San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Field Guide
Sonoran Gophersnake, photographed by Jim Melli, 1983, Cochise Co, Arizona

Pituophis catenifer
Gophersnake

COLUBRIDAE

The name Pituophis comes from the Greek pityos meaning the pine and ophis meaning snake, presumably in reference to the pine forest habitat preferred by the species on the east coast of the United States. On the east coast, the related P. melanoleucus are called Pinesnakes. The name catenifer, from the Latin catena, meaning connected by chains, in reference to its dorsal blotches, which appear to be linked.

Description

This is the longest of the snakes in the region, reaching a length of up to -- and sometimes more than -- six feet (two meters). Its body, however, is relatively slender, and its head is proportionately small.

The body pattern consists of a yellow background with brown to black dorsal blotches, usually darker near the head. This combination of color and pattern helps the snake blend in with its natural background. Gophersnakes have keeled scales, giving them a low-luster appearance that makes their appearance even more cryptic.

Subspecies: There has been as many as five subspecies recognized: the Sonoran Gophersnake (P. c. affinis); the San Diego Gophersnake (P. c. annectens); the Bullsnake (P. c. sayi); the Los Coronados Island Gophersnake (P. c. coronalis); and the San Martin Island Gophersnake (P. c. fulginatus). The two insular endemics may be raised to full species with further study.

Range and Habitat

The Gophersnake ranges throughout most of the western United States, Canada, and Mexico. It extends only into the northernmost portions of Baja California.

It is found from the coast to the foothills and mountains. This snake is most active during the day, and may be seen in a variety of habitats, especially in the open areas of fields, meadows, and coastal sage scrub.

Natural History

When Gophersnakes become agitated, they often vibrate their tail. When this occurs in loose, dry vegetation, the resulting sound resembles that of a rattlesnake. This behavior, along with the dorsal blotches that might be mistaken for a rattlesnake's diamond pattern, often results in the snake's being killed by a frightened person!

Gophersnakes are generally not aggressive, but when disturbed they display the defensive behavior described at the right. Another interesting behavior of this snake is the loud hissing sound it produces when startled. This occurs when it recoils from an outstretched position, which causes its lungs to rapidly expel air.

As its name implies, Gophersnakes feed almost exclusively of small rodents, although they have been known to raid bird nests for eggs and sometimes the birds themselves. More typical fare, however, would be gophers, kangaroo rats, white-footed mice, pocket mice, and small ground squirrels.

Gophersnakes are constrictors. They kill their prey by grabbing the animal and throwing two or three coils around it. The force of constriction prevents the prey from breathing, and it usually dies within seconds. The snake can then relax its grip and swallow the animal head-first.

Mating occurs in late spring or early summer. Eight to twelve eggs, up to three inches in length, are laid in midsummer. Incubation takes slightly over two months, with the 16-inch (40-centimeter) young hatching from their eggs in mid-September to early October.

Conservation Status

There has been no proposed conservation plans. The Gophersnake appears to be able to coexist with humans. This may be, in part, because many people understand the benefit the snake provides in controlling rodent populations. Although they may be frequently found near human habitation, the natural habitat of the snakes is the canyons and meadows of the area. If these habitats are removed, local survival of the Gophersnake may become threatened.


Text by Dick Schwenkmeyer.
Photo of Sonoran Gophersnake by Jim Melli, 1983.

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