|A California mountain kingsnake in hand.|
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.
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.|
|Red, black and white California mountain kingsnake on left, black and white California kingsnake on right.|
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.|
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.|
|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.|
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.|
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.