Lampropeltis zonataCalifornia Mountain Kingsnake

Last updated:

Geographic Range

Lampropeltis zonata, or California mountain kingsnakes, range from an isolated population in south-central Washington and adjacent northern Oregon, to southwestern Oregon, south along the coastal and interior mountains of California in the United States, to northern Baja California, Mexico. It is also present in numerous scattered populations within its Californian range. ("IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Lampropeltis zonata", 2010; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

Habitat

Lampropeltis zonata is found in a wide variety of habitats and is considered a habitat generalist. Most often though, it is associated with moist woodlands such as coniferous forests, oak woodlands, chaparral, or coastal sage scrub. In these areas, it is commonly located within riparian zones with ample rocks and rotting logs where the sun reaches, or on the south-facing, rocky, slopes of stream canyons. They inhabit elevations ranging from sea level to 3,000 m above sea level. ("California Reptiles and Amphibians", 2010; Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Stebbins, 2003)

  • Range elevation
    sea level to 3000 m
    to 9842.52 ft

Physical Description

Lampropeltis zonata can reach a total body length of 122.5 cm, although most are shorter than 100 cm long. There are 21 to 23 dorsal body scale rows at mid-body. The scales are smooth and unkeeled. The venter has 194 to 227 ventrals, 45 to 62 subcaudals, and an undivided anal plate. Each maxilla on this snake has 11 to 13 teeth.

Males have 45 to 62 subcaudals and tail lengths that average 18.2% of total body length, while females have 46 to 56 subcaudals and tail lengths averaging 17.5% of total body length. Other than these differences, sexes are hard to distinguish superficially. (Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Stebbins, 1954; Stebbins, 2003)

The slender, cylindrical body of this snake is patterned with black, white (or occasionally yellow), and red bands, with the red bands always bordered by black bands on both sides. The black and red bands generally extend onto the white venter, which may be speckled with black marks posteriorly. The dorsal side of the head is black, but the chin and throat are often white. The first band after the black head is white.

There are seven described subspecies, of which five occur north of Mexico. Pattern variation exists especially for the red bands, which may be interrupted dorsally to form a wedge-shaped blotch on each side within a broad black band, or the red pigment may be reduced or even absent altogether (especially in Sierra Nevada populations). Other forms of geographic variation involve variations in the width of the black bands, and the numbers of body triads (one red band surrounded by two black bands) that are present.

Due to the extreme variability of this snake, the described subspecies are difficult to tell apart, and best identified by locality. Intergradation between populations is common, and ranges of subspecies are discontinuous. Identification of subspecies in the northern edge of the range, in Oregon and Washington, is controversial. ("California Reptiles and Amphibians", 2010; Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Stebbins, 1954; Stebbins, 2003)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range length
    51 to 122.5 cm
    20.08 to 48.23 in
  • Average length
    <100 cm
    in

Development

Lampropeltis zonata is an oviparous species, whose eggs incubate for an average 62 days. After hatching, Lampropeltis zonata young measure 20.0 to 27.2 cm in length, and weigh about 5.7 to 7.7 g. The hatchlings are just as vividly colored as adults. (Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Stebbins, 2003)

These snakes generally reach maturity at a SVL (snout to vent length) of roughly 45 centimeters. In terms of total body length, however, males reach maturity at 50.7 centimeters, and females reach maturity at 54.7 centimeters. (Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Greene and Rodriguez-Robles, 2003; Stebbins, 2003)

Reproduction

In the wild, Lampropeltis zonata males may find females by following their pheromone trails. In captivity, males show interest in places where females have coiled or crawled. Little information is known regarding courtship behavior or mating systems for this species. (Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

Lampropeltis zonata typically breeds from April through early June, usually soon after emergence in the spring, although copulation by captives has taken place as early as March. Females may breed only every second year. ("California Reptiles and Amphibians", 2010; Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

Oviposition occurs in late May to July. Clutches average about 7 eggs, but range from 2 to 10. Eggs are white, elongated, and adherent, averaging 42.2 (40.0 to 45.0) mm in length, and 17.2 (15.8 to 18.0) mm in width, with a mass of about 6.6 (5.0 to 9.0) g.

Depending on incubation temperature, incubation periods average 62 days, but range from 47 to 87 days at temperatures of 23 to 29 degrees Celsius.

Age of maturity is unreported. ("California Reptiles and Amphibians", 2010; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

  • Breeding interval
    California mountain kingsnakes breed once yearly, however some females may reproduce biennially.
  • Breeding season
    California mountain kingsnakes breed from April to early June.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 10
  • Average number of offspring
    7

Parental investment post-oviposition has not been documented for this species.

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

The lifespan of Lampropeltis zonata in the wild is unknown, however, an individual in captivity was reported to live up to 26 years, 4 months, and 1 day. (Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

A major threat to Lampropeltis zonata is habitat destruction. This is usually associated with urbanization, however, slabs from rock outcrops are also torn off by people searching for this species or other reptiles. This and other forms of rock removal are damaging an irreplaceable facet of the snake's habitat, leading to detrimental effects on populations. Due to this snake's vibrant coloration, collection for the pet trade has diminished populations, as well. ("California Reptiles and Amphibians", 2010; "IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Lampropeltis zonata", 2010; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    26 (high) years

Behavior

Lampropeltis zonata is active from late March through early November annually in California. Winters are spent deep in rock crevices or within mammal burrows in a state of hibernacula, although individuals will come out to bask on warm, sunny days if the winter is mild. During the spring and fall, most daily activity is diurnal, however, during the summer this snake becomes crepuscular or even nocturnal in order to avoid high temperatures during the day. ("Santa Barbara Zoo: Animals", 2009; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

Lampropeltis zonata is a good climber. One individual was found over 1.5 meters above ground coiled in a decaying cavity of an oak tree. This snake generally has secretive habits, spending most of its time underground, under surface objects, or inside rock crevices. ("California Reptiles and Amphibians", 2010; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Stebbins, 1954)

Home Range

The home range size of Lampropeltis zonata is unknown.

