Lee Richardson Zoo

California Kingsnake

Order:  Squamata – snakes and lizards

Family:  Colubridae – nonvenomous, egg laying snakes

Scientific Name:  Lampropeltis getula californiae



DescriptionThe California kingsnake is usually 3 feet long, but can sometimes reach 4 feet in length.  There are two different pattern phases:  banded (with thick bands circling the body) or striped (with thin longitudinal stripes).  The two phases look so different that they were once thought to be two different species.  The color is usually black or brown, with white, cream, or yellow stripes or bands.  Some individuals may have a speckled pattern.  The scales are smooth and shiny – the genus name Lampropeltis means “shiny skin”.  The head is only slightly wider than the neck.  Like other snakes, they lack eyelids, having a clear scale covering each eye instead.  This is a subspecies of the common kingsnake.


Home Range: Baja California, north to Oregon and southern Utah and east to Arizona


Habitat Type:  Found in a variety of habitats including rocky outcrops, semi-desert areas, brushy hillsides, and pine forests


Reproduction:  Kingsnakes breed in the spring and early summer.  During mating, the male crawls along the female’s back and bites her neck to hold her steady.  The female lays 6-25 eggs in a rotting log or an underground chamber.  Incubation lasts 2 months or slightly longer.  At hatching, the young are approximately 12 inches long, and different pattern phases can be seen hatching from the same clutch of eggs.


Diet in the Wild:  Primarily other snakes, (including venomous); also mice, birds, and lizards.


Diet in the Zoo:  Mice


General Information:  The California kingsnake is not completely immune to rattlesnake venom, as popularly believed, but it does have anti-toxins in its blood that allow it to withstand very high doses of the venom.  Kingsnakes are very valuable in controlling populations of venomous snakes and rodents. 
Kingsnakes are usually crepuscular, but in hot climates they may become nocturnal in the summer.  They are terrestrial, but they swim well and may climb into shrubs or low trees in search of birds and eggs.  Although they are non-venomous, they sometimes vibrate their tail as a bluff.  They avoid predators by hiding under logs or stones.  When threatened, they bite vigorously and sometimes try to smear the predator with feces.  Although they defend themselves fiercely in the wild, captive kingsnakes are usually very docile. 
The bold black and white patterns of normally colored individuals create an optical illusion when the snake moves quickly.  As this species occurs in two pattern forms (called pattern polymorphism), it is believed that this helps the predator in capturing prey more readily.  For example, if the prey animal is conditioned to avoid a snake with rings or bands, it may ignore the same species with longitudinal stripes, giving the predator an advantage. 


Conservation Status:  This species is common, and breeds well in captivity.  California and Arizona have laws prohibiting collections of wild kingsnakes for the pet trade, which could quickly decimate their populations. 


Predators:  Birds of prey and mammals



Animal:  The Definitive Visual Guide to the World’s Wildlife.  2001.  D. Burnie and D.E. Wilson.  D.K. Publishing, New York.  p. 388.

The Completely Illustrated Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians for the Terrarium.  1988.  F.J. Obst, K. Richter, and U. Jacob.  T.F.H. Publications.  pp. 476-481.

The Encyclopedia of Snakes.  1995.  Chris Mattison.  Checkmark Books, An imprint of Facts on File, Inc.  New York, NY.  pp. 119-125.

Living Snakes of the World.  1987.  J.M. Mehrtens.  Sterling Publishing Co., New York.  p. 121.

Phoenix Zoo website

Utah’s Hogle Zoo website