Classification and Range
Gray-banded kingsnakes belong to the largest snake family, Colubridae. Colubridae is further divided into several subfamilies and over 300 genera; kingsnakes belong to the subfamily Colubrinae. Gray-banded kingsnakes are further classified into the genus Lampropeltis, which features at least eight other species: prairie kingsnake (L. calligaster), common kingsnake (L. getula), Mexican (or Potosi) kingsnake (L. mexicana), Sonoran Mountain kingsnake (L. pyromelana), Ruthven’s kingsnake (L. ruthveni), scarlet kingsnake (aka milksnake) (L. triangulum), California Mountain kingsnake (L. zonata) and a recently discovered species, Sinaloan Mountain (aka Webb’s) kingsnake (L. webbi).
To further complicate classification of this species, it is not complete and the taxonomic designation of many reptile species is frequently changed as part of a continuous process. Taxonomists often grant full species status to a group of animals, while others consider them a subspecies. As an example, some taxonomists identify two subspecies of gray-banded kingsnakes: L. a. alterna and L. a. blairi. Other taxonomists do not recognize any subspecies of L. alterna. Additionally confusing to taxonomists is the fact that many species and subspecies of the genus Lampropeltis have geographic ranges that overlap; this repeatedly results in hybridization between species.
Gray-banded kingsnakes live in a fairly small section of the southwestern United States and into northern Mexico. Their range includes 13 counties in western Texas and at least two counties in southern New Mexico. They also live in the northern Mexican states of Coahuila, Durango, and Nuevo Leon. It is unknown if they live in the states of Chihuahua or Zacatecas. Depending on their location, they live at elevations as low as 350 feet (107 m), all the way up to 7,546 feet (2,300 m). Even though they are common in some areas, populations are rarely concentrated and their distribution is spotty. This makes it difficult to find individuals and identify territories.
Gray-banded kingsnakes live in a variety of habitats, including rocky desert hills, canyons, arroyos, limestone ridges, piles of boulders and occasionally desert flats
Gray-banded kingsnakes have wide heads, large eyes with round pupils and an even, cylindrical body. Typical adult body length is 24 – 36 inches (61 – 91 cm). Males and females are not easy to distinguish; the only difference is that males have slightly longer tails than females. Gray-banded kingsnakes have highly variable coloration, ranging from bizarre to mundane patterns, with simple to brilliant colors. However, there are two basic pattern types, also called “morphs,” that are usually distinguished by the distribution in their range. Each morph has basic gray background coloration. The “Blairi” morph has between 12 – 18 wide orange or red bands. Each orange or red band is flanked with narrow black bands that are then possibly distinguished with white-gray lines.
In contrast, the “Alterna” morph has from 17 – 33 thicker black bands flanked or interspersed with red, orange or white bands. Between the thick black bands, there are a number (10 – 25) of thinner, partial or incomplete black bands. These “broken” bands are usually less uniform in shape and may also be flanked with equally incomplete white bands. On both morphs, the bands of color extend to and taper as they get closer to the belly; the bands do not encircle the body. Additionally, the width of the main bands differs greatly among individuals of both morphs; they may be very thick, thin or nonexistent. Lastly, the gray background on gray-banded kingsnakes can be almost white to almost black. This gray coloration is referred to as “light phase,” “medium phase,” or “dark phase.”
Length and Weight
Typical adult body length is 24 – 36 inches (61 – 91 cm).
In the wild, their life expectancy is unknown. They may live 15 years or more in captivity.
In the wild:eats mainly lizards and rodents, though occasionally may also take frogs, birds, bats, and very rarely, other snakes. At the zoo: one small rodent, once per week.
Gray-banded kingsnakes breed in late May to early June, when suitable surface temperatures exist. Before breeding, they emerge from brumation (see explanation below) and spend a 3 – 12 week period gaining weight and finding mates. Ovulation in females usually occurs after shedding and is obvious by their enlarged posterior. Males quickly find and eagerly court ovulating females. Males combat each other for the opportunity to mate with females, with bouts lasting up to five minutes. Dominant males will mate with a female almost immediately following combat. Gray-banded kingsnakes are oviparous, which means they lay eggs rather than bear live young.
