Lampropeltis calligasterPrairie Kingsnake

Geographic Range

Prairie kingsnakes, Lampropeltis calligaster, are mainly found throughout the southeastern United States. Prairie kingsnakes are found as far north as central Maryland and as far south as the Florida peninsula. These kingsnakes also range as far west as southeast Nebraska and east Texas.

There are three subspecies of prairie kingsnakes: the eponymous prairie kingsnakes (Lampropeltis calligaster calligaster), mole kingsnakes (Lampropeltis calligaster rhombomaculata), and south Florida mole kingsnakes (Lampropeltis calligaster occipitolineata). The three subspecies can be found throughout different parts of the United States. Prairie kingsnakes and mole kingsnakes are spread throughout the Mid-Atlantic states such as Texas, Nebraska, Illinois, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina. Mole kingsnakes are most common in Virginia, encompassing the eastern two-thirds of the state. South Florida mole kingsnakes are endemic to the Florida peninsula. (Behler, 1979; Krysko, et al., 2000; Linzey and Clifford, 1981; Richardson, et al., 2006)

Habitat

Prairie kingsnakes are most commonly found in open habitats, such as fields, cultivated farmlands, woodlots, and rocky hillsides. Depending on the location of the kingsnakes, they can also be found in coastal salt-grass savannas and marsh borders. Due to the wide geographic range of this species across the southeastern United States, elevation has not been reported for the species as a whole. They are commonly found in areas of light soils rather than clays, under rocks, or in animal burrows because they spend most of their time underground. Males are found farther from road edges compared to females. During their hibernation period, they tend to use rock ledges or animal burrows indistinguishable from those they use throughout their active periods. (Behler, 1979; Fitch, 1978; Linzey and Clifford, 1981; Richardson, et al., 2006)

Physical Description

Prairie kingsnakes are a tan, grayish-brown or yellow-brownish color. They have reddish-brown blotches running down their dorsal side with alternating smaller blotches on their lateral sides. The ventral side of these prairie kingsnakes is pale or yellowish. Older prairie kingsnakes lose their patterns with age.

The three subspecies of prairie kingsnakes are distinguishable by their slight differences in color. Prairie kingsnakes are light brown with a reddish-brown blotching. Mole kingsnakes are light brown with dark brown or reddish-orange blotching. Mole kingsnakes are often mistaken for copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix). They are distinguishable based on the pattern on the dorsal side. Copperheads have brown hourglass crossbands compared to the blotches on the kingsnakes. South Florida mole kingsnakes are a grayish to tan-orange color with dark brown blotches. They all have 19 to 27 smooth scale rows. Their head is v-shaped with an arrow-like marking pointing towards the dorsal side.

The total length of prairie kingsnakes ranges from 76 to 110 cm. Fitch (1978) found that males are substantially longer than females. In this study, males had an average snout-vent length of 86 cm (range: 85 to 89cm) larger than females average of 82 cm (range: 81 to 83cm). The average weight for males was 216 g (range: 212 to 231g) and , for females, 175 grams (range: 159-193g). The same research found that males had a relatively longer tail average when compared to females relative to snout-vent length (SVL). For males, tails were an average of 15.2% of the SVL with a range from 15.039 to 15.361%. Females had an average tail length of 13.5% of the SVL, with a range from 13.327 to 13.673%.

Young prairie kingsnakes have more dark-edged blotches that become more indistinct with age. Fitch (1978) reported that young prairie kingsnakes had a snout-vent length ranging from 23 to 34 cm. (Behler, 1979; Blanchard, 1921; Fitch, 1978; Linzey and Clifford, 1981)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    159 to 231 g
    5.60 to 8.14 oz
  • Range length
    76 to 110 cm
    29.92 to 43.31 in

Development

There has been no documentation of prairie kingsnakes while in the egg. Right before hatching, one to six slits appear in the top of the egg, presumably from their egg tooth. Two to three days after hatching, they lose their egg tooth. Their first ecdysis is after 8 to 11 days. Prairie kingsnakes continue to grow and shed skin throughout their lives. Fitch (1978) found a young prairie kingsnake about a year old with snout-vent length of 328 mm and a weight of 140 grams. This was only slightly larger than recently-hatched young. He concluded that second and third year young would overlap in size. Adult prairie kingsnakes can grow to a size of 76 to 110 cm with a weight of 159 to 231 g. (Fitch, 1978; Shoop, 1957)

Reproduction

Male prairie kingsnakes are able to detect females by their pheromone trails. Males seeking to copulate with females induce ovulation. Tryon and Carl (1980) found that initial reactions from two mole kingsnakes introduced for the first time was rapid tongue-flicking and body-jerking. Males were seen motionless while the females moved their cloacal regions dorsally and dorsolaterally along the cloacae and tails of males. Females also exhibited occasional anterior jerking and tongue-flicking. The only movements in males were waving and pulsating of the tail, occasional tongue-flicking, body-jerking, and biting of females. Once males mate with females, they leave. Both males and females have multiple mates over their lifespan.

