Species: 8 species
Body length: 14 to 84 inches (36 to 213 centimeters), depending on species
Weight: up to 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms)
Life span: 20 to 30 years
Incubation: 2 to 3 months
Number of eggs laid: 3 to 13 eggs
Length at hatch: 4 to 12 inches (10 to 30 centimeters), depending on species
Age of maturity: 3 to 4 years
Conservation status: The State of California considers the San Diego mountain kingsnake Lampropeltis zonata pulchra to be vulnerable.
The genus name Lampropeltis means “shiny skin.”
Kingsnake hatchlings may not look like their parents or their siblings in color or pattern.
The king of snakes
If you've lived in California for a while, chances are good that you've encountered a king—a kingsnake, that is! Kingsnakes are one of the most widespread snake species in the United States. They are ground-dwelling snakes that often kill and eat other snakes, even venomous ones, including rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths, because kingsnakes are highly resistant to their venom.
Bands, stripes, or spots
Kingsnakes have a number of pattern and color variations. The most common and easily recognized pattern is banding, usually light-colored bands on a darker background. This pattern breaks up the snake's body outline so it is less noticeable to predators like hawks, eagles, coyotes, bobcats, and even other kingsnakes. The bands differ in number and width, depending on where the snake lives. Some kingsnakes have stripes that run along the body from head to tail. Stripes are much less common than bands, although California kingsnakes Lampropeltis getulus californiae in San Diego and Riverside counties often have them. Sometimes the stripes are broken up into dot-dashes or even separated into spots!
Some species of kingsnake, such as the scarlet kingsnake Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides and California mountain kingsnake Lampropeltis zonata, have almost the same coloration and patterning as venomous coral snakes, making it easy to confuse them with this dangerous snake species. There is a rhyme to help you tell a deadly coral snake from its nonvenomous look-alike: “Red on yellow, poison fellow; red on black, safe from attack.” This rhyme refers to the color of the bands on the snake. But some coral snakes do NOT have their red and yellow bands touching, and some don't have any red at all, so unless you are a trained snake handler, don't touch any banded snakes!
What’s for dinner?
Known for their "cast-iron" stomachs, kingsnakes aren't picky when it comes to their diet. Besides eating other snakes, kings will also dine on lizards, rodents, birds, and eggs, counting on their strong stomach acids to dissolve them. Since they do not produce venom, they use constriction to subdue their prey. Once food is located by scent, the snake strikes with a quick bite, rapidly coils its body around the prey, and tightens until the prey cannot breathe any more. Depending on the size of the meal, the kingsnake may not eat again for several days.
A year in the life
In late spring and early summer, kingsnakes spend much of the day hiding under rocks, but when the sun goes down they look for food and a mate. But during the fall, most of them find a place to hibernate until spring, unless they live in a warmer climate. Most are crepuscular, although they may become nocturnal during the hot summer months. After the snakes have had several months to feed, mate, and lay their eggs, they will go back underground for the next winter.
An adult female will lay a clutch of eggs in early summer and then leave the eggs, which hatch unattended two to three months later. Each hatchling is only a few inches long when it leaves the egg, looking like a miniature version of the adults. Hatchlings are completely independent from the moment they've broken out of their shell.
Snakes that drink milk?
One species of kingsnake is called the milk snake Lampropeltis triangulum. The subspecies have strikingly different colors and patterns, and many of them have their own common names, including tricolors and tricolored kings. A common myth about the milk snake is that it sucks the milk out of a cow's udders! Many milk snakes are indeed found in barns, but they are looking for mice, not milk.
The importance of kings
Snakes always seem to be under attack just for being snakes. Too many people think all snakes are dangerous and should be killed on sight. Yet snakes, especially our local kingsnakes and gopher snakes, are extremely important for controlling rodent populations. If you see one of these beautiful creatures while out jogging, hiking, or just relaxing in your garden, enjoy it and consider yourself lucky to be in the presence of a king!