Anyone who has been to the Roy Hyatt Environmental Center in the past 21 years has probably met “Regis”, our eastern kingsnake. “Regis” has been our “poster-child” for snake biology and conservation for 1000’s of visitors to the center, numerous talks in our schools, and he has done an excellent job. When we began this series on snakes we talked of the fear that many people have of them. Many who come to RHEC have this fear but begin to change their minds when they meet “Regis”.
“Regis” is an eastern kingsnake, one of five recognized species of kingsnakes in the state of Florida. The Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getulus getulus) is found in the coastal plain of the southeast and in the panhandle of Florida. The Florida Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getulus floridana) is found in the peninsula portion of our state south of the Suwannee River. There is a hybrid of the two species that some herpetologists are classifying as their own separate subspecies and it is only found in the Apalachicola National Forest area. We will call it the Apalachicola Kingsnake and the scientific name for the animal is (Lampropeltis getulus goini). Ashton (1981) does not mention this subspecies but Gibbons and Dorcas (2005) support this claim. There is a fourth subspecies found in the Mobile delta area that Gibbons and Dorcas (2005) have reported in extreme Northwest Florida; this would be the Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getulus holbrooki). There is a fifth kingsnake that is of a completely different species – the Scarlet Kingsnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) which is found throughout the southeastern United States and the entire state of Florida. It is much smaller than L. getulus (maximum length of about 2’ vs. 7’ for the L. getulus group) and has a coral snake-like color pattern. This is one of the “friendly fellows” in the “red-touches black” song of the coral snake; in this case red touches black = friendly jack. The scarlet kingsnake can also be distinguished from the venomous coral snake by the fact that the head is red – not black.
The kingsnakes of the L. getulus group live in a variety of habitats including hardwood hammocks, upland sand hill in longleaf pine forest, flatwoods, on the edge of a many wetlands, and seem to do well around humans; they are most active during daylight hours. The scarlet kingsnake can be found in a variety of woodlands and seems to like living behind bark of dead trees – especially pines; they are more active at night.
Kingsnakes are constrictors and feed on a variety of prey. The smaller Scarlet Kingsnake feeds on lizards and other species of snakes but the larger L. getulus group will feed on these, birds, eggs, rodents, small turtles, and even venomous snakes. They are immune to the venom of the pit viper group and will readily feed on rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads – a fact that has spared many of their lives when encountered by humans. Gibbons and Dorcas describe the defense behavior of the rattlesnake when encountered by the kingsnake… they tend to coil and place their heads low. If the Kingsnake approaches they will lift a portion of their body and try to slam on the predator.
Like all snakes there are plenty of predators when they are young but as the L. getulus group increases in size their predators dwindle to large carnivores and birds of prey. All kingsnakes tend to coil and strike when confronted. They will also vibrate their tails and release musk. However they tend to stop this after being handled and, for this reason, have become popular in the pet trade. Those who keep these snakes as pets must remember to always keep them away from other snakes and always handle the kingsnake first. They tend to search for their prey via smell and, if they smell another snake on your hand when you handle them, may chew thinking food is there.
The Eastern Kingsnake seems to be declining within its range but is not currently listed in any state. Loss of habitat and collecting for the pet trade are the major problems; however breeding programs have reduced the number of wild captured snakes in recent years. If you have not already met our kingsnakes at RHEC please come out and see them – they are really special.