsuitable for Kirtland's Snakes if the wetlands are significantly altered, particularly during late fall and winter. Public education to reduce incidental collecting and killing would be beneficial. Road mortality also should be minimized. Research to increase our understanding and knowledge of the status, distribution and ecology of this species also is essential.

Active Period

Active from first week of April to fourth week of October

Breeding from first week of May to fourth week of May

Parturition from first week of August to fourth week of September

Survey Methods

The Kirtland's Snake is nocturnal and fossorial. This snake is highly secretive and unlike other reptiles, it rarely basks in the sun and generally remains under debris, leaf litter or other cover objects. The best time to survey for this species is in April, May and June, although Kirtland’s Snakes also can be found during other times of the year during the active season (i.e., late March or early April through late October or early November) under appropriate weather conditions (i.e., warm and rainy or just after rain). The best way to survey for this secretive species is with cover boards. Cover boards should be placed right over the openings of crayfish or animal burrows in sufficient densities throughout suitable habitat. Kirtland’s snakes also have been found in pitfall traps along drift fences. Observations of Kirtland's Snakes should be documented with photographs and verified by a species expert.

Cover board survey

Survey Period: From first week of April to fourth week of June

Time of Day: Daytime
Air Temperature: Warm
Precipitation: Just after rain
Wind: Light Breeze


Survey References

  • Karns, D.R. 1986. Field Herpetology: Methods for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles in Minnesota. Occ. Pap. No. 18. J.F. Bell Museum of Natural History, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Technical References

  • Conant, R. 1943. Studies on North American water snakes-I: Natrix kirtlandii (Kennicott). Am. Midl. Nat. 29:313-341.
  • Conant, R. 1951. The Reptiles of Ohio. Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame. 284pp.
  • Dalrymple, G.H. and N.G. Reichenbach. 1984. Management of an endangered species of snake in Ohio, USA. Biol. Conserv. 30:195-200.
  • Ernst, C. H. and R. W. Barbour. 1989. Snakes of eastern North America. George Mason Univ. Press, Fairfax, VA. 282 pp.
  • Evers, D.C. 1994. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of Michigan. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 412pp.
  • Harding, J.H. 1997.Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 378pp.
  • Minton, S.A. 1972. Amphibians and Reptiles of Indiana. Indiana Academy of Science, Indianapolis. 3: 346pp.
  • NatureServe. 2005. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 4.5. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available
  • Smith, P.W. 1961. The amphibians and reptiles of Illinois. Illinois Natural History Survey, Carbondale. Bulletin No. 28. 298 pp.
  • Wilsmann, L.D. and M.A. Sellers. 1988.Clonophis kirtlandii rangewide survey. Unpublished final report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Twin Cities, MN. 43 pp.