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What Is a Gopher Snake?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 21, 2024
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A gopher snake is a large, nonvenomous constrictor snake common to the American Southwest. Sometimes mistaken for a rattlesnake, this reptile has a defense mechanism similar to the rattlesnake's noise-making tail. The scientific name for the gopher snake is Pituophis catenifer. This snake may also be referred to by its previous scientific name, Pituophis melanoleucus.

Although they can be up to 7 feet (2.1 m) long, gopher snakes average 4.5–5 feet (1.4–1.5 m) and may be as small as 2.5 feet (0.76 m). Similar to rattlesnakes, gopher snakes are tan with dark brown saddle-shaped or blotched patterning. Their bellies usually have dark spots as well, but they are a lighter yellowish color. One color morph of this snake exists, replacing the blotched pattern with stripes.

When threatened, gopher snakes can flatten their narrow heads, intimating the triangular-shaped head of a rattlesnake. They also raise their upper bodies and flick their tail rapidly back and forth, which creates a buzzing noise similar to that created by a rattlesnake. Most animals will mistake the harmless snake for a rattler and flee rather than attack. Unfortunately, humans often make the same mistake and many gopher snakes are kill as a result of misidentification.

Diurnal, the gopher snake is active during daylight hours. In the hottest months, however, they become more active at night when it is cooler. These snakes are often found along roadways and trails, particularly in the spring and fall. In the winter, they hibernate in dens.

Highly adaptable, the gopher snake is found in a variety of environments. Though most often seen in grasslands and on farmland, gopher snakes may make their homes in deserts or on mountains, in suburbs or in forests. They are primarily concentrated in the American Southwest, but reach north into Canada, west through California, east to Indiana, and south into Mexico.

The gopher snake eats mainly small mammals, like pocket gophers, and birds. It also consumes bird's eggs and occasionally will eat other reptiles and insects. These snakes are prey of red-tailed hawks, as well as kit foxes and coyotes. Many are also killed by cars because they commonly cross roadways.

Mating occurs in late spring. The males fight, entwining their bodies around each other in plays for dominance. The winner mates with a female, who lays her eggs about six weeks later, during summer. About two months later, in August through October, the eggs hatch. Hatchlings are born self-sufficient and may be over 20 inches (50.8 cm) long.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a gopher snake and where can it be found?

Gopher snakes, also known as bull snakes, are nonvenomous colubrids native to North America. They inhabit a variety of ecosystems, from grasslands to forests, and are particularly common in the western United States. These adaptable reptiles are often found in agricultural areas where they help control rodent populations.

How does the gopher snake behave in the wild?

Gopher snakes are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, especially in the morning and late afternoon. They are excellent burrowers and climbers, which aids in hunting prey. When threatened, they may hiss and mimic rattlesnakes by vibrating their tails in dry leaves to deter predators, a behavior known as Batesian mimicry.

What do gopher snakes eat?

Gopher snakes have a diet primarily consisting of rodents, which makes them beneficial for controlling pest populations. They are constrictors, subduing their prey by wrapping their bodies around it and squeezing until the prey suffocates. They also consume birds, bird eggs, and occasionally lizards and insects.

How can you identify a gopher snake?

Gopher snakes are identified by their heavily keeled scales, yellowish or brownish body with dark blotches, and a narrow head that is only slightly wider than the neck. They can grow quite large, with some individuals reaching over 7 feet in length. Their appearance can sometimes lead to confusion with rattlesnakes, though they lack the distinctive rattle.

What is the conservation status of gopher snakes?

Currently, gopher snakes are not considered endangered or threatened. They are relatively common throughout their range and have a stable population. Their adaptability to different habitats and generalist diet contribute to their successful survival in the wild.

How do gopher snakes reproduce, and what is their lifespan?

Gopher snakes are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs. Mating occurs in the spring, and females lay clutches of 2 to 24 eggs in the summer, which hatch after about 65 to 75 days. In the wild, gopher snakes can live up to 15 years, while in captivity, with proper care, they may live over 30 years.

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