A snake? Or what is it? Is it venomous? When you live in a place like Cedar Creek,
you don’t know what is going to come out of the woods. But that is part of the area’s
charm. In fact, there are no venomous reptiles in the area. So the mystery should no
longer be one of determining risk, but of satisfying one’s curiosity about a marvel of
Cedar Creek Corridor - the stream, forests and other natural habitats - is one of the
finest natural landscape corridors in northern Indiana. This means not only more trees,
flowers and deer, but also a wider array of critters, including reptiles and amphibians
ranging from toads to salamanders, turtles, and snakes.
There are a number of reasons why Cedar Creek has such diversity, beginning with the
area’s variety of habitats suitable for these animals. As described below, different
species have varying habitat requirements, and the watershed has enough of these to be
home to many species. The sheer size of the natural landscape also means that many
species lost in other areas persist along Cedar Creek. Just as grizzly bears need more
room than Yellowstone National Park, Eastern Box Turtle populations need something as
large as Cedar Creek to persevere.
So what all do we have? Are any dangerous to us or to our pets? I present here a brief
review of the more common, and a few of the unusual reptiles and amphibians of the Cedar
Creek watershed. I hope reading this will both inform (and perhaps relieve) you.
Black Rat Snake (Dr. Bruce Kingsbury)
That there are no venomous snakes in the area may come as a surprise. There is only one
species of venomous snake in northern Indiana, the Massasauga, a small rattlesnake
usually found in marshy areas where most people would never go. They are rare, so it is
hard even for experts like me to find them. And those cottonmouths? The truth is that
they have never been reliably observed anywhere but in southernmost Indiana (they may no
longer occur anywhere in the state). Instead, folks are likely seeing Northern Watersnakes
which are ubiquitous wherever there is water. Neither venomous nor otherwise dangerous,
they are not aggressive--unless you try to pick them up--then they will bite!
The most likely snake encounters will be with Eastern Gartersnakes and Eastern
Ribbonsnakes, generally easy to identify right away as both species usually are striped
from head to tail. The Ribbonsnakes are quite slender with chocolate brown rather than
white stripes on the sides of their bodies. Perhaps the most common snakes in the
watershed are the Brownsnakes. These little cuties are only about eight inches and
very secretive, so even though they can be pretty abundant in the forest, you may not
Since Cedar Creek corridor is one of the finest natural landscape corridors in northern
Indiana, it can support several species that you might not see in many other areas.
Two big snakes are the Racer and Ratsnake. Both species can exceed four feet, perhaps
five in northeastern Indiana. In southern Indiana racers are black, but become blue
further north. Around here racers are taking on the blue tint, so you will hear about
Blue Racers. The Ratsnakes have more of a dark gray overall color and a subtle salt
and pepper chain pattern (that you won’t see until you are close enough to be a little
nervous). Ratsnakes are good climbers and probably have surprised those who have
discovered them in the rafters. On the plus side, since they are in the rafters to find
rodents, they are helping you with pest control. You’re welcome.
Box Turtle (Heather Baker)
The Box Turtle is a handsome turtle found wandering about in the forest as it searches
for berries, earthworms - and other box turtles. The species is increasingly rare across
their range, but a few remain along Cedar Creek. They need large healthy forests to
persist, and, since a lot of people think they are more adorable than snakes, many
are collected as pets--which is illegal in Indiana. Why? Because box turtle populations
are so small, such collecting (even by herpetologist wannabes) tips their populations
The more common Snapping Turtles and Painted Turtles may be seen basking on logs in the
creek and associated wetlands, or they may show up on the road or in your gardens and
yards, especially in spring. What are they doing there? They are likely females looking
for a place to lay their eggs! Once finished, they will head back to the water. If you
find a turtle on the road, consider helping it across. When cars go by, the turtles
“freeze” in place, making them vulnerable to getting struck. Some of us will just pick
them up and move them, but moving a big Snapping Turtle is a bit more problematic.
Shoving them along the road with a broom is an interesting activity. They will protest.
But you are doing them a favor.
Redback Salamander (S.Gibson)
Believe it or not, the most abundant vertebrates in the Cedar Creek watershed are likely
salamanders! Throughout the forest are Redbacked Salamanders, only about two inches long,
living in the leaves and under logs and other woody materials on the forest floor. These
animals are interesting in several ways. They are called “lungless” salamanders because,
in fact, they are lungless, relying entirely on the skin for gas exchange. They are also
of interest because instead of relying on wetlands to breed, they lay eggs in moist
locations in the woods, such as inside logs.
All of the other species of salamander in the area are likely “mole salamanders” of one
kind or other. These species are called mole salamanders because they spend most of their
time underground, visiting wetlands only in late winter and early spring to breed. More
common species in the area include Smallmouthed and Tiger Salamanders. Smallmouths are
more abundant in the woods, Tigers in the fields. Both rely on shallow, often temporary,
wetlands rather than the Cedar Creek itself. They may be encountered in spring around
your home in basement window wells or underneath anything in the yard. These individuals
are either going to--or leaving--wetlands and have run into a hazard along the way.
Although the prominent aquatic feature in the watershed landscape is, of course, Cedar
Creek, it is important to note that to most amphibians and reptiles, the wetlands nearby
are more critical than the creek itself. Often called ephemeral wetlands because they
may hold water for only part of the year, these water bodies are critical breeding sites
for most salamanders and frogs in the area. Fish are effective predators of most
amphibian eggs and larvae, and ephemeral wetlands are fish-free.
By the way, these wetlands are not mosquito factories. Mosquito densities are lower
around healthy wetlands because of the abundance of predators there. And to digress
further, it turns out that the mosquito species in these habitats are not the ones
that tend to carry human disease. Instead, human-disease-carrying species frequent
human habitations and breed in faulty gutters, trash and other preventable hatcheries.
Score one for wetlands!
Wood Frog (Dr. Bruce Kingsbury)
The two frogs that Cedar Creek residents are most likely to encounter are the Eastern
Gray Treefrog and American Toad. Because treefrogs do spend a lot of time in trees,
you may hear their bird-like trills coming from above through much of the year.
Otherwise, it is not unusual to find them in nooks and crannies around the house
such as under siding edges, or tucked in gutters, as they await evening to come out
and hunt for bugs. They may be gray or green with a bold or subtle background pattern.
Curiously, the same individual may change color over the day, including how strong any
patterning appears. This has more to do with temperature and mood than background color.
Regardless, around here, they are all the same species.
Toads take a different approach. They are ground dwellers, perfectly content to hang
around the house helping you with bugs, so long as things are not too dry. Although
they don’t need standing water like many frogs, they do need moist refugia. You can
encourage them by making toad “houses” such as crawl spaces in stone walls, and large
garden stones with gaps beneath. In such closed space the toads can rehydrate before
they wander out again to eat more bugs.
American Toad (Alan Resetar)
Ultimately, most people who move out to a place like Cedar Creek move there to get out
in the country, and into nature. Things that slither are part of that, and now that you
know a little more about our amphibians and reptiles, and that nothing venomous lurks
out there, I hope you will welcome these unique critters into your yards!