Lampropeltis getulaCommon Kingsnake

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Geographic Range

Common kingsnakes are one of the only kingsnake species found throughout most of North America. There are seven subspecies of Lampropeltis getula in North America. Lampropeltis getula getula (eastern kingsnake) is found on the east coast of North America from southern New Jersey and southeast Pennsylvania to the eastern parts of West Virginia, southwest to Mobile Bay, Alabama, and east through northern Florida. Lampropeltis getula floridana (Florida kingsnake) is found on the peninsula of Florida south to Dade County. Lampropeltis getula californiae (California kingsnake) is restricted to southwestern California and Baja California. Lampropeltis getula holbrooki (speckled kingsnake) is found in southwestern Illinois, eastern Iowa, and south central Alabama. Lampropeltis getula nigra (black kingsnake) is found west of the Appalachian mountains and east of the Mississippi River; this includes the region from West Virginia to southern Ohio, southeastern Illinois, and northern Alabama. Lampropeltis getula sticticeps (Outer Banks kingsnake) is found only in North Carolina from Cape Hatteras to Cape Lookout. Lampropeltis getula nigrita (black desert kingsnake) can be found in southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico. Subspecies overlap and interbreed in several different regions across North America. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2005; Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mitchell, 1994; Wright and Wright, 1957; Wund, et al., 2007)

Habitat

Primary habitat varies by subspecies. Common kingsnakes can be found in forests, grasslands, deserts, and urban areas. Microhabitats of most subspecies include: under wood or lumber, in trash piles, barns, along stone walls, on sunny railroad embankments, in stump holes, or in sunny clearings. Coastal subspecies like Florida kingsnakes and some eastern kingsnakes can be found along the edges of swamps, marshes, and dikes. Other subspecies, such as California kingsnakes and black desert kingsnakes are restricted to arid areas. Elevation also varies by subspecies. For example, California kingsnakes have the widest range in elevation, from the Pacific coastline to 915 m. Eastern kingsnakes (123 to 305 m) and black kingsnakes (153 to 305 m) share similar limited elevation ranges. Speckled kingsnakes can be found at elevations up to 610 meters. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995; Wright and Wright, 1957; Wund, et al., 2007)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 915 m
    0.00 to 3001.97 ft

Physical Description

Because the physical description of Lampropeltis getula varies so greatly across subspecies, each will be described in turn. One measure they all share is the length of hatchlings: 20 to 28 cm at hatching. Adult eastern kingsnakes (L. g. getula) can reach a length of 61 to 153 cm. They are large, solid, glossy black snakes with yellow (sometimes white) crossbars extending the length of the snake. The head is solid black with several yellow or white spots decorating the head scales. Speckled kingsnakes (L. g. holbrooki) can reach a length of 51 to 132 cm as adults. They are black with yellow “specks” on and throughout its scales. The underside is pale yellow to white with some of the black scales curling around the sides. California kingsnakes (L. g. california) can reach lengths of 91 to 106 cm. They have white crossbars intercepting black patches along the length of the back. The head is normally white with a black top and a few black scales on the side. Adult Florida kingsnakes (L. g. floridana) can be 106 to 138 cm long. The only major difference between Florida kingsnakes and eastern kingsnakes has 60 crossbands, whereas eastern kingsnakes have only 30. The underbelly is pale yellow with alternating patterns of black scales in a “zigzag” pattern. Black kingsnakes (L. g. niger), reach 91 to 122 cm and are rarely totally black. They normally have traces of approximately 50 to 95 faint crossbars of yellow or white spots. Outer Banks kingsnakes (L. g. stricticeps) can reach 123 to 153 cm. They can be easily mistaken for other subspecies including eastern, speckled, and Florida kingsnakes. They have yellow crossbars and yellow “specks” between the crossbars, as well as a mostly pale yellow underbellies with some black scales extending to the sides. Black desert kingsnakes (L. g. nigrita) can reach lengths of 106 to 132 cm. They are black and glossy with approximately 75 thin yellow crossbars. This subspecies also has yellow spots on the black scales that extend to the sides of the snake. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2005; Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    1361 to 2268 g
    47.96 to 79.93 oz
  • Average mass
    1814 g
    63.93 oz
  • Range length
    8 to 153 cm
    3.15 to 60.24 in
  • Average length
    130 cm
    51.18 in

Development

Snake eggs have a large amount of yolk that contains the fats and the carbohydrates necessary for embryo development. Towards the final stages of development, the fetal snake absorbs the yolk. Additionally, some of the calcium for the egg’s shell is extracted by the embryo and is used to form its skeleton. After the skeleton is formed, the shell becomes thinner and more flexible. Oxygen exchange decreases over time, which in turn urges the hatchling to break out of the egg, using the deciduous egg "tooth" on the nose. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995)

After common kingsnakes hatch, they stay in the nest until they shed their skin for the first time. This normally takes about a week. The hatchlings then disperse. Information about post-hatching is scarce. Common kingsnakes reach sexual maturity at approximately half their potential maximum size from 60 to 92 cm. In captivity, they can reach sexual maturity much sooner because of an abundant food source and limited parasites and disease. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995)

Reproduction

Male common kingsnakes compete for females. If two males are in the same area they will both raise their heads, necks, and fore parts of their bodies and entwine them. Males then try to press each other to the ground. The losing male will retreat and lay coiled in a prone position with his head flat to the ground. The victorious male will return to the female who waits nearby and copulate. Males are able to find females through pheromone trails. When mating, males lie atop females and bite their necks. Males then coil their tails under the females until their cloacas align. The male uses his hemipenis to enter the females’ cloacae. Copulation can last for several minutes to several hours. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995; Mitchell, 1994)

Common kingsnakes mate in the spring, allowing females time to lay their eggs when the weather is still warm enough for proper incubation. Their gestation period is about 60 days. In warmer climates (e.g. Florida), courtship can begin as early as March. In northern portions of the range, courtship is delayed until April or May. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995; Mitchell, 1994)

A female may produce a single clutch from multiple mates. Females may also produce more than one clutch per season as a result of more than one mating. The female chooses the nesting site, which can include rotting logs and stumps, as well as sawdust piles. Common kingsnakes breed yearly and have been known to produce more than one clutch per season. The breeding season is between March and August. The average number of offspring is 10 eggs per clutch (range 3 to 24). Average gestation period for female kingsnakes is 60 to 62 days (range 50 to 80 days). Hatchlings can weigh between 9 and 14 grams. Females reach sexual maturity at 2 to 4 years. Males reach sexual maturity at age 1 to 4. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995; Mitchell, 1994)

  • Breeding interval
    Yearly, common kingsnakes have been known to produce more than one clutch per season.
  • Breeding season
    Common kingsnakes breed from March to August.
  • Range number of offspring
    3 to 24
  • Average number of offspring
    10
  • Range gestation period
    50 to 80 days
  • Average gestation period
    60-62 days
  • Range time to independence
    3 to 14 days
  • Average time to independence
    7 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 to 4 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2-3 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 4 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2-3 years

After copulation the male will leave the female and not return to help with parental care. After the female lays her eggs she will disperse and not return to the nest. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mitchell, 1994)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Little information is available on the longevity of wild common kingsnakes. Most available information is from captive snakes. Ernst and Barbour (1989) found that the oldest wild common kingsnake was 9 years old (reported in 1937). AnAge reported that the longest living kingsnake in captivity was 33.3 years old. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Snider and Bawler, 1992; Wright and Wright, 1957)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    9 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    5.5 years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    33.3 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    33.3 years
    AnAge

Behavior

Common kingsnakes are diurnal. Their annual activity period is between late March or early April to October and early November. They hibernate during the winter in caves, rock crevices, mammal burrows, hollow logs, and in old stumps. During the cooler days of the spring and fall they can be found out during the day sunning themselves. Common kingsnakes spend a majority of their day under leaf litter and other debris (79%; Wund et al. 2007) and the rest of the time is spent traveling, basking, and hunting (21%; Wund et al. 2007). Common kingsnakes are not restricted to the ground, they can climb trees and swim quite well. Combat between males is common (during mating season). (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Krysko, 2002; Mattison, 1995; Mitchell, 1994; Wund, et al., 2007)

