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A prairie kingsnake is a non-venomous reptile found in the southern part of the United States. Commonly called a yellow-bellied kingsnake, this species grows about 50 inches (127 centimeters) long and might live more than 10 years in captivity. The prairie kingsnake prefers open grassland or pasture, but can also be found on rocky hillsides. This snake is rarely seen in wooded forests or sandy areas.
Depending on the region, the prairie kingsnake varies in coloration from light tan or gray to dark brown with darker markings. Patterns on the scales might appear reddish or greenish in some snakes, but generally look dark brown. The underbelly consists of a smooth, cream-colored surface with a few darker markings. Most prairie kingsnakes have a dark line between the jaw and eye, and a V-shaped head.
These reptiles are active from spring to fall, and nocturnal during hot summer months. They commonly rest in shaded areas or partially burrowed under the earth during the day. People might see these snakes seeking food in the early morning or at dusk, or after it rains. They hibernate underground during the winter.
A prairie kingsnake rarely bites, but could strike if it feels threatened. If it detects danger, the snake typically shakes its tail, which could sound like a rattlesnake if the kingsnake is resting in dry leaves. It is usually calm when handled by reptile owners, but might emit an unpleasant musky odor.
These snakes eat rodents, lizards, frogs, and other snakes, including poisonous reptiles. They are immune to venom and can metabolize the chemical in their bodies. Scientists have studied this feature in kingsnakes to determine if a vaccine can be developed to protect humans from venomous snake bites.
Males mate when young, biting the female’s neck in a courting ritual. Females lay between five and 17 eggs in underground burrows during summer months. Some young kingsnakes appear red or green immediately after birth, but their markings darken as they mature. The young reptiles can survive on their own immediately after birth without care.
Prairie kingsnakes are considered beneficial because they keep the rodent population down. To keep these reptiles away from yards and homes, woodpiles or heavy mulch should be cleared. Thick grass and heavy shrubs can also be trimmed to eliminate hiding areas. Keeping rodents down might also deter snakes.