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What are King Snakes?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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King snakes are harmless reptiles of the scientific family Colubridae and the genus Lampropeltis. Loosely translated from the Greek, Lampropeltis means "small, shiny shield" which describes the snakes' scales. The "king" name signifies this snake's tendency to eat other snakes, even venomous ones. Similarly, the king cobra is also named for its ophiophagy, which is Greek for "snake eating." There are many different species and sub-species of king snake, including the milksnake, or Lampropeltis triangulum.

The Atlantic Central American milksnake, or Lampropeltis triangulum polyzona, is red with black and pale yellow bands. This species is one of the king snakes that people commonly confuse with the dangerous coral snake because both kinds feature bands of red, black and yellow. Kings don't have red and yellow bands touching, while corals do. "Red touching yellow will hurt a fellow" is a common rhyme used to remember the difference. While all Colubridae snakes are non-venomous or mildly venomous, the coral snake is a member of the Elapidae family of deadly species that include the mamba, cobra and krait.

Central and South America as well as Ontario and Quebec in Canada are locations known to have a fairly high king snake population. There are also many king snakes throughout most of the United States. Many people who live in areas with venomous snakes try to avoid killing the non-venomous kings. Not only do kings kill rats, they consume other snakes that include dangerous types such as copperheads and rattlesnakes. The king snake also preys on lizards and birds.

Many herpetoculturists, or snake keepers, have king snakes as pets, as they're considered quite easy to care for, even for beginners. One caution is using live rodents as food; this practice is illegal in many countries since the non-aggressive, non-venomous king snake is likely to suffer from rat bites when inside a cage with the live prey. Pre-killed rodents are usually permitted for this reason and are considered a humane way of feeding the pet.

One king snake sub-species is melanistic, which means it's nearly all black because of excess pigment. There are also several albino, or lacking in pigment, types of king snake that are extremely pale shades of gray with very light yellow bands. The more common types of kings usually have at least one bright color in their bands, such as the Lampropeltis alterna, or gray-banded king snake. The alterna is found in North Mexico as well as West Texas; it has red bands along with black and gray ones. The California king snake, or Lamropeltis getula, is an exception as it's black with white bands.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are king snakes and where can they be found?

King snakes are non-venomous snakes belonging to the genus Lampropeltis, which means "shiny shield" in Greek, a reference to their smooth, glossy scales. They are native to the Americas, with a range extending from southeastern Canada through the eastern and central United States, down to southern Ecuador and northern Peru. They inhabit a variety of ecosystems, from forests and grasslands to deserts and wetlands.

Why are they called king snakes?

King snakes are so named because of their reputation for being "kings" among snakes, due to their immunity to the venom of other snakes and their habit of preying on them, including venomous species like rattlesnakes and copperheads. This impressive ability has earned them a formidable reputation in the animal kingdom.

What do king snakes typically eat?

King snakes have a varied diet that includes rodents, birds, eggs, lizards, and other snakes, including venomous ones. They are constrictors, meaning they wrap their bodies around their prey to suffocate it before consumption. Their diverse diet and constricting method make them adaptable predators in their habitats.

How do king snakes contribute to their ecosystem?

King snakes play a crucial role in their ecosystems by controlling rodent populations, which can be pests to human agriculture, and by preying on other snakes, they help maintain a balance in the snake population. Their presence is beneficial for the health of their ecosystems and indirectly aids in human economic activities by reducing crop damage from rodents.

What is the typical lifespan of a king snake in the wild?

In the wild, king snakes can live for about 20 years, though their lifespan can vary depending on environmental factors and threats such as predation and habitat loss. In captivity, with proper care, they can live even longer, sometimes exceeding 20 years, which makes them popular pets among snake enthusiasts.

Are king snakes endangered?

Most king snake species are not currently considered endangered; however, their populations can be affected by habitat destruction, pollution, and illegal collection for the pet trade. Conservation efforts are important to ensure their survival, especially for localized populations that may be more vulnerable to environmental changes and human activities.

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Discussion Comments

By Lostnfound — On Jan 24, 2014

I am not -- repeat *not* -- fond of snakes. However, I do see their place in the ecosystem. They serve an important function. Therefore, I do understand why many people who live in the country do not mind having a king snake on their property. They generally are shy snakes, shun human contact and do a bang-up job of keeping undesirables under control.

The rhyme in my part of the country is "Red on black, pat him on the back," meaning a red and black stripe next to each other means you're dealing with a king snake, not a coral snake.

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