Another species of the same genus, speckled kingsnakes (Lampropeltis holbrooki), showed similarities in motor patterns in body alignment, tongue-flicking, and body jerking. Males aligned their posterior portion of their trunk and tail with females. Females showed receptivity by straightening out this lower part of their body. Males had to repeat these motor patterns before females became receptive.

Copulatory duration was greater than 2 hours for both prairie kingsnakes and speckled kingsnakes in these studies, showing similarities across the genus. Female prairie kingsnakes make nests for their eggs from fallen leaves or debris under logs or rocks. Fitch (1978) found a clutch of 13 eggs in a depth of 75mm underground. Females can bury their eggs for protection from predators. (Fitch, 1978; Secor, 1987; Shoop, 1957; Tryon and Carl, 1980)

Prairie kingsnakes typically breed once a year, but there have been reported occasions of multiple egg clutches for this species. Mating begins in early spring, around April. At the southern extent of the range, south Florida mole kingsnakes begin mating as early as March. Egg-laying occurs in June and July and hatching in August and September. Prairie kingsnakes are iteroparous, reproducing multiple times throughout their lives.

Prairie kingsnakes of both sexes reach sexual maturity at 1 to 4 years of age. Most prairie kingsnakes breed at 32 months. Prairie kingsnakes have induced ovulation during copulation. Eggs becomes internally fertilized by sperm.

Gestation time in prairie king snakes has not been reported. Their incubation period ranges from 50 to 70 days (average 62 days). One to 6 slits appear in the top of the egg prior to hatching. The number of offspring ranges from 5 to 17 (average 10). The newly-hatched snakes typically have a snout-vent lenth of 234 to 308 mm. The birth mass ranges from 6.0 to 12.2 g (average 9 g). Hatchlings are precocial (independent at birth) and have similar markings to those of adults. The clutch weight is an average of 38% the post-ovipositional weight of the female that laid the eggs. (Behler, 1979; Fitch, 1978; Krysko, et al., 2000; Linzey and Clifford, 1981; Shoop, 1957; Tryon, 1984; Tryon and Carl, 1980)

  • Breeding interval
    Prairie kingsnakes typically breed once yearly
  • Breeding season
    March-August
  • Range number of offspring
    5 to 17
  • Average number of offspring
    10
  • Range time to independence
    0 (low) minutes
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 to 4 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 4 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 years

Male prairie kingsnakes exhibit no parental investment beyond the act of mating. After copulation, males leave and do not return to females. Females provide nutrients to eggs before they hatch. After the females lay their eggs, they will not return to the nesting site. (Fitch, 1978; Krysko, et al., 2000)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Little information is available on the longevity of wild prairie kingsnakes. Available information is from captive snakes. Snider and Bowler (1992) reported the maximum lifespan of captive prairie kingsnakes to be 23.8 years. This research (1978) suggests that lifespan in the wild is less. This is due to mortalities caused by motor traffic, farm machines, domestic animals, and other human interactions.

Fitch (2000) examined age structure in a wild population of prairie kingsnakes in central North America. He found that many snakes lived for at least 10 years in the wild, and that males lived longer than females in the wild. (Fitch, 1978; Fitch, 2000; Snider and Bowler, 1992)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    23.8 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    10 (high) hours

Behavior

Prairie kingsnakes are nocturnal. Their annual activity period is April through mid-October. They are often solitary, spending most of their day under leaf litter or rocks. They hibernate from November through March, in animal burrows or under rock ledges.

Richardson et al. (2006) reported that males and females had no differences in activity levels, frequencies of movement, or distances traveled. They found that prairie kingsnakes were underground about 75% of the times they were radio-tracked. Prairie kingsnakes are not limited to only ground movement; they can climb trees and swim in water.

Males and females have many different partners over their lifespan. Prairie kingsnakes are a solitary species and are only seen together during breeding season. They use pheromone trails to detect potential mates. When snakes are introduced for the first time, they react with rapid tongue-flicking and body-jerking. (Fitch, 1978; Linzey and Clifford, 1981; Richardson, et al., 2006; Tryon and Carl, 1980)

  • Range territory size
    13000 to 148000 m^2

Home Range

Home ranges of males average four times bigger than females based on the minimum convex polygon (MCP). Male prairie kingsnakes range from 1.8 to 14.8 hectares (average 8.3). Females range from 1.3 to 3.5 hectares (average 2.4). Home ranges for prairie kingsnakes are also bounded by roads. Richardson et al. (2006) only found one snake whose home range crossed a road during their study. They concluded the road only bisected the home range because the prairie kingsnake traveled under the road, rather than across it, using a creek. (Richardson, et al., 2006)

