Critter Corner No. 16

Critter Corner No. 16
The Prairie Kingsnake
by
George Sly
 
king-snake
Photo Courtesy of Missouri Dept. of Conservation
My earliest recollection of meeting a snake, one which I can identify to species, happened when I was just a youngster. Engaged in a lively outdoor game of hide and seek, I leaped over a roadside culvert and took shelter in the ditch below. As I lie in hiding, I casually glanced down and there, practically at my shoulder, peering up at me was a Prairie Kingsnake.  Even after these many years, I can recall that I had no feelings of alarm or upwelling of ophidiophobia . We gazed at each other with studied interest, perhaps each of us considering just how this close juxtaposition had so suddenly occurred. The stealthy, quiet presence of the serpent intrigued me. The lovely grayish-brown background color liberally marked by dark brown blotches rimmed with black glistened as only a newly shed snake can. Overall I was struck by its subtle beauty and mysterious manner. Now, as an adult, I look back on this encounter as the seminal event which not only revealed my innate lack of fear of snakes but initiated a life-long fascination with these animals. Although usually described as a comparatively mild mannered snake, my next notable childhood encounter with Lampropeltis calligaster* did not validate this. Perhaps the little fellow I met had gotten up on the wrong side of the kingsnake bed. It didn’t take kindly to my reaching to pick it up and I received two or three rapid bites to the hand. I got the message and held no grudge. Sometimes I’m a little cranky in the morning too. Nevertheless, whenever I happen upon a Prairie Kingsnake, these two childhood encounters always come to mind.
 At first thought, you might think that Goose Pond FWA with its vast wetlands would be an unlikely place to find a snake with “prairie” as its first name. But GPFWA, recently expanded to nearly 9000 acres, has considerable variety in regards to the habitat types it offers its wild inhabitants. Nearly 1400 acres of the property have been planted to prairie grasses and forbs. In late summer, this acreage presents a grand show as the blossoming Big Bluestem, Side-oats Grama,  Little Bluestem, and Indian grasses are joined by the vibrant flowers of Compass Plant, Rosinweed, Purple Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, and Partridge Pea. So, it is true that the habitat that gives the Prairie Kingsnake its name, and was its original home, does exist at GPFWA. The geographic range of this snake in Indiana is restricted to the western one third of the state. Logically enough, this was the portion of the state which originally contained eastward extensions of the prairie biome.
Nowadays, the species isn’t so particular and can be found in oldfield habitat too. Such fields are typically abandoned agricultural fields grown to a mixture of herbaceous plants such as Goldenrod, Boneset, Ironweed, and Marestail. There may be Blackberry and even a few shrubs such as Multiflora Rose and Sumac in the mix. One might even find the Prairie Kingsnake in fields along the edge of woodlands, pastures, orchards, railroad rights-of-way, and grassy fields. Other good places to look for this species are under old boards, metal siding or roofing, and refuse near buildings. They are all favorite places to take refuge for this snake.
 Like all members of its kind, the Prairie Kingsnake is a predator and serves an important ecological role in helping to control rodent populations. Voles of the genus Microtus are often eaten. The Prairie Vole is perhaps the most common mammal at GPFWA so there is certainly a good prey supply for the snakes. In addition to mice, birds, their eggs, and frogs may be taken. Of course, kingsnakes have their enemies too. Among the predators which will take them are red-tailed hawks, raccoons, striped skunks, and opossums. The latter three are especially likely to focus on eggs and young of the snake. In at least one case , a ground squirrel had preyed upon a Prairie Kingsnake.
 Our state’s preeminent herpetologist, the late Sherman Minton Jr., thought Prairie Kingsnakes to be at their activity peak on the mild, sunny days of spring. Spring is a prime time for this, and other snake species, to lie on roads in order to bask. This behavior is obviously quite dangerous for the snake as many drivers make little attempt to avoid basking serpents. Later in the summer Minton found that Prairie Kingsnakes often used rodent burrows during the day and became more active in the morning and evening twilights. Animals active at these times of day are said to be crepuscular. Like many other reptiles, Prairie Kingsnakes are oviparous meaning that they reproduce by laying shelled eggs. The shell of snake eggs tends to be rather leathery unlike the brittle, fragile egg shell of birds. Ten or 11 eggs are typically laid with hatching occurring in late summer after a month and a half of development.
 In their wonderful little book on Indiana snakes, MacGowan and Kingsbury remind us that snake species in general are on the decline in Indiana. As is the case with many other declining plants and animals, habitat loss is the main culprit. They also cite other factors such as collecting by hobbyists, and pesticide usage. In Indiana, laws have been put into place regulating the collection of wild reptiles and amphibians. In most cases, if you are an adult taking any kind of herpetofauna from the wild, you must have a hunting or a fishing license. There are also possession limits. For more information refer to the DNR’s website at:
http://www.state.in.us/dnr/fishwild/3328.htm

I realize that not everyone is in their comfort zone when that space is being shared by a snake. However, I will argue that some rational thought is in order should you encounter a snake at GPFWA, or anywhere else for that matter. In all my years of experience with snakes, I have never been bitten unless I was handling the animal. Snakes do not seek out humans for intentional bites. This behavior is purely defensive. If you leave them alone and don’t try to touch, my experience has been that they will do the same for you.
Of the 32 species of serpents which inhabit Indiana, only four are venomous. These – the Copperhead, Massasauga Rattlesnake, Timber Rattlesnake, and Water Moccasin – are all pit-vipers. The latter three are rare snakes and your chances of meeting one exceedingly slim. Remember that many snakes vibrate their tail as a threat display and, under the right circumstances, might be mistaken for a “rattler”. Also note that non-poisonous water snakes, such as the Northern Water Snake found at GPFWA, are very commonly referred to in our area as “water moccasins”. They are not.
Regardless of your emotional feelings about snakes, they are perfect examples of the amazing power of natural selection to fashion predators of incredible stealth, marvelous camouflage, and precise functionality of form. As such they deserve our tolerance if not our admiration. Snakes play a major role within their ecosystems. As agents of population control, they help prevent the over-abundance of their prey. As prey items themselves, they supply needed sustenance to the species which perch above them on the food chain. Eliminating such vital links within the web of life can have unforeseen, and injurious, consequences. Perhaps, as human encroachment upon the natural world increases steadily, the serpents serve as a perfect reminder of the sage advice given by the great conservationist Aldo Leopold who said:
“The first law of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”

* Etymology of the scientific name courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society. Lampropeltis is derived from the Greek words lampros which means “radiant” and pelta meaning “small shields”. Species: calligaster is derived from the Greek words kallimos which means “beautiful” and gaster meaning “stomach”.
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Those interested in snakes, or reptiles and amphibians in general, might find the following books useful.
Behler, John L. and F. Wayne King.
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American
Reptiles and Amphibians.  
Alfred A. Knopf. New York.

Conant, Roger and Joseph T. Collins.    
A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians Eastern and
Central North America.   
Houghton Mifflin Co. New York.

Greene, Harry W. Snakes.
The Evolution of Mystery in Nature.
Univ. of California Press. Berkeley.

MacGowan, Brian and Bruce Kingsbury.
Snakes of Indiana.    
available at:  
www.state.in.us/ndr/fishwild.index.html. or  
www.agcom.purdue.edu/AgCom/Pubs

Minton, Sherman A., Jr.
Amphibians & Reptiles of Indiana.  
Indiana Academy of Sciences. Indianapolis.

Parker, H.W. and A.G.C. Grandison.   
Snakes – a natural history.
Cornell Univ. Press. Ithaca, NY