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Scarlet kingsnake

Lampropeltis triangulum

What do they look like?

Milk snakes can be from 35 to 175 cm long, with the longest snakes being found in Mexico and Central America. In the United States lengths are usually 60 to 130 cm. They are very colorful snakes and their colors vary throughout their range. All milk snakes have a blotchy or striped appearance, with darker blotches separated by lighter stripes. The color of those darker blotches can be very light to very dark, from tan to rust colored to dark brown. The ligher areas can be orange, yellow, or white. The darker areas are always outlined in black. Milk snakes have 19 to 23 rows of smooth scales and a single anal plate.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range length
    35 to 175 cm
    13.78 to 68.90 in

Where do they live?

Milk snakes are found throughout the eastern United States, into southern Canada, and south into Mexico and Central America. They have a Nearctic distribution.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Milk snakes can thrive in a variety of habitats. They are usually found near forest edges, but can also be found in open woodlands, prairies and grasslands, near streams and rivers, on rocky hillsides, and in suburban areas and farmlands. Milk snakes are not rare but are secretive, so are rarely seen.

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • rivers and streams
  • Range elevation
    sea level to 2600 m
    to 8530.18 ft

How do they reproduce?

Milk snakes mate while in their hibernation spots before they emerge in the spring.

Milk snakes lay from 2 to 17 (usually about 10) elliptical eggs in rotting logs or moist, warm leaf litter. They hatch after 28 to 39 days and emerge as young milk snakes that are 14 to 28 cm long. Upon hatching they are brightly colored, with oranges, reds, purples, and yellows. Their colors become more dull as they age. Young milk snakes become fully grown in 3 to 4 years.

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Milk snakes breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs in spring and early summer, from April through June.
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    28 to 39 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 to 4 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 to 4 years

Milk snake females choose nest sites that are warm and humid. Once the eggs are laid there is no further parental care.

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement

How long do they live?

Lifespans of milk snakes aren't well known. However, on individual lived in captivity to be more than 21 years old. Most milk snakes probably die in their first year of life.

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    21 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    22.6 years

How do they behave?

Milk snakes are solitary species, they are only found with other milk snakes during their winter hibernation, when they travel to hibernation sites that will protect them during the winter from extreme weather. Milk snakes are most active during the day but are rarely seen then, because they are secretive. They can sometimes be seen basking on rocks and roadways during cool weather and at night. Milk snakes can stay active even when the weather is very hot, when other snakes usually try to take refuge from the heat.

How do they communicate with each other?

Not much is known about milk snake communication. They use sight, hearing, touch, and smell to perceive their environment.

What do they eat?

Milk snakes are carnivorous. Adults feed mainly on rodents such as voles, white-footed mice, and house mice , but will also eat birds, bird eggs, lizards, snake eggs, or other snakes, including venomous species like coral snakes and rattlesnakes. Young milk snakes seem to feed mainly on other young snakes. When prey is captured, it is constricted (squeezed) until it suffocates. It is then swallowed whole.

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

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Milk snakes are prey for animals such as raccoons, foxes, skunks, and coyotes. When they feel threatened, milk snakes will vibrate their tails, trying to look like a venomous rattlesnake. Their color pattern of alternating black, white, and reddish stripes also makes them look like another venomous snake, coral snakes. In some areas their color patterns mimic copperhead snakes, which are also venomous. By looking like dangerous snakes they avoid being preyed on by many animals, but this often backfires when humans mistake them for the dangerous snake and kill these otherwise harmless and helpful snakes.

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • mimic
  • aposematic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Milk snakes are important predators of small mammals, birds, and other snakes.

Do they cause problems?

There are no negative affects of milk snakes on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Milk snakes have a close relationship with humans, as they are commonly found in farmland or urban areas. These snakes are beneficial to humans as they feed on rodents that concentrate around barns or trash (Vogt 1981).

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

Though milk snakes are often killed by humans who mistake them for venomous snakes, they are widespread and still considered abundant throughout most of their range. (Canadian Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Network, March 1999)

Some more information...

The milk snake got its name from an Old World folk tale. The tale tells that the snake sucks the milk of nursing mothers and cows until they are dry. Of course we know this to be impossible because the snake is harmless and a human mother or a cow would certainly not allow it. Also, the snake's belly could only hold a few tablespoons of milk (Vogt 1981).


Canadian Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Network, ,. March 1999. "Lampropeltis triangulum Milk Snake" (On-line). Accessed November 7, 1999 at

National Audubon Society Inc, ,. 1979. National Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc..

Roth, J., H. Smith. 1990. The milksnake, Lampropeltis triangulum, in northwest Colorado. Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society: 6-7.

Vogt, R. 1981. Natural History of Amphibians and Reptiles of Wisconsin. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Milwaukee Public Museum.

Williams, K. 1994. Reptilia:Squamata:Serpentes:Colubridae:Lampropeltis triangulum. Catalogue of American Amphibians and Reptiles: 594.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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. "Lampropeltis triangulum" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 27, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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