After breeding, the female produces three to 15 eggs (average is six) in as short as 30 but as long as 50 days. She lays the eggs in a secluded nest. Eggs are leathery, oval-shaped and measure between 1.2 – 1.6 inches (3 – 4 cm) in length. The young hatch after 55 – 75 days (average is 62) of incubation, at an average temperature of 81°F (27°C). At birth, hatchlings are between 6 – 12 inches (15 – 30 cm) in length. Hatchlings will drink water soon after emerging from the eggs and shed their skin for the first time at 5 to 10 days of age. Gray-banded kingsnakes are sexually mature by 3 years of age, and occasionally at 2 years of age.
During their first year of life, juvenile gray-banded kingsnakes grow rapidly and more than double in size. Gray-banded kingsnakes are solitary and primarily nocturnal. It is very rare to see gray-banded kingsnakes during daylight hours, except preceding thunderstorms and near dawn or dusk. Throughout their range, gray-banded kingsnakes conduct a somewhat secretive life. They survive the extremely hot and dry climate by spending the majority of their lives underground, in the extensive networks of deep cracks and fissures beneath the land’s surface.
Gray-banded kingsnakes only emerge when conditions are suitable, occasionally coming to the surface at night to search for prey or to reproduce. In the eastern part of their range, they are active at ground level in early to late May. Following seasonal rain showers, activity peaks in early to late June and declines in late July when temperatures become too hot and dry. Daytime temperatures regularly exceed 99° Fahrenheit (37°C). In the western part of their range, they are active later in the year, during rain showers and peaking in August to early September. In both parts of their range, from early to late October, they become less active as the nights get noticeably cooler with the onset of the fall season.
The chief predators of gray-banded kingsnakes are nocturnal mammals, such as wild cats, skunks, foxes, coyotes, badgers, raccoons, peccaries and possibly weasels. Birds also hunt and kill them. Humans also often inadvertently kill gray-banded kingsnakes at night by driving their car over them. Some people consider gray-banded kingsnakes to be poor constrictors, as they rarely immobilize their prey before swallowing it. Researchers believe that under natural conditions, gray-banded kingsnakes seek out prey items by cornering them in crevices, under rocks, and in rodent burrows with limited means of escape.
A Tale of Two Snakes (East vs. West)
Discussions among collectors of gray-banded kingsnakes often involve comparing “typical” eastern range morphs to “typical” western range morphs. Although both morphs can be found throughout their range, an imaginary boundary separates the two morphs. This boundary seems to run from north-south from southeastern Brewster County in Texas towards the northern terminus of their natural range. Eastern morphs most often have very few to no alternating bands and speckling on the body, and usually have a fewer, wider bands.
On the other hand, western morphs usually have several alternating bands with a higher degree of speckling, usually around the head and neck region. Gray-banded kingsnakes in the east are also much more common, while they are much rarer in the western part of their range. Further confusing the distinction between western and eastern morphs is that researchers have found both “Blairi” and “Alterna” morphs in the same litter!
Does Brumation Equal Hibernation?
Brumation is not the same as hibernation. When referring to snakes, people often interchangeably use the words. Both brumation and hibernation reduce the level of energy and body functions an animal needs to survive. Therefore, an animal endures the colder months by using stored body fat, instead of having to continuously expend and intake new energy while searching for food. For hibernation, it is characterized by long periods of lowered inactivity with marked changes in body temperature, respiration and heart rate. True hibernating animals do not easily wake up, if at all. If awakened during hibernation, they may use their stored energy to return their body functions to normal. This means they won't have enough remaining energy to survive the rest of the winter, even after returning to a hibernating state. By this definition, very few animals are true hibernators.
