The subspecies of common kingsnakes have different physical descriptions. They are all shiny, and their name means "shiny shield" in Greek. They are mostly black or brown, but many have distinct patterns like yellow or white stripes or specks on their upper bodies. They are usually pale white or yellow underneath. Their bodies are thin, and their head is the same width or a little bit wider. Males and females look the same. All subspecies are 20 to 28 cm long when they hatch. Adults are 51 to 153 cm long and weigh 1361 to 2268 g. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2005; Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995)
Common kingsnakes are one of the only kingsnakes found in most of North America. They are found in much of the southern United States and in northern parts of Mexico. They live from the west coast to the east coast as far north as California, Iowa, and New Jersey. The farthest south they are found is Baja California, Guadalajara, and the Monterrey regions of Mexico. There are 7 subspecies, but none of them are found in Michigan. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2005; Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mitchell, 1994; Wright and Wright, 1957; Wund, et al., 2007)
Common kingsnakes live in forests, grasslands, deserts, and places where humans live. They often live under logs or wood piles, in trash piles, barns, along stone walls, on sunny railroad embankments, in holes of stumps, or in sunny clearings. Coastal subspecies like Florida kingsnakes and some eastern kingsnakes can be found along the edges of swamps, marshes, and structures that hold back water. Other subspecies like California kingsnakes and black desert kingsnakes only live in dry areas. Subspecies live at different heights of elevation, too. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995; Wright and Wright, 1957; Wund, et al., 2007)
Like all snakes, common kingsnake eggs have a lot of yolk that the snake uses to develop. They also take some of the calcium from the shell to form a skeleton. When the snake can't get oxygen through the shell any more, it breaks out. After they hatch, young snakes stay in the nest until they shed their skin for the first time. This takes about 1 week. When they are about half their full size, they are able to have their own young. All snakes continue growing throughout their entire lives. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995)
Male common kingsnakes compete for females, who they locate using chemical signals. If two males are in the same place, they raise their heads and necks, wrap around each other, and try to press the other one into the ground. The male that loses retreats, and then lays down coiled up with his head on the ground. Meanwhile, the winning male returns to the female. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995; Mitchell, 1994)
Common kingsnakes mate in the spring, so that it will still be warm when females lay eggs. In warmer places, mating starts earlier. Females can have more than one mate, and lay more than one set of eggs. Females pick out a nesting location such as a rotted log or stump, or a pile of sawdust. They breed from March to August. Common kingsnakes have 3 to 24 eggs in a set, but usually about 10. The eggs normally hatch in 60 to 62 days and the hatchlings weigh 9 to 14 grams. Females can have their own young when they are 2 to 4 years old, and males can when they are 1 to 4 years old. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995; Mitchell, 1994)
Scientists don't know much about the lifespan of wild common kingsnakes. The oldest wild common kingsnake was 9 years old and the oldest in captivity was 33.3 years old. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Snider and Bawler, 1992; Wright and Wright, 1957)
Common kingsnakes are active during the day from late March or early April to October or early November. During the winter, they hibernate in caves, crevices in rock, mammal burrows, hollow logs, and in old stumps. In the spring and fall, they lay out in the sun to warm up. They spend most of the day under fallen leaves or traveling, basking in the sun, and hunting. Common kingsnakes can also climb trees and swim quite well. Males often fight during the mating season. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Krysko, 2002; Mattison, 1995; Mitchell, 1994; Wund, et al., 2007)
Common kingsnakes generally stay in an area that is 330 to 350 square meters. They take up to 103 days to travel across this area. (Wund, et al., 2007)
Scientists don't know much about how common kingsnakes communicate. They use scent glands for mating and to repel other snakes. They also use tongue flicks to sense chemical signals. Like most snakes, they have excellent vision. They can't "hear," but they are very sensitive to vibrations. (Brisbin, 1968; Carpenter, 1977; Price and LaPointe, 1981)
Common kingsnakes eat lots of foods, which change depending on the subspecies. They aren't poisonous, but they wrap themselves around their prey and squeeze to kill it. Eastern kingsnakes and Florida kingsnakes mostly eat other snakes, including coral snakes, copperheads, massasaugas, and rattlesnakes, eastern garter snakes, northern water snakes, ring-neck snakes, smooth earth snakes, and worm snakes. They also eat five-lined skinks, white-footed mice, and the eggs of northern bobwhite quail. In addition, they eat other non-venomous snakes, birds, eggs of animals with backbones, lizards, and mice and rats. (Wright and Wright, 1957)
Common kingsnakes are eaten by alligators in Florida, larger snakes, hawks, raccoons, striped skunks, and Virginia opossums. They defend themselves from predators by hissing, striking, making a striking pose shaped like an "S", biting, and flying. They give off a strong scent to other common kingsnakes to warn about nearby predators. They flee if they feel threatened. The banded and striped pattern on California kingsnakes and other subspecies helps camouflage them as they flee from predators. Their coloring is also camouflage when they are under leaves on the ground. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mattison, 1995; Mitchell, 1994)
Common kingsnakes are beneficial for the ecosystem. As predators, they help keep numbers of rodents, frogs and other snakes like rattlesnakes and cottonmouths in check. They are eaten by larger snakes and predatory birds and mammals. They also get some parasites from the group apicomplexans. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Oldak, 1976; Snider and Bawler, 1992; Van Peenan and Birdwell, 1968; Winne, et al., 2007; Wund, et al., 2007)
Common kingsnakes are one of the most popular snakes to own as pets, next to boa constrictors. They play an important role in controlling populations of venomous snakes, which can be a threat to humans. (Ernst and Barbour, 1989; Mitchell, 1994; Snider and Bawler, 1992; Winne, et al., 2007)
Common kingsnakes are listed as a “species of concern” on the United States Federal list. This might be because numbers of Florida kingsnakes are decreasing. They are threatened by the pet trade, deaths in roads, and loss of their habitats. Invasive fire ants also hurt their numbers because they compete for food sources like turtle eggs. (Mitchell, 1994; Snider and Bawler, 1992; Wund, et al., 2007)
Sarah Bartz (author), Radford University, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
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