Communication and Perception

Lampropeltis zonata uses sight to locate moving prey, and smell (olfaction and the vomero-nasal system) to find hidden prey and eggs. Males will follow pheromone trails to find females during the mating season. They perceive their environments through sight, smell, and touch.

This snake also communicates with other animals through bright coloration that warns potential predators to avoid eating it. Since it is not actually venomous as its colors would suggest, this is possibly a form of Batesian mimicry that mimics an aposematic species. The presumed model species would be the venomous Sonoran coral snakes (Micruroides euryxanthus), an elapid, which does not now occur in the United States portion of mountain kingsnakes' range.

Like all snakes, California mountain snakes possess primitive ear structures that allow them to detect vibrations. (Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

Food Habits

As an active hunter, Lampropeltis zonata uses sight and olfaction to find its prey. Once caught, small or helpless prey are swallowed immediately, but large, struggling prey must be constricted before ingestion. Food items are swallowed head-first the majority of the time.

Lizards including Gilbert skinks (Plestiodon gilberti), western skinks (E. skiltonianus), sagebrush lizards (Sceloporus graciosus) and western fence lizards (S. occidentalis) are common prey. Nestling bird species such as Swainson's thrushes (Catharus ustulatus), dusky flycatchers (Empidonax oberholseri), and green-tailed towhees (Pipilo chlorurus) are other important prey of this snake. Lizard eggs, bird eggs, small snakes (prairie rattlesnakes Crotalus viridis), small mammals, and possibly amphibians are all eaten as well. ("California Reptiles and Amphibians", 2010; Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003; Greene and Rodriguez-Robles, 2003; Stebbins, 1954)

The bright coloration of Lampropeltis zonata is believed to aid its hunting by making it more conspicuous to prey species. Birds will often attack this snake as they see it approach their nests. This allows the snake to follow the cues of intensity and directionality of the attack to search for bird eggs and nestlings. (Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • eggs

Predation

No acts of natural predation on Lampropeltis zonata have been reported. Certainly it is vulnerable to a variety of predatory mammals and birds. Although this snake is nonvenomous, its bold and advertising pattern has been considered a mimic of venomous coral snakes, such as Sonoran coral snakes (Micruroides euryxanthus), therefore warding off potential predators.

When faced with danger, flight is the first defense of Lampropeltis zonata and it will crawl to cover when given the chance. If this is not possible, it may coil and strike its attacker. When handled, it will twist violently to escape, release musk and fecal matter, and bite viciously with teeth that can cause rather deep lacerations. (Bartlett and Tennant, 2000; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • mimic

Ecosystem Roles

Lampropeltis zonata is a key predator in its ecosystem and presumably helps regulate the populations of its prey. (Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Lampropeltis zonata is often collected for use in the pet trade due to its attractive coloration and lack of venom. Its use in zoos also allows for the education of visitors about this snake and others. Captive breeding can reduce the market for wild-caught animals. ("California Reptiles and Amphibians", 2010; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

This species does not cause any harm to humans or their interests. In the presence of danger, its first response is to flee and will only strike when absolutely necessary. Despite its bright coloration, it is nonvenomous and is simply a mimic of poisonous species. (Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

Conservation Status

Lampropeltis zonata is currently listed as a California Species of Special Concern, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, and some populations are protected. Oregon protects this species. The IUCN Red List labels it as of Least Concern.

Habitat destruction associated with urbanization and rock collection are the most frequent threats to this species, but it is also commonly used in the pet trade. Even though some areas are protected habitats, measures to prevent illegal snake collecting are weak. This snake is capable of breeding in captivity, which should be used to fulfill the demand for pets while allowing the native populations to remain undisturbed. ("IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Lampropeltis zonata", 2010; Ernst and Ernst, 2003)

Contributors

Samantha Aliah (author), Michigan State University, James Harding (editor), Michigan State University, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.

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

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

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

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).

mimicry

imitates a communication signal or appearance of another kind of organism

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

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

tactile

uses touch to communicate

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.

vibrations

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

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

2010. "California Reptiles and Amphibians" (On-line). CaliforniaHerps.com. Accessed November 23, 2010 at http://www.californiaherps.com/snakes/pages/l.zonata.html.

2010. "IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Lampropeltis zonata" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed November 24, 2010 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/63834/0.

2009. "Santa Barbara Zoo: Animals" (On-line). Accessed November 24, 2010 at http://www.santabarbarazoo.org/showAnimals.asp?id=101.

2007. "eNature.com" (On-line). Accessed November 23, 2010 at http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/detail.asp?recNum=AR0102.

Bartlett, R., A. Tennant. 2000. Snakes of North America: Western Region. Houston, Texas: Gulf Publishing Co..

Ernst, C., E. Ernst. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Washington and London: Smithsonian Books.

Greene, H., J. Rodriguez-Robles. 2003. Feeding Ecology of the California Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis zonata (Colubridae). Copeia, 2: 308-314.

Stebbins, R. 2003. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Stebbins, R. 1954. Amphibians and Reptiles of Western North America. New York Toronto London: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc..