Photo Credit: Mark Bailey

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Lampropeltis nigra(Stejneger)

OTHER NAMES: Guinea Snake, Say’s Kingsnake.

STATUS: Rare to uncommon.  This morph of L. nigra is a Coastal Plain inhabitant below the Fall Line. Attains its greatest population densities in Blackland Prairie. This formerly recognized subspecies (L. getula holbrooki) is similar in both habits and conservation status to eastern kingsnake. HIGH CONSERVATION CONCERN.

DESCRIPTION: A large (up to 167.5 cm [approx. 5.5 ft.] total length) snake, dark brown to black with a white, yellow, or cream-colored spot in the center of nearly all dorsal scales. For most of the body, spots give snake a salt-and-pepper appearance. However, the light spots periodically align across the back of most individuals from Alabama to create thin cross bands at regular intervals down the back. Spotted pattern continues on posterior portion of top of head, but head scales become black with yellow or cream borders towards tip of snout. Labial (lip) scales yellow or cream with broad black borders creating a series of light and dark vertical bars on side of head. Venter cream anteriorly, with an irregular series of rectangular dark markings; the dark markings expand their coverage posteriorly so that the undersurface of tail is mostly black (Wright and Wright 1957, Dundee and Rossman 1989). This color pattern unique among Alabama’s snakes, so speckled kingsnakes not likely to be confused with any other species. Males and females cannot be distinguished from each other based on external features, except for the slightly longer tails of males (46-59 subcaudal scale rows) relative to females (37-51 scale rows). There are seven subspecies of L. getula (Blaney 1977, Ernst and Barbour 1989), three of which occur in Alabama. All are of similar size. Black kingsnakes lack the central light spot on most of the dorsal scales. Eastern kingsnakes lack central light spots on the dorsal scales and have a series of thin (one to two scale rows wide) cross bands on an otherwise black dorsum. In Alabama, juveniles of all three subspecies have the yellow-banded pattern retained by adult eastern kingsnakes (Mount 1975).    

DISTRIBUTION: From eastern Texas to near the eastern boundary of Alabama and from the Gulf Coast to southern Iowa and western Illinois. In Alabama, found in all ecoregions from the Gulf Coast of Mobile County to southern Lamar County along the western edge of state (Southern Pine Plains and Hills, Buhrstone/Lime Hills, Flatwoods/Alluvial Prairie Margins, and Blackland Prairie Ecoregions) but become restricted to counties of the Blackland Prairie, Flatwoods/Alluvial Prairie Margins, and Buhrstone/Lime Hills Ecoregions (Autauga, Bullock, Dallas, Elmore, Lowndes, Macon, Montgomery, and Wilcox Counties) as the distribution extends eastward across the state (Mount 1975).

HABITAT: Thought to have a color pattern adapted to grassland areas. However, current populations largest along riverine habitats within the Blackland Prairie and Buhrstone/Lime Hills Ecoregions.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Diurnal, terrestrial animals that typically move slowly in search of food or mates. Activity generally extends from April through October. Mating occurs soon after spring emergence and females lay a single clutch of three to 24 eggs during June or July. Eggs generally deposited under debris on the ground and these eggs hatch from late August to early October. Newly emerged juveniles forage until cold weather of winter forces them to become inactive. Juveniles overwinter under exfoliating bark of dead trees or under logs. Sites used by adults to overwinter are not known, but are suspected to include deep stump holes and similar underground retreats. Constrictors, they kill vertebrate prey items by biting and wrapping their muscular bodies around them, causing cardiac arrest or suffocation. Rodents and snakes, including pit vipers, are the primary diet items of adults, but birds, lizards, and turtle eggs also are consumed. Juveniles consume nestling rodents and lizards (Dundee and Rossman 1989).

BASIS FOR STATUS CLASSIFICATION: In Alabama, populations have decreased noticeably over the past 30 years. Exact causes of decline unknown, but several factors likely have contributed to it. Primary among these are increased loss of habitat, especially associated with logging of hardwoods along watercourses, and the spread of imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta and S. richteri), a suspected predator of eggs and juveniles. Additional sources of mortality that likely contribute to the population decline are deliberate killing by humans and mortality due to vehicles.

Author: Craig Guyer and Mark A. Bailey