"Zombie snake" found in Eastern U.S. can roll over and play dead

By christina capatides

/ CBS News

You've probably heard of golden retrievers rolling over and playing dead. A border collie maybe. But a snake?

On June 6, in a Facebook post meant to be educational, North Carolina State Parks and Recreation posted four photos of a "famous NC snake" and invited local families to guess what type of snake it was.

"Instead of watching clouds to see if we can keep weekend weather on track, let's play a game!" the post read. "Who is this 'famous' NC snake? A cobra? A zombie snake? It's a harmless one." They then invited families to research further and pursue other "rainy day ideas" on the website for their "Year of the Snake program."

The eastern hognose snake puts on "quite a dramatic display to deter predators," according to the North Carolina State Parks and Recreation. North Carolina State Parks and Recreation via Facebook

As often happens, however, numerous news outlets seized upon the most inflammatory term in the post, "zombie snake," and ran with it — in some cases, even reporting that North Carolina officials had just issued warnings about the snake.

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Now, North Carolina State Parks and Recreation want to set the record straight.

The snake — which is an eastern hognose, by the way — "does play dead when threatened. It does NOT die and come back to life like a zombie," the department told CBS News.

puff-adder.jpg
The eastern hognose snake, which can vary in color, has earned the nickname "puff adder" because of its tendency to "puff up its head to look more like a cobra." North Carolina State Parks and Recreation via Facebook

According to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia, the eastern hognose snake is "easily distinguished by their upturned snouts, but they are variable in color. The eastern hognose has a background color that can be yellow, gray, brown, green or black, often patterned with large, rectangular spots down the middle of the back that may resemble eyespots."

Perhaps due to the fact that the snake's coloring can vary, it is most often recognized by its distinctive behaviors. In fact, its tendency to suck in air and spread the skin around its head and neck like a cobra, while hissing and pretending to strike, has earned it the well-known nickname "puff adder."

Then, of course, there is the dramatic display that has landed the eastern hognose in this week's round of headlines: its propensity to play dead, rolling over onto its back and opening its mouth, to deter predators.

Despite this dramatic behavior, North Carolina State Parks and Recreation emphasizes that the eastern hognose is "a mostly harmless snake that rarely ever bites humans. It puts on quite a dramatic display to deter predators, including puffing up its head to look more like a cobra or pretending to be dead briefly. Nevertheless, they are NOT aggressive and rarely bite people."

zombie-snake3.jpg
The eastern hognose snake "puts on quite a dramatic display to deter predators, including puffing up its head to look more like a cobra or pretending to be dead briefly," North Carolina State Parks and Recreation tells CBS News. North Carolina State Parks and Recreation via Facebook

Ironically, this isn't the first time a misnomer inadvertently led to the spreading of myths about the poor eastern hognose.

According to the Florida Museum, another common nickname for the eastern hognose is the "blow viper" because "another old myth says that the Hognose Snake can mix venom with its breath and is thus able to kill a person from a distance of twenty-five feet. In truth, its breath is harmless."

In this case, North Carolina State Parks and Recreation officials are simply hoping that a little dose of truth will help "tip the scales."

First published on June 11, 2019 / 12:31 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

zombie-snake.jpg puff-adder.jpg zombie-snake3.jpg

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