Hognose snakes' most distinguishing characteristic is their upturned snout, which aids in digging in sandy soils by using a sweeping, side to side motion. They also like to burrow in masses of humus. Lieoheterodon species are known to dig up the eggs of lizards.
Hognose snakes are extremely variable in color and pattern. Heterodon nasicus and H. kennerlyi tend to be sandy colored with black and white markings, while H. platirhinos varies from reds, greens, oranges, browns, to melanistic (i.e. black) depending on locality. They are sometimes blotched and sometimes solid-colored. Leiohetereodon geayi is a brown or tan colored snake with dark speckling on it. Leioheterodon madagascariensis is typically green and yellow with a black checkerboard pattern along its back. Leioheterodon modestus is normally a gold-brown color. Some species in the genus Lystrophis are referred to as tri-color hognose snakes and sometimes as false coral snakes because they display alternating bands of red, white, and black.
Leioheterodon are the largest of the hognose snakes, capable of reaching lengths of 1.8 m. Heterodon platirhynos gets slightly larger than other species of the genus, reaching lengths of 80 cm, where other species in the genus as well as Lystrophis species usually average around 65 cm at adult size.
Hognose snakes (Heterodon) are rear-fanged. The fangs have been referred to as just "enlarged teeth", but they are genuine fangs that are used for prey restraint. Despite the common belief, there is no evidence to support the fangs being used for "toad popping". Under this belief, the toads inflate their lungs to make swallowing difficult, but the fangs would penetrate the lungs and deflate them. However, whole toads with intact lungs are commonly regurgitated by recently captured hognoses.
When threatened, hognose snakes will flatten their necks and raise their heads off the ground, like a cobra, and hiss. They may sometimes feign strikes, but Heterodon bites are extremely rare. This behaviour has earned them several nicknames, such as "puff adder", "blowing adder", "flathead", "spreadhead", "spreading adder" or "hissing adder". Note: the nickname "puff adder" is only a nickname, and is not scientifically correct. There is a highly venomous viper from Africa called the puff adder, Bitis arietans.
If this threat display does not work to deter a would-be predator, Heterodon species will often roll onto their back and play dead, going so far as to emit a foul musk and fecal matter from their cloaca and let their tongue hang out of their mouth, sometimes accompanied by small droplets of blood. If they are rolled upright while in this state, they will often roll back as if insisting they really are dead. It has been observed that the snake, while appearing to be dead, will still watch the threat that caused the death pose. The snake will 'resurrect' sooner if the threat is looking away from it than if the threat is looking at the snake. They are rather timid snakes and will often hide from predators by burrowing down into leaves, sand etc.
Heterodon are diurnal active foragers that typically consume their prey live without any constriction or body pinning, primarily relying on only their jaws to subdue their prey. For most hognose snakes the bulk of the diet is made up by rodents, and lizards. Heterodon platirhinos is an exception, and specializes in feeding on toadsalthough other food items such as eggs, insects and mice can make up as much as 50% of their diet.
In captivity Edit
Hognose snakes are frequently found in herpetoculture. Heterodon nasicus are often considered to be the easiest to care for, and captive bred stock is easily found. Heterodon platirhinos is also commonly found, but their dietary requirements can be a challenge for some keepers, and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that feeding them a diet of exclusively rodents contributes to liver problems and a shortened life span. Leioheterodon species are imported regularly from Madagascar, and are not often bred in captivity and get much larger, so can pose a set of different challenges for care. Lystrophis species are fairly new to the commercial reptile trade, and are now commonly bred in captivity, but can be some of the more expensive hognose snakes available.
There has been some debate about whether hognoses are venomous. Their saliva meets the definition of venom since it is toxic to small prey such as frogs and toads; however, it is not likely to cause serious injury to humans, particularly as hognoses are rear-fanged and although they will generally feign a strike they will bite if they feel threatened. In rare cases, humans may experience local swelling and blistering as a result of a bite.