By John S. Powers, Area Wildlife Biologist
Eastern coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum flagellum), also known as “whip snakes,” are nonvenomous snakes belonging to the family Colubridae. This family contains the majority of living snake species that are essentially found worldwide. The coachwhip is one of the largest snakes in North America. Adults average 4-6 feet long, but have been known to reach 8 ½ feet in length. Coachwhips are slender bodied snakes relative to their length.
The head and neck is usually black with the body gradually lightening to a tan colored tail. Some coachwhips are uniformly tan or cream colored, and a melanistic (all black) phase occurs as well. Coachwhips’ bellies are the same color as their backs, but sometimes have two rows of black dots running lengthwise of the body. They have large heads with strong jaws. The scales and color pattern on coachwhips’ long slim tails have the appearance of a braided whip. It is from this characteristic that coachwhips get their common name.
These snakes are extremely fast (believed to be the fastest in North America) and are good climbers as well. When disturbed, they usually race away on the ground or climb into bushes or small trees. Sometimes before fleeing they will vibrate the tip of their tail among the leaves or other ground litter making a sound similar to that of a rattlesnake. If they are cornered, coachwhips will strike repeatedly (often at their attackers face) and bite strongly if given the opportunity. Though they are aggressive in defense, these snakes will not chase a person down and “whip them to death” as a common legend suggests.
Seven subspecies of coachwhips are recognized and as a group, are widely distributed across the southern United States. While there is some disagreement among herpetologists regarding the distribution and definition of these subspecies, it is certain that only one, M. f. flagellum, the eastern coachwhip, lives in Alabama. Coachwhips may be found statewide with the possible exception of a narrow band north of the Tennessee River. Though once relatively common statewide, numbers of coachwhips are believed to be declining. Some populations in northern parts of Alabama may have already disappeared. The eastern coachwhip is considered a species of concern in Alabama, and is protected by law.
Coachwhips are most often found in dry, relatively open areas. Across their range they are found in a variety of habitats, but in Alabama, coachwhips have been most closely associated with upland habitats made up of open grassy woodland intermixed with weedy fields. Scrubby, frequently burned, pine habitats in south Alabama now seem to support the highest numbers of coachwhips. Additionally, coachwhips frequently use gopher tortoise burrows as shelter if available.
Coachwhips are active mainly during the day, prowling through the woods and fields they inhabit. These snakes seem to have an exceptional tolerance to heat, remaining active during the hottest parts of the hottest days of the year, even in desert or dune habitats. Coachwhips are opportunistic predators. They readily feed on grasshoppers, cicadas, other large insects, lizards, other snakes (including venomous species), birds, and small mammals. They frequently hunt with their heads raised well above the ground. This posture likely makes it easier for them to spot the movements of their quarry. Coachwhips capture prey with their powerful jaws, which have rows of tiny inward slanting teeth. They do not constrict (squeeze) their prey to kill it, but simply grab it and eat it alive. Coachwhips sometimes beat their prey against the ground or other hard surface to stun it before feeding. Because coachwhips are very active, they must feed much more frequently than do other more sedentary snakes.
Coachwhips lay eggs with clutches averaging 10-16 in number. Mating takes place in the spring and females lay their eggs in June or July. Eggs are usually laid in rotting vegetation or logs and hatch after 6-11 weeks. Newly hatched coachwhips typically are 12-16 inches long and receive no known parental care. Young coachwhips are lighter colored than adults and have a pattern of dark bands across their backs. This banding pattern fades as it gets closer to the tail, and gradually disappears completely with age.
Large, fast, and unique in appearance, coachwhips are impressive examples of Mother Nature’s artistry. Precisely adapted to life in often-hostile environments, coachwhips are reminders of the intricacy of Mother Nature’s web. The Eastern coachwhips are predators to be feared by creatures not wanting to become their next meal. Man (and woman, for that matter), however, can breathe easy, walking the woods and fields in safety, because WE are not on the menu.