Saturday, July 2, 2011

Scales on My Sleeve

A California mountain kingsnake in hand.
I found a California mountain kingsnake while checking the main springbox at the ranch.  As the rainy season ends, we've unclogged pipes, replaced filters and sealed a leaking water tank.  The spring slows down to a trickle in the summer, so its unnerving to start the dry season without a full water tank.  When we found a valve mistakenly closed in our water system, I started systematically checking all the essential parts.

The Memorial Day weekend gave me plenty of time to check and recheck the system.  I spent three quiet days at the Dipper Ranch mowing the shoulder-high grass, ripping out newly-bolted thistles, and calming my sad heart.  There was a tragic accident a few days earlier in this small community where news travels fast and this time the bad news was jolting.  I couldn't handle hearing people talk about the accident.  I just wanted to fix things around the ranch and untangle my confused feelings.

Pressed into a gap in the springbox lid, this California mountain kingsnake simulates one of their favorite places to safely soak up heat - cracks in rocks.  Irresponsible collectors have been known to blast or pry open rock crevices to capture kingsnakes, and destroy a microhabitat in the act.
When first peering into the depth of the springbox, I spotted a large treefrog perched on the refugia log.  In an earlier round of water system repairs, I installed the log as a life raft in the watery depths of the springbox.  Treefrogs have suction-cupped toes that allow them to go just about anywhere, so I was confident the treefrog was safe in its chosen echo chamber.  Before closing the springbox, I looked up at the lid I held tilted over my head and noticed shiny orange and black colors tucked between the corrugated metal top and its wooden frame.  I froze and looked again.  It was not the faded orange and black nylon rope I use as a handle to lift the lid.  It was a brightly banded snake with a small head.   I knew there was only one local snake that had these colors - the rarely seen California mountain kingsnake.

On a California mountain kingsnake, a triad is a red band surround by two black bands.  Notice that most scales are only one color and that creates a jagged edge to the bands, whereas other scales are bicolor.
Worldwide, many different species of snakes sport black and white bands, sometimes with added red bands.  On the California mountain kingsnake, the head is black and then the bands repeat a pattern of white-black-red-black all the way down the body.  Each black-red-black set is called a triad.  Sometimes, a black band is expanded so that it partially or wholly covers the red band.  The number of triads, how many are interrupted, and the location of the first white band behind the jaw have been used to determine different subspecies of California mountain kingsnakes, however, recent genetic studies indicate these color-based distinctions may not be completely accurate.

Red, black and white California mountain kingsnake on left, black and white California kingsnake on right.
I have only seen a California mountain kingsnake two other times.  Once smashed on Highway 9 but with such bright colors, there was no mistaking what it was even at 35 miles per hour.  Another time, I invited our local wildlife expert  to talk to our crew about snakes so they would feel more comfortable around and perhaps less inclined to kill them.  A reptile enthusiast, Mr. Cascabeles brought living examples with him and as the hostess-ecologist, I was promptly draped with snakes.  At that time, I was still timid about snakes, but I couldn't hesitate when I was trying to convince the guys that snakes have their ecological place and we shouldn't be killing them.  I was nervous but particularly mesmerized by the California mountain kingsnake he wrapped around my arm, and its close cousin, the black and white banded California kingsnake reaching for the other arm.

At the ranch, I wasn't sure if the California mountain kingsnake could get out of the springbox, so I closed it and went up to the barn for my snake kit.  Upon returning 15 minutes later, both treefrog and snake were gone.  Leaning far into the springbox, I finally spotted the kingsnake tucked into a dark corner where I could not reach it.  I assumed it had just snacked on the treefrog and might leave the springbox after digesting its meal.  I knew I would be checking the water system frequently during the weekend and hoped the kingsnake would reappear as a welcomed distraction from upset thoughts about the accident.

Birds raised in captivity avoid attacking red-black-white banded snakes.  A University of California at Santa Cruz student is studying whether regional differences in coloration of mountain kingsnakes are related to migratory patterns over mountain ranges of predatory birds such as hawks, kites and eagles.
A banded coloration may provide a snake either camouflage or mimicry advantages.  Transverse bands of contrasting color break up the outline of a snake and make it hard to recognize its long shape especially against an irregular background.  Even when the snake is moving, the bands of alternating color flicker so that it is difficult to detect its direction of movement.  The camouflage can either protect the snake from detection by predators, or allow it to sneak up on prey.

On the other hand, bright colors, especially of red, black and light colored bands, may mimic the coloration of venomous coralsnakes, and dissuade predators from attacking similar looking nonvenomous snakes.  Throughout the Americas, there are many different species of coralsnakes which each have a different color pattern to its scales.  Usually there are also local kingsnake and other nonvenomous snake species that have colors and patterns nearly matching those of the local venomous coralsnakes. This is considered a classic example of Batesian mimicry in ecology.

