Gopher snakes are muscular, long serpents that can be intimidating because of their size; however, but there’s little to fear because they are nonvenomous. In fact, they are important to keeping the rodent population in check and maintaining their local ecosystems, according to Stanford University.
“Gopher snakes are members of the genus Pituophis, which also includes pine snakes,” said Sara Viernum, Wisconsin-based founder of The Wandering Herpetologist. Their specific name is catenifer, which means “chain bearing,” in Latin and refers to the splotched pattern on their backs. Their common name, gopher snake, refers to their taste for gophers.
“Gopher snakes are large, powerful snakes,” Viernum told Live Science. “They typically reach lengths of 36-96 inches [3 to 8 feet].” Compared to other snakes of the same size, they have relatively large eyes. Gopher snakes have relatively large and distinct heads with narrow necks. They often have two dark lines on their faces that go from the top of their head around either side of their eyes.
Gopher snakes’ coloring can depend on their subspecies and location. Often their colors blend in with local vegetation. They range from cream to light brown and have dark blotches on their backs and smaller dark spots along their sides, said Viernum. They generally have light-colored bellies, sometimes with spots.
Gopher snakes are sexually alike, with both males and females being around the same size. They have keeled (ridged) scales.
Confusion with Rattlesnakes
“Many people mistake gopher snakes for rattlesnakes,” said Viernum. Both have splotchy dark markings on their backs, yellow or brownish coloration and large heads. They are both known to hiss loudly, vibrate their tails and flatten their heads when threatened, Viernum said.
This is a defense mechanism, designed to ward of potential predators. “This type of mimicry, where a harmless species mimics a harmful species, is known as Batesian mimicry,” said Bill Heyborne, a herpetologist and professor of biology at Southern Utah University. While it may be helpful in keeping predators away, Batesian mimicry can cause problems for gopher snakes. Humans often kill them thinking they are venomous rattlers. Viernum offered some ways to tell gopher snakes from rattlesnakes:
- Gopher snakes are typically longer than rattlesnakes. They are also slimmer and not has heavy-bodied as a rattlesnake.
- When not flattened out, a gopher snake’s head is narrow and rounded.
- Like the majority of nonvenomous snakes in the United States, gopher snakes have rounded pupils and not vertical, cat-like pupils of rattlesnakes.
- Gopher snakes also do not possess the heat-sensing facial pits like rattlesnakes and other pit vipers.
- Gopher snakes do not have rattles on the end of their tales, but this may be hard to determine when they are rapidly vibrating their tails.
If you are unsure of the species, Viernum suggests leaving any snake alone. You don’t want to risk injuring yourself or the snake. Gopher snakes are nonvenomous but can still inflict a painful bite.
According to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web (ADW), gopher snakes range from South Central and Western Canada to Northern Mexico. They can be found from southern British Columbia to Saskatchewan, south through Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and West Texas and west to the Pacific coast.
Given their wide distribution, gopher snakes can thrive in many types of habitats. They can live in woods and forests, deserts, rocky bluffs, prairies, agricultural fields, shrublands and thickets, according to ADW.
Gopher snakes live in dens or underground burrows, spending up to 90 percent of their time there, according to a 2003 article in the journalCopeia. In the summer, however, gopher snakes sometimes spend so much time sunning themselves on warm rocks that they get skin cancer, according to Stanford University.
Gopher snakes are generally solitary creatures. The 2003 study in Copeia revealed that they have home territories. These are small — less than a quarter of a mile — but the snakes remain faithful to them for years.
Gopher snakes are primarily diurnal (active during the day) though are sometimes seen moving and hunting at night. They are good climbers and burrowers, said Viernum.
Foxes, red-tailed hawks and coyotes are the most common predators of gopher snakes. Larger king snakes sometimes eat them, too. Because of their coloring gopher snakes are usually camouflaged when in vegetation or rocks. Therefore, they are usually caught when sunning themselves out in the open. “When threatened, they will produce a very loud hiss, vibrate their tails, and even flatten their heads,” Viernum said.
Gopher snakes often sun themselves on roads, which puts them at risk for being run over by vehicles, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. They like to stretch out completely on the road. If threatened, they will coil up and adopt an aggressive stance rather than slither off the road to safety.
Dietary and hunting habits
“Gopher snakes are nonvenomous constrictors,” said Viernum. This means that they squeeze their prey to death. There are some common misconceptions about how constricting works, said Heyborne. One is that constrictors crush or break the bones of their prey. Another is that they suffocate it, squeezing the prey’s lungs too tightly to work. “It turns out that the squeezing overwhelms the circulatory system,” explained Heyborne. “Blood cannot get to the brain, and the animal dies within seconds due to ischemia.”
Viernum said that gopher snakes feed on small mammals, birds, bird eggs, lizards and of course gophers. They actively seek out prey and often follow small mammals down their runways or burrows.
Reproduction and lifespan
Gopher snakes mate during July and August. It is the only time of year they socialize. Females emit a chemical through their skin that draws males to them and stimulates mating behaviors. Males will mate with as many females as they can each year. Males sometimes engage in ritualistic wrestling for the female, according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Gopher snakes are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs. Females sometimes lay two batches (called clutches) of eggs per season. Eggs incubate in nests, which are sometimes communal with other gopher snakes. After a 65-75 day incubation period, 2 to 24 young hatch and are instantly independent. Gopher snakes have no parental involvement after laying eggs. Babies are born 12-18 inches (30 to 45 cm) long and can be up to 3 feet (92 cm) long after one year, according to Stanford University.
Female gopher snakes reach sexual maturity between 3 and 5 years of age. Males reach it between 1 and 2 years of age. In the wild, they live up to 15 years. They have been known to live up to 33 years in captivity, according to ADW.
The taxonomy of the gopher snake, according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System is:
Kingdom: Animalia Subkingdom: Bilateria Infrakingdom: Deuterostomia Phylum: Chordata Subphylum: Vertebrata Infraphylum: Gnathostomata Superclass: Tetrapoda Class: Reptilia Order: Squamata Suborder: Serpentes Infraorder: Alethinophidia Family: Colubridae Genus & species: Pituophis catenifer Subspecies:
- Pituophis catenifer affinis – Sonoran Gopher Snake
- Pituophis catenifer annectens – San Diego Gopher Snake
- Pituophis catenifer catenifer – Pacific Gopher Snake
- Pituophis catenifer deserticola – Great Basin Gopher Snake
- Pituophis catenifer pumilis – Santa Cruz Gopher Snake
- Pituophis catenifer sayi – Bullsnake
Conservation & endangerment status
Gopher snakes’ population is relatively stable. They are listed as “Least Concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, and they are not on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species List.
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Jessie Szalay is a contributing writer to FSR Magazine. Prior to writing for Live Science, she was an editor at Living Social. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from George Mason University and a bachelor's degree in sociology from Kenyon College.