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The king of snakes

If you've lived in California for a while, chances are good that you've encountered a king—a kingsnake, that is! Kingsnakes are one of the most widespread snake species in the US. They are ground-dwelling snakes that often kill and eat other snakes, even venomous ones, including rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths—kingsnakes are highly resistant to their venom.

Bands, stripes, or spots

Kingsnakes have a number of pattern and color variations. The most common and easily recognized pattern is banding, usually light-colored bands on a darker background. Some California kingsnakes have stripes that run along the body from head to tail. Stripes are much less common than bands, although California kingsnakes in San Diego and Riverside counties often have them.

Sometimes the stripes are broken up into dot-dashes or even separated into spots! These patterns break up the snake's body outline so it is less noticeable to predators like hawks, eagles, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, skunks, bobcats, and even other kingsnakes.

The kingsnake’s genus name “Lampropeltis” means shiny skin.
Kingsnake hatchlings may not look like their parents or their siblings in color or pattern.

The San Diego Zoo has had kingsnakes in its collection since our earliest years. Currently, California kingsnakes and San Diego mountain kingsnakes are on exhibit in our popular Reptile House and new Reptile Walk.

You might even see a two-headed California kingsnake in Reptile Walk. This snake would have been twins, but the embryo didn’t split all the way in the egg. We feed both “twins,” one at a time, shielding the non-feeding head to protect it from the sharp fangs of its sibling. We’ve had other two-headed snakes before, a corn snake and another California kingsnake, a local species. Our first two-headed snake was a kingsnake brought to us in 1953 by L.L. Hunter, who had found him in Lemon Grove, just a few miles east of our Zoo. Named Dudley Duplex, he set a longevity record of 6.5 years for two-headed snakes.

We also have Nelson’s and Sinaloan milksnakes that serve as animal ambassadors. They live off exhibit at the Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, but you may see one out with an educator during an animal presentation, giving our guests a chance to learn more about these beautiful snakes. At the Safari Park, you may meet Arenal or Irazu, black milksnakes. At the Zoo, you may see an albino Nelson’s milksnake named Peppermint Pat.

All of our snake ambassadors take days off when feeling blue. Nope, they aren’t sad but just about to shed their skin. “Blue” refers to the state of a snake’s skin right before shedding. Snakes have a scale covering their eyeball instead of an eyelid. When the skin loosens before a shed, the “eye scale” appears to be pale blue. The snake can’t see very well when blue, so we let him or her take it easy!

The Todos Santos Island kingsnake Lampropeltis herrerae is at critical risk. Found on only one island, Isla Todos Santos, off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, the few snakes living there are often collected for the pet trade.

The State of California considers the San Diego mountain kingsnake Lampropeltis zonata pulchra to be vulnerable. California laws prevent the sale of native reptiles, but some snake collectors ignore the law and overcollect this snake.

All snakes always seem to be under attack just for being snakes. Too many people think all snakes are dangerous and should be killed on sight. Yet snakes, especially our local kingsnakes and gopher snakes, are extremely important for controlling rodent populations. If you see one of these beautiful creatures while out jogging, hiking, or just relaxing in your garden, enjoy it and consider yourself lucky to be in the presence of a king!

You can help us bring snake species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.