All weekend as I was mowing, at every corner of the farmyard there were birds singing or feeding greedy juveniles.  While I was hanging clothes, I saw the pair of ash-throated flycatchers that had already raised one brood, carrying new nest material and copulating on a branch above the hollow in the old buckeye tree.  The black-tailed does were browsing only short distances from the willow thickets or the tangle behind the wood shed, suggesting that they had newborn fawns bedded down.  The rose bushes finally had blossoms - a sure sign that the deer were busy with maternal duties.  Witnessing the vigorous signs of wildlife while I couldn't stop thinking about the accident made me feel angry.  Could all this living just stop for awhile?

I returned to the springbox the next morning, and the kingsnake was tucked under the corrugated metal top again.  I propped up the lid with a stick, held the net below, and tried to yank the snake out with my  snake tongs.  It crooked its head and engaged its constrictor muscles around the frame and I couldn't budge it.  I reminded myself that California mountain kingsnakes are not venomous or harmful to humans, and there are no coralsnakes or other venomous red-black-white banded snakes in California, so I had no reason to fear.  I put down the tongs and grasped a coil with my fingers and slowly the kingsnake unwound its 28-inch long body.

California mountain kingsnakes are so calm, I'm not sure they realize their bright colors are supposed to elicit alarm.
In my hands, it was a calm and lovely snake.  I carried it home to take photos before I released it.  Holding the quiet creature, I was finally able to talk about the accident.  "I don't usually wear my heart on my sleeve and I didn't even know the man," I told the snake.  "But I cried in front of a room of people and even the ones with badges over their hearts could not comfort me.  And now I have the most difficult writing assignment of my life.  I need to write a sympathy card to people I will never meet, who speak a different language, and who carry most of the pain."  The kingsnake wound its colors round and round my arm.  "I am so sad," I confessed, "that is all I can come up with."

Definitely not camouflaged in our local grasslands, this California mountain kingsnake of a coastal range population has one interrupted triad on the rear third of its body.
When it was time, I released the kingsnake at the Newt Pond where there are plenty of treefrogs to eat.  I laughed for the first time in days as it wound its bright curves through the grass - clearly its colors do not serve as camouflage in this environment.  Although there are no venomous coralsnakes where California kingsnakes live now, perhaps their ancestors evolved together somewhere and I was watching the borrowed warning labels that persisted long after the danger disappeared.

In all the time it took me to capture, photograph, and move this California mountain kingsnake, it didn't try to bite me at all, despite its warning colors.  The water tank is full now and we are ready for the dry season.  When I checked the springbox a few days ago, I had another conversation with the now absent  kingsnake.  "I wrote a simple and sincere sympathy card and my friends helped me translate it into Spanish.  Today, I'm a little less sad."  After being sad and angry and upset so many times in the last few weeks, I am considering whether our feelings are an anciently evolved mechanism of either camouflage or mimicry.  I might have to wait many years before I see another California mountain kingsnake to help me figure that out.

So shiny, it's hard to even hide its dark nose.

See also:

California mountain kingsnake, Lampropeltis zonata
California kingsnake, Lampropeltis getula californiae
Sierran treefrog, Pseudacris sierra

Nafis, Gary.  California Mountain Kingsnakes. California Herps.

Stebbins, Robert C.  A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Co, 2003.

St. John, Alan.  Reptiles of the Northwest.  Lone Pine Publishing, 2002.

Ernst, Carl H., and George R. Zug.  Snakes in Question.  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Greene, Harry W., and Roy W. McDiarmid. Coral Snake Mimicry: Does It Occur? Science, September 1981, Volume 213, pp. 1207-1212.

Rodriguez-Robles, Javier A., Dale F. Denardo, and Richard E. Staub.  Phylogeography of the California Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis zonata (Colubridae). Molecular Ecology, 1999, Volume 8, pp. 1923-34.


  1. My apologies to folks who received drafts of this post before I meant to publish it. You just got a snapshot into the tedious process of writing and editing.

  2. Cindy, You handle snakes and writing about emotions with a braveness and gentleness that I could not hope to emulate. Thanks for the fine words and the beautiful photos.

  3. so



    for your sharing this through such AMAZING photos and great text.

    You have just done the internet a service. STUNNINGLY gorgeous snake. Jeepers.

    Ah, a new way to find people who blast rocks to poach snakes: use THEIR approach on their homes to make finding them easier? (disclaimer: not serious, of course, just a no-one-really-gets-hurt fantasy)

  4. Gorgeous snake, gorgeous writing. And if you need things translated to Spanish in the future, feel free to hollah.


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