  • Range territory size
    330 to 350 m^2

Home Range

A recent study proposed that common kingsnakes have home ranges of 330 to 350 square meters and can take up to 103 days to cover distances across their small ranges. (Wund, et al., 2007)

Communication and Perception

There is not a great deal of information about how common kingsnakes communicate. However, some research has investigated the role of their cloacal scent glands in mating and deterrents. Brisbin (1968) conducted an experiment dealing with a captive-bred eastern kingsnake female that was placed on a table with the scent of a wild-caught male Florida kingsnake. The female showed evidence of an “alarm-reaction” by twisting away and secreting her own scents from her glands. Common kingsnakes most likely communicate with their tongues (providing sense of smell and taste), and their scent gland secretions. Indeed, they often follow the scent gland secretions of the opposite sex for mating purposes. They also have been observed using tongue flicks to find chemical signatures. These behaviors could be related to sexual behaviors by use of pheromones or as a repellent. They have excellent vision, like most species of snakes. Hearing is extremely restricted to the sensing of vibrations. (Brisbin, 1968; Carpenter, 1977; Price and LaPointe, 1981)

Food Habits

Adult common kingsnake diet varies across subspecies and is very broad, but published reports are available for a few representative subspecies. Eastern kingsnakes and Florida kingsnakes feed mainly on other snakes, including venomous snakes (coral snakes, copperheads, massasaugas, and rattlesnakes), eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon), ring-neck snakes (Diadophis punctatus), smooth earth snakes (Virginia valerius), and worm snakes (Carphasphis amonenus). They also feed on five-lined skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus), white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus), and the eggs of northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus). (Wright and Wright, 1957)

Diet also varies by subspecies. Black kingsnakes feed primarily on hognosed snakes (Heterodon platirhinos), red-bellied snakes (Storeria occipitomaculata), black racers (Coluber constrictor), black rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus), fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus), red spotted newts (Notophthalmus viridescens), house mice (Mus musculus), and meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus). Black desert kingsnakes prey mainly on house mice (Mus), rats (Rattus), and southern desert horned lizards (Phrynosoma platyrhinos calidiarum). Megonigal (1985) reported seeing a speckled kingsnake kill and eat an adult copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). They also eat other non-venomous snakes, birds, vertebrate eggs, lizards, mice, and rats. California kingsnakes prey on mice, gopher snakes (Pituophis), California alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata), and racers (Coluber). (Wright and Wright, 1957)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • eggs
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods

Predation

Predators of common kingsnakes include; alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) in Florida, larger snakes, hawks, raccoons (Procyon lotor), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), and Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana). Common kingsnakes have several defenses against potential predators. The most common is hissing, striking, “S” shaped striking pose, biting, and flight. They flee when threatened, rather than hold their ground. They are also able to spread a pungent musk that serves as an alarm substance to other common kingsnakes in the area. The banded and striped pattern of California kingsnakes, and other subspecies, disguises their movement and body outline when they are fleeing from a predator. Their coloration may make them cryptic in leaf litter and against other backgrounds. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995; Mitchell, 1994)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Common kingsnakes are beneficial for the ecosystem. They help keep rodent and frog populations in balance as well as other snakes like rattlesnakes (Crotalus) and cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus). They are also prey for larger snakes and predatory birds and mammals. Snider and Bawler (1992) conducted a study to find if parasites were the cause of common kingsnake declines in Florida. They found suggestions of parasite activity but no direct evidence. Van Peenan and Birdwell (1968) found evidence of several species of parasites affecting common kingsnakes. These include apicomplexan species (Sarcocystis and Eimeria species). (Snider and Bawler, 1992; Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Oldak, 1976; Snider and Bawler, 1992; Van Peenan and Birdwell, 1968; Winne, et al., 2007; Wund, et al., 2007)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • apicomplexans (Sarcocystis)
  • apicomplexans (Eimeria)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Common kingsnakes are one of the most popular snakes to own as pets, next to boa constrictors (Boa constrictor). They play an important role in controlling populations of venomous snakes, which can pose a threat to humans. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mitchell, 1994; Snider and Bawler, 1992; Winne, et al., 2007)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Other than the occasional defensive bite, there are no known adverse effects of Lampropeltis getula on humans. (Carpenter, 1977; Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings

Conservation Status

Common kingsnakes are listed as a “species of concern” on the U.S. Federal list. This may be because Florida kingsnakes, L. g. floridana, are in decline. Reasons for declines include anthropogenic causes through extensive pet trade, road fatalities, and habitat loss. Invasive fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are also harming L. g. floridana populations by competing for food sources like turtle eggs. (Mitchell, 1994; Snider and Bawler, 1992; Wund, et al., 2007)

Contributors

Sarah Bartz (author), Radford University, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

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

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

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.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

forest

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

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

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.

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.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

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

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.

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

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

solitary

lives alone

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

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.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Baker, R., G. Mengden, J. Bull. 1972. Karyotypic Studies of Thirty-Eight Species of North America. Copeia, 1972/2: 257-265.

Bartlett, R., P. Bartlett. 2005. Guide and Reference to the Snakes of Eastern and Central North America. Florida: University Press of Florida.

Brisbin, I. 1968. Evidence for the Use of Post Anal Musk as an Alarm Device in the Kingsnake Lampropeltis getula. Herpetologica, 24/1: 169-170.

Carpenter, C. 1977. Communication and Displays of Snakes. American Zoologist, 17/1: 217-223.

Ernst, C., R. Barbour. 1989. Snakes of Eastern North America. Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University Press.

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Johnson, R. 1949. An Indication of Sleep in Snakes. Herpetologica, 5/6: 147.

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Krysko, K. 2002. Seasonal Activity of the Florida Kingsnake Lampropeltis getula floridana (Serpentes: Colubridae) in Southern Florida. The American Midland Naturalist, 148/1: 102-114.

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Oldak, P. 1976. Comparison of the Scent Gland Secretion Lipids of Twenty-Five Snakes: Implications for Biochemical Systematics. Copeia, 1976/2: 320-326.

Perkins, C. 1952. Incubation Period of Snake Eggs. Herpetologica, 8/3: 79.

Pough, H. 1977. The Relationship between Body Size and Blood Oxygen Affinity in Snakes. Physiological Zoology, 50/2: 77-87.

Price, A., J. LaPointe. 1981. Structure-Functional Aspects of the Scent Gland in Lampropeltis getulus splendida. Copeia, 1981/1: 138-144.

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Steen, D., L. Smith. 2009. Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula getula) Home Ranges Exhibit Limited Overlap. Southeastern Naturalist, 8/3: 553-558.

Stophlet, J. 1957. Nocturnal Predation on Summer Tanager Nestling by Kingsnake. The Wilson Bulletin, 69/3: 279.

Van Peenan, P., T. Birdwell. 1968. Coccidian parasites of the California nanded kingsnake, Lampropeltis getula californiae. Parasitology, 58: 349-354.

Williams, P., L. Brisbin. 1978. Responses of Captive-Reared Eastern Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula) to Several Prey Odor Stimuli. Herpetologica, 34/1: 79-83.

Wilson, W., S. Friddle. 1950. The Herpetology of Hardy County, West Virginia. The American Midland Naturalist, 43/1: 165-172.

Winne, C., J. Wilson, B. Todd, K. Andrews, J. Gibbons. 2007. Enigmatic Decline of a Protected Population of Eastern Kingsnakes, Lampropeltis getula, in South Carolina. Copeia, 2007/3: 507-519.

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Wund, M., M. Torocco, R. Zappalorti, H. Reinert. 2007. Activity Ranges and Habitat Use of Lampropeltis getula getula (Eastern Kingsnakes). Northeastern Naturalist, 14/ 3: 343-360.

Zweifel, R. 1997. Alternating Use of Hemipenes in the Kingsnake, Lampropeltis getula. Journal of Herpetology, 31/3: 459-461.