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California Kingsnake

Lampropeltis californiae

Description:

California kingsnakes are medium-sized snakes with smooth (unkeeled) scales. Body patterns of this species vary greatly but often include rings, patches, or stripes of dark and light coloration.

Size:

Adult California kingsnakes reach 2 to 4 feet (60.96 to 121.92 centimeters) in length, although this can also vary among individuals with some reaching lengths of up to 7 feet (213.36 centimeters).

Adaptations:

  • When agitated, California kingsnakes will coil their bodies to hide their heads, hiss, and rattle their tails, producing a similar sound to that of a rattlesnake’s rattle. If handled, wild individuals are often quick to bite and may excrete musk and fecal contents from their cloaca.
  • The California kingsnake is primarily crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) but can often be seen basking in the sun during the day. During times of hot weather, this species becomes increasingly more nocturnal to avoid the hotter temperatures.
  • Like a zebra, the California kingsnake’s coloration helps to break up the snake’s body outline, so it is less noticeable to predators.

Diet:

California kingsnakes are opportunistic feeders, seeking out their prey rather than lying in wait and ambushing it. Kingsnakes are powerful constrictors and generally kill their prey through suffocation. Common food items include rodents, birds, other reptiles, and amphibians. The “king” part of their name refers to their tendency to hunt and eat other snakes, including venomous rattlesnakes; kingsnakes possess enzymes which break down the toxins of rattlesnake venom, giving them natural resistance. At Cosley Zoo, the California kingsnake is fed mice or rats once a week.

Reproduction:

The California kingsnake is oviparous (egg-laying). Courtship begins in the spring and continues through mid-summer. Eggs are fertilized internally and are laid under leaves on the ground or within a rotting log. The typical clutch size is 5 to 16, though clutches of 20 or more eggs are known. The hatchlings emerge 50 to 70 days later, are approximately 6 to 12.5 inches (15.24-31.75 centimeters) in length and require no parental care.

Shelter and space needs:

The California kingsnake is widespread along the west coast of North America. This species lives in a variety of habitats, including woodland chaparral, grasslands, deserts, marshes, and even suburban areas. In the winter, they retreat underground and enter a hibernation-like state called brumation.

Life expectancy:

California kingsnakes live an average of 20 years.

Relationship with man:

California kingsnakes benefit people by controlling rodent and snake populations. This species is also a popular pet species because individuals are fairly easy to care for, often have good temperaments, and come in a wide range of color variations.

Fun Facts:

  • The California kingsnake’s scientific name means “shiny skin” or “shiny shield.”
  • Kingsnake hatchlings can have very different color patterns from their parents and siblings.
  • Not only do they slither across the ground, but California kingsnakes are also excellent at climbing trees and swimming.
California Kingsnake
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Photo Credit: Ltshears, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bobcat photo at top of page by Edward Durbin 

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