Common Kingsnake

Lampropeltis getula

There is nothing common about the common kingsnake. With the kaleidoscope of colors and skin patterns the common kingsnakes would rate high on any list of "best dressed" among the serpents. With their choice of prey, they might also rank high among the gourmet diners of the serpent clan.

Appearance and Anatomy of Common King Snakes

Colors and patterns: vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, tans, black and white arranged in bands, rings, stripes, patches, spots and speckles, with the exact design depending on the species, subspecies, individual and locale.

Length: typically 2 to 4 feet, rarely 7 feet, hatchlings 8 to 13 inches.

Head: somewhat wider than the neck, plate-like top scales, bulging eyes.

Body Scales: smooth and glossy, giving rise to the scientific species name "lampropeltis," which means "shiny skin".


Hunting Attributes: powerful body, which the kingsnake uses to suffocate its prey by constriction

Common kingsnakes, which occur in a rainbow of polished colors, rate near the top of the most beautiful snakes of the world. For instance, the Sonora mountain kingsnake of Arizona has narrow red and white rings separated by thin black rings. The common kingsnake of California typically has broad dark bands separated by cream-colored bands. The scarlet kingsnake of the southeastern United States has broad red rings and narrow yellow rings separated by thin black rings.

Superficially, some common kingsnakes such as the Sonora mountain kingsnake resemble the venomous coral snakes, but the kingsnake's red rings are bordered by black rings and the coral snake's red rings, by yellow rings. Remember the old saws: "Red touches black, you're o.k., Jack," and "If red touches yellow, you're a dead fellow."

Modern Distribution and Habitat

The kingsnake is comprised of eight species, including the common kingsnake. The kingsnake has the largest natural geographical range of any land snake. It occupies an array of habitats from southern Canada to northern South America. The common kingsnake, with a number of subspecies, occurs across the United States and northern and central Mexico, from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast to the Gulf coast.

Exceptionally adaptable for a reptile, the common kingsnake makes itself at home in a diversity of habitats, ranging from desert basins to riverine wetlands, from valleys to rolling hills, from coastal estuaries to grasslands, from shrublands to forested mountain foothills. Secretive, they often seclude themselves in dense vegetation, under rocks and beneath fallen logs and inside rodent burrows. They usually keep to the ground's surface, but they can climb swiftly into brush or swim efficiently in ponds and quiet streams.

Kingsnake on leavesHunting Habits and Diet

Hunting during the day, especially around sunrise and sunset, or through cool summer nights, the common kingsnake will prey on just about any creature that it can overpower with its constricting coils. It feeds, most famously, on other snakes as well as on lizards, small turtles, frogs, birds and small mammals. It also eats the eggs of reptiles and birds. Equipped with an enzyme the breaks down the venom from poisonous snakes, minimizing the damage it suffers from bites it will eat rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouth water moccasins and even coral snakes. Its practice of eating venomous snakes makes it exceptional among reptiles.

Self Defense

Common kingsnakes suffer predation by birds such as hawks and roadrunners, by animals such as badgers and raccoons, and reptiles such as other snakes. Although non-poisonous, it has several defenses.

  • Angry hiss to bluff attacker.
  • Vibrate its tail amidst dry leaves to mimic a rattlesnakes rattle.
  • Roll into ball and play dead.
  • Strike and bite (non-venomous).
  • Discharge a evil-smelling musk to discourage attacker.
  • Smear fecal matter on enemy.


The common kingsnake is recognized - probably by a chemical cue - as a threat by the rattlesnake, which assumes a distinctive, looping body posture to try to ward off an attack.

Life Cycle

Typically, common kingsnakes mate from early to late spring, following an elaborate courtship ritual that involves some romantic neck nibbling between the couple. Competing males may battle for the honors. A few weeks later, the female lays a clutch of 4 to 20 eggs, usually in an abandoned rodent burrow, a dead log, or even loose soil. She immediately leaves her brood to its own devices. Hatchlings, 8 to 13 inches in length, emerge from their eggs within some 7 to 12 weeks. They reach sexual maturity in 3 to 4 years. Some species may live 20 years or more.

Kingsnake on rocks

Secretive, kingsnakes often seclude themselves in dense vegetation, under rocks and beneath fallen logs and inside rodent burrows.

A Few Kingsnake Facts

  • Kingsnakes earned their name because they prey on and eat other snakes.
  • Kingsnakes are one of the most popular and collected species of snakes due to their adaptability as pets and ease of care.
  • Kingsnakes are immune to pit viper venom. ( Coral snakes, rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads.)

Video of a Kingsnake

Taxonomy of the King Snake

Kingdom -- Animalia -- All animals
Phylum -- Chordata -- Reptiles, mammals, birds, amphibians, fish
Class -- Reptilia -- Snakes, lizards, amphibians, crocodiles, turtles, birds
Order -- Squamata -- Snakes, lizards, amphibians
Family -- Colubridae -- Snakes with large symmetrical head plates and without hollow fangs; includes about 70 percent of the world's species, most of them non-poisonous
Genus -- Lampropeltis -- Kingsnakes and milksnakes
Species -- Lampropeltis getula -- Common kingsnake

More Snakes

Common Questions About Kingsnakes

Are kingsnakes poisonous?

Do kingsnakes bite?

Do kingsnakes make good pets?

By Jay W. Sharp



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