There are eight known species of kingsnakes. They are in the Lampropeltis family and part of the non-venomous Colubridae family. Lampropeltis is a Greek word meaning ‘shiny skin’ that may have been chosen for the kingsnake’s glossy scales.Kingsnakes are not venomous and pose no threat to humans. They are often kept as pets and prized for their vibrant colors and beautiful patterns. Kingsnakes are actually beneficial to humans. They keep rodent populations down and eat other snakes. Kingsnakes are sometimes mistaken for venomous coral snakes, but they are a completely different species.
The common name of the kingsnake comes from its habit of eating other snakes. The king cobra eats other snakes as well. Kingsnakes in North America are resistant to rattlesnake, copperhead, and cottonmouth venom. Resistance is provided by enzymes that break down venom. The kingsnake’s ability to kill and eat venomous snakes is rare. They are only resistant to venomous snakes in the same location.
Kingsnakes display a variety of patterns and colors. Patterns may be bands, rings, longitudinal stripes, speckles, and saddle-shaped bands. Some species are pale brown and black, while others are white, red, yellow, gray, or lavender. The most common pattern is light-colored bands on a darker background. Stripes may be broken into dot-dashes or spots. The broken patterns disguises the outline of the snake’s body as camouflage to avoid predators.
The coloration and patterns of several kingsnake species in North America are very similar to the appearance of a venomous coral snake species. An old rhyme helps with identification: “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack.” The rhyme isn’t accurate outside of North America and it isn’t fully reliable in the southern United States. It is best to treat the look-alike species respectfully and assume they have venom.
The milksnake, or tricolored king, is a banded kingsnake species. A myth concerning milksnakes claims they drink milk from a cow’s udders. The basis for this myth is the milksnake’s preference for barns. Milksnakes are looking for mice instead of milk. They are harmless and have no interest in humans or livestock.
Kingsnakes occuply the largest range of any land snake. They are found from southeastern Canada to southern Ecuador. Kingsnakes are exceptionally adaptable compared to other snakes. Their habitats are river valleys and wetlands, desert basins, thick foliage on hillsides, woodlands, fields, and rocky slopes or crevices. Kingsnakes hibernate through winter unless they live in an area with a warm climate year-round.
Prey and Hunting
Kingsnakes eat almost anything they can catch. Their prey includes lizards, rodents, birds, small turtles, frogs, eggs, and other snakes. They kill using constriction and have strong stomach acids to dissolve prey. Kingsnakes can be nocturnal or diurnal depending on daytime temperatures, but they are most active at dusk and dawn. They are active hunters and locate prey by scent. It takes only seconds for a kingsnake to grasp and coil around prey. A kingsnake does not need to hunt again for several days after consuming a large meal.
Predatory birds, badgers, raccoons, and some other snakes are a threat to kingsnakes. Kingsnakes do not have venom, but they have other methods to defend themselves including:
- Hissing to intimidate other animals
- Vibrating tail in dry leaves or debris to mimic a rattlesnake
- Curling into a ball
- Striking to bite without venom
- Produce foul-smelling musk
Kingsnakes mate during early or late spring. Their mating ritual may start with males fighting each other. Females lay eggs in early summer and move on immediately. A group of reptile eggs is called a clutch. Each clutch contains 4-20 eggs and they are usually placed under leaves, in old rodent burrows, or under rotting logs. The eggs hatch within 12 weeks. Hatchlings are 8 to 13-inches long. Kingsnakes reach sexual maturity between their third and fourth year, and they can live up to 20 years.
Recent studies have found that kingsnakes are the strongest constrictors in the world. Kingsnakes aggressively attack and quickly overpower larger snakes. Researchers determined that a kingsnake exerts 180 mm Hg of pressure during constriction. This is far more pressure than other constrictor is capable of. Researchers used to believe kingsnakes suffocated prey. They now realize that kingsnakes exert enough pressure to stop the heart. This discovery explains how kingsnakes kill their prey so quickly.
Kingsnakes are popular pets. They are easy to care for and adapt to new surroundings quickly. Unfortunately, the demand for pets has led to dangerously depleted populations of some species and subspecies. The Todos Santos Island kingsnake is found only on its namesake island. It is considered critically endangered. There aren’t enough predators on the island to significantly reduce the kingsnake population, so their decline is almost entirely due to human collection activities. Harvesting most kingsnake species for the pet trade is illegal in the United States, but the law has not discouraged collectors.