Scarlet Kingsnake of Florida
Acase of mistaken identity could be all it takes to threaten a snake. Despite some opinions to the contrary, most snakes are harmless and useful, but many are killed just because they are snakes or look like a dangerous species.
For example, the scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides) is nonvenomous but mimics the venomous eastern coral snake
(Micrurus fulvius). Yellow and red are the two traffic-light warning colors that are used to alert those who encounter the coral snake. If these two colors touch (red next to yellow), it is a coral snake. If these colors are separated by black, it is a scarlet kingsnake. The scarlet kingsnake also has a red nose, while the coral snake has a black nose. It may be easier to distinguish between the two by remembering the ditty rhyme, “Red against black is a friend of Jack, and red against yellow will kill a fellow.”
When identifying snake species, you also need to consider the snake’s range, activity pattern (day or night) and habitat preference. Florida has more than 80 species of snakes. This much diversity is a result of the many different habitats found in Florida, which covers 58,560 square miles. These habitats are grouped into terrestrial, mesic and aquatic. They are the result of climate, human influences and geological history. All native snakes are ecologically important, and they have interesting life histories. Unfortunately, many snakes and other reptiles are threatened or endangered because of the loss of habitat and persecution.
The scarlet kingsnake is found throughout peninsular Florida but seldom in the lower keys. Outside of Florida it ranges from North Carolina to Tennessee and eastern Louisiana. It can be found in well-drained pine flatwoods and other woodlands where it may reside in stumps, snags and fallen trees. Shane Johnson, expert herpetologist of Fort Myers, says it often frequents trash and junk piles, and in south Florida it is partial to stands of the exotic Australian pine.
The medium-size scarlet kingsnake is generally only 14 to 18 inches long, though some can reach 27 to 29 inches in length. It is most active after dark and can be seen crossing unimproved roads and highways at night. It can also be observed crossing the forest floor or ascending a rough
barked tree at night.
This is predominantly a docile snake but can pose a raised “S” shape striking position if it feels threatened. As with most snakes, the scarlet kingsnake is more alert when hungry than when sated. It preys on smaller snakes, lizards, skinks and small mice.
Only a few snakes, such as the coachwhip, indigo snake and racers, use eyesight to hunt prey and have the ability to observe moving objects at 328 yards or more. These snakes have a wide field of vision, but their clarity is poor. Most snakes such as the scarlet kingsnake, however, hunt primarily by smell. Its flicking forked tongue picks up chemical particles in the air or on a scent trail on the ground. When a snake pulls its tongue into its mouth, its surface rubs against the sensory tissue of the Jacobson’s organ, an auxiliary olfactory sense organ. This is how the scarlet kingsnake and other snakes smell prey or follow the trail of a potential mate.
Snakes do not have external ears or eardrums but are sensitive to vibrations from the substrate, especially felt through their jawbones. Snakes can be egg-layers (oviparous) or live bearers (ovoviviparous). The oviparous scarlet kingsnake lays two to eight eggs in moisture-retaining tree needles or sawdust and decomposing logs or stumps. Hatchlings are 5 to 6 inches long and hatch approximately two months after incubation.
A conservation ethic of not harming snakes is needed for all snakes, especially the scarlet kingsnake, which suffers from its mistaken identity with the coral snake. The environmental awareness that came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s focused mainly on air and water pollution and the threatened extinction of fish, birds and mammals. Little thought was given to reptiles, particularly snakes. Snake populations are being reduced by habitat loss, pollution, overcollecting for the pet trade, introduction of exotic species and contemptuous killing of harmless and beneficial snakes.
You can help by having trash and junk piles removed from unlawful dumping areas or your property and by not harming snakes. You can also help by supporting local, state and national parks that preserve and maintain large areas of land, protecting habitats that are needed for the survival and well being of many native Florida snakes. William R. Cox has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.
A conservation ethic of not harming snakes is needed for all snakes, especially the scarlet kingsnake, which suffers from its mistaken identity with the coral snake.