Gopher Snake of the Canyonlands

Genus Pituophis

Text and Photos by Damian Fagan

 

Ssssssnake!

Sinuously spread across the cool sandstone, the black, forked tongue tests the air for prey or predators. Found throughout the Canyonlands region, the Gopher Snake (Pituophis melanoleuces) uses a variety of behavioral traits to survive in a wide range of habitats from low elevation grasslands to montane forests.

In winter Gopher Snakes retreat to communal dens, sometimes sharing the lair with rattlesnakes, whipsnakes or racers. But in the breeding season, males vigorously defend their territories against all winter den mates. The combat "dance" between male gopher snakes, which may last for an hour, has been mistaken for a courtship display between males and females. Head rearing, hissing, intertwining like Grecian wrestlers and slithering along the ground with upraised heads, the combatants focus on the task at hand, oblivious to even human on-lookers.

Adult snakes hunt small rodents, young rabbits, lizards, birds and occasionally other snakes. Slow-moving, the Gopher Snake investigates burrows, rocky crevices, even climbs trees in search of prey.

Though predators themselves, the non-poisonous Gopher Snake may become prey to Red-tailed Hawks, Kit Foxes or Coyotes. Alerted to danger, the Gopher Snake coils up, vibrates its tail and hisses a warning (Pituophis, means "phlegm serpent," in reference to this hiss). An unsure predator mistakes this behavior, and the somewhat triangular-shaped head of the Gopher Snake, for a rattlesnake and backs off from its pursuit.

Mainly diurnal, cold-blooded Gopher Snakes often change their activity patterns to become nocturnal during the intense heat of the summer. Gopher Snakes may be observed sunning on the slickrock, or drawing heat from the pavement during the day, to ready themselves for active nights.

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