However, brumation is the more correct term of how snakes survive rough weather conditions. In contrast to hibernation and when compared to normal levels of activity, an animal in brumation has less severe changes in body temperature, respiration and heart rate. In the wild, snakes brumate when the weather gets too cold to survive. During brumation, the snake's metabolism becomes lower and it remains inactive. If there is a warm day of weather, a snake can “wake up” and become active again. The snake may drink water during brumation, but it does not eat. For gray-banded kingsnakes, brumation usually lasts 10 – 12 weeks and occurs from as early as September to as late as April. During this time, surface temperatures are usually 50 – 55°F (10 – 13°C) and researchers have no records in the wild of activity for these months.
Location at the Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo's gray-banded kingsnakes are currently kept off exhibit. Zoo staff use gray-banded kingsnakes in various educational programs presented on zoo grounds. However, other species of native (U.S.) reptiles can be seen in the Day Exhibit. They include the Louisiana pine snake, rosy boa, corn snake and Gila monster, as well as different kinds of rattlesnakes: the northern blacktail and Washington state's only dangerously venomous snake, the Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
Gray-banded kingsnakes are not an endangered species. Researchers and collectors once believed that they were quite rare, but now they are considered to be one of the most common snakes in their range. Due to their relatively small size, calm dispositions and astounding array of pattern variations, the gray-banded kingsnake is very desirable and singled out for the commercial pet trade. As a result, reptile enthusiasts, private collectors, commercial collectors and breeders rigorously pursue gray-banded kingsnakes in the wild. Generally, gray-banded kingsnakes rarely attack humans and are not venomous. The overcollection of gray-banded kingsnakes may be a significant threat to their continued survival in the wild. The gray-banded kingsnake is under varying degrees of protection in all parts of its range in the United States.
In Texas, collecting has recently been controlled and a special license is now required. In New Mexico, the gray-banded kingsnake is officially listed by the state as an endangered species and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department may develop a recovery plan for it. Additionally, gray-banded kingsnakes are listed as threatened in Republic of Mexico but receive no formal protection. Interestingly, public lands offer more kingsnake collecting opportunities, while protected or private lands tend to reduce collection of these snakes.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save endangered species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Please do not buy products made from wild animal parts. Contact your elected representatives and express your views about conservation of endangered species and wild habitats.
To learn other ways you can help, contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org about supporting conservation programs at the zoo. Discover more about Gray-banded kingsnakes by contacting the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles at http://www.ssarherps.org, or the American Federation of Herpetoculture: AFH, PO Box 300067, Escondido, CA 92030-0067. Find other groups and information online at www.parcplace.org, the website of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, or by searching the keyword "herpetology." Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and habitats by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Reptiles as Pets
We do not recommend reptiles as pets for most people as they require very specialized diets and environments. Woodland Park Zoo also receives hundreds of requests each year to take former pet iguanas, boas and other reptiles but we cannot accept these due to space, health and unknown backgrounds. If you need to find a reptile or amphibian a new home, we suggest you contact a local herpetological group in your area. In the Puget Sound region, it is the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society. Anyone interested in owning a reptile should learn about its needs and be sure it was captive-bred. Read more about keeping a reptile by visiting: http://www.kingsnake.com/ballpythonguide/pets.htm.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Connant, Roger, and Collins, Joseph T. 1991. (Third Edition). A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians. (Eastern and Central North America -- Peterson Field Guide Series). Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA.
Degenhardt, William G. Painter, Charles W., and Price, Andrew H. 1996. Amphibians & Reptiles of New Mexico. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM.
Henderson, Doug and Dennis Paulson. “Snakes of North America.” Accessed January 25, 2008 at http://www.pitt.edu/~mcs2/herp/SoNA.html.
Markel, Donald G. 1990. Kingsnakes and Milksnakes. T.F.H. Publications. Inc., Ltd., Neptune City, N.J.
"The Alterna Page." Accessed February 15, 2008 at: http://www.kingsnake.com/alterna/
"Sierra Herps."Accessed April 3, 2008 at: http://www.sierraherps.com/