Communication and Perception

Prairie kingsnakes are mainly nocturnal animals that rely heavily on smell and pheromones to perceive their environment. Little research has been done on the communication of the prairie kingsnakes because they are a species rarely seen and most communication occurs at night. When prairie kingsnakes are active during the early morning or early evening, they rely on visual cues to find prey or new burrows. Closely-related common kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula), communicate by releasing chemical cues from their dorsal skin. They also have been observed using tongue flicks, similar to those of prairie kingsnakes, to find chemical signatures. Prairie kingsnakes use their tongues and their vomeronasal organ to smell and taste their surroundings. Snakes in general use tactile communication for contests of superiority or dominance. They also use tactile communication for courtship and mating. (Carpenter, 1977; Richardson, et al., 2006; Weldon and Burghardt, 1979)

Food Habits

Prairie kingsnakes are omnivores with a primary diet of mice, amphibians, snakes (including other prairie kingsnakes), lizards, birds, and bird eggs They also occasionally eat insects. Fitch (1978) found that some common prey eaten by prairie kingsnakes include woodland voles (Microtus pinetorum), eastern moles (Scalopus aquaticus), and prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster). In this study, prairie voles made up 48% of their diet, eastern moles 24%, and woodland voles 3.2%. Young prairie kingsnakes more often consume reptiles and small frogs compared to older prairie kingsnakes. They are active hunters, so they more commonly eat warm-blooded prey.

Prairie kingsnakes are constrictors, which means they coil around their prey and suffocate it until it is no longer alive. They do not randomly select foraging sites, instead relying on chemosensory information to select which habitat to forage. (Fitch, 1978; Linzey and Clifford, 1981; Queiroz and Rodriguez-Robles, 2006; Siegel, et al., 1987)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • eggs
  • insects

Predation

Prairie kingsnakes have many predators and are more vulnerable when they are young. They are often preyed upon by raccoons (Procyon lotor), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) and other kingsnakes (Lampropeltis).

As they grow older, prairie kingsnakes are often mistaken for copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) and subsequently killed by humans (Homo sapiens). Others are killed on roads at night when trying to cross.

To avoid predation, the disruptive patterning of prairie kingsnakes breaks up their outline, making them less noticeable. Their color pattern also serves as a camouflage in grasslands and rock ledges. (Linzey and Clifford, 1981; Siegel, et al., 1987)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

There are no known beneficial effects of prairie kingsnakes on the ecosystem.

Anderson et al. (1968) found evidence of several species of parasites affecting prairie king snakes based on fecal examinations. The kingsnakes caught showed the presence of oocysts and four species of protozoans. These protozoans include Eimeria lampropeltis, Caryospora lampropeltis, Cryptosporidium lampropeltis, and Eimeria zamenis. One protozoan species, Caryospora duszynskii, was found in prairie kingsnakes in Arkansas. (Anderson, et al., 1968; McAllister, et al., 1995)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • protozoan Emieria lampropeltis
  • protozoan Caryospora lampropeltis
  • protozoan Cryptosporidium lampropeltis
  • protozoan Eimeria zamenis
  • protozoan Caryospora duszynskii

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Prairie kingsnakes are a popular snake species to own as pets. There is no other research done on the economic importance of prairie kingsnakes for humans. ("Prairie Kingsnake", 2019)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no negative economic effects of prairie kingsnakes on humans.

Conservation Status

Prairie kingsnakes are listed as a species of "Least Concern" by the IUCN Red List, and have no special status on the US Federal list, the State of Michigan list, or internationally (CITES). This species is not considered threatened because it is abundant in its geographic range across the United States.

Although there are no major threats to prairie kingsnakes, minor threats include road crossings and humans mistaking them for venomous species and killing them.

There are no conservation efforts in place for prairie kingsnakes. (Fitch, 1978)

Contributors

Lauren Seedlock (author), Radford University, Lauren Burroughs (editor), Radford University, Layne DiBuono (editor), Radford University, Lindsey Lee (editor), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Galen Burrell (editor).

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

hibernation

the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.

indeterminate growth

Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.

induced ovulation

ovulation is stimulated by the act of copulation (does not occur spontaneously)

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

omnivore

an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

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Anderson, D., D. Duszynski, W. Marquardt. 1968. Three new coccidia (Protozoa: Telosporea) from kingsnakes, Lampropeltis spp., in Illinois with a redescription of Eimeria zamenis Phisalix, 1921. The Journal of Parasitology, 54/3: 577-581.

Bailey, R. 1939. Carphophis amoena vermis and Lampropeltis calligaster in Iowa. Copeia, 1939/4: 218.

Behler, J. 1979. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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Fitch, H. 2000. Population structure and biomass of some common snakes in central North America. Scientific Papers of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, 17/1: 1-7.

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