Na­ture’s Note­book

Scar­let Kingsnake of Florida

Bonita & Estero Magazine - - CON­TENTS -

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 williamr­cox­pho­tog­ra­

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.

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