Eastern Kingsnake
Lampropeltis getula

** Harmless **

Common Name:

Eastern Kingsnake

Scientific Name:

Lampropeltis getula



Lampropeltis is derived from the Greek words lampros which means "radiant" and pelta meaning "small shields".


getula is derived from the Latin word Getulus which refers to the Getulians people of Morocco in western Africa. The chain-like pattern found on this snake was prevalent in Getulian culture.

Vernacular Names:

Bastard horn snake, black king snake, common chain snake, common king snake, cow sucker, horse racer, master snake, oakleaf rattler, thunder-and-lightning snake, thunderbolt, thunder snake, wamper, wampum snake.

Average Length:

36 - 48 in. (90 - 122 cm)

Virginia Record Length:

63.8 in. (162.1 cm)

Record length:

82 in. (208.3 cm)


Description: A large, stout snake reaching a maximum total length of 2,083 mm (82.0 inches) (Conant and Collins, 1991). In Virginia, maximum known snout-vent length (SVL) is 1,456 mm (57.3 inches) and maximum total length is 1,621 mm (63.8 inches). In this study, tail length/total length was 9.1-14.5% (ave. = 11.8 ± 1.3, n = 82).

Scutellation: Ventrals 191-220 (ave. = 209.6 ± 4.4, n = 108); subcaudals 20-54 (ave. = 44.7 ± 5.0, n = 102); ventrals + subcaudals 230-268 (ave. = 254.3 ± 7.2, n = 102); dorsal scales smooth, scale rows usually 21 (89.9%, n = 79) at midbody, or maybe 20,22, or 23 (10.1%); anal plate undivided; infralabials 9/9 (78.8%, n = 99) or other combinations of 8-10 (21.2%); supralabials 7/7 (88.7%, n = 97) or other combinations of 6-8 (11.3%); loreal scale present; preoculars 1/1; postoculars 2/2; temporal scales usually 2+3/2+3 (85.0%, n = 94) or other combinations of 2-4 (15.0%).

Coloration and Pattern: Dorsal body color black with a series of 18-39 (ave. = 26.2 ± 4.2, n = 93) thin white to yellow crossbars (0.5-2.0 scales wide) or with an irregular number of small white to yellow spots; if crossbars present, most divide on sides at about scale row 5 and arms often connect with irregular white to yellow ventrolateral patches; crossbars often incomplete or broken, and lateral bifurcations may not be present; crossbars on tail not divided, and usually connect with ventrolateral patches; venter black with continuations of ventrolateral patches forming a highly irregular, alternating series of black-and-white patches, or venter black with small yellowish spots; ventral pattern sometimes faded and may be obscure; head black with varying numbers of white or yellow spots; infralabials and supralabials white to yellow and bordered in black. The head is not distinct from the neck and is small.

Sexual Dimorphism: Adult males (635-1,456 mm SVL, ave. = 1,036.9 ± 206.3, n = 37) were larger than adult females (660-1,291 mm SVL, ave.= 921.7 ± 157.4, n = 27). Sexual dimorphism index was -0.12. The average numbers of ventrals were nearly identical (males 209.3 ± 4.6, 191-218, n = 56; females 209.9 ± 3.9,199-215, n = 49), but the number of subcaudals was higher in males (34- 54, ave. = 46.9 ± 4.4, n = 54) than in females (20- 51, ave. = 42.1 ± 4.5, n = 46). Consequently, the average number of ventrals + subcaudals was slightly higher in males (255.7 ± 7.8, 231-268, n = 54) than in females (252.3 ± 6.0, 230-264, n = 46). There were no substantial differences between sexes in tail length/total length (males 12.1 ± 1.3%, 9.1-14.5, n = 46; females 11.4 ± 1.2%, 9.5- 14.2, n = 34) and number of crossbands (males 26.3 ± 4.0,19-34, n = 50; females 26.2 ± 4.5,18- 39, n = 40).

Juveniles: Juvenile L. getula are patterned as adults. Juveniles of L. nigra have thin crossbars and irregular lateral spotting. The bifurcations of the crossbars are usually not present, nor are the ventrolateral patches. The juvenile dorsal pattern apparently breaks up with age in Virginia L. nigra as it does in some other areas (Blaney, 1977). At hatching, juveniles were 208-277 mm SVL (ave. = 244.6 ± 21.9, n = 33), 238- 317 mm total length (ave. = 280.2 ± 25.1, n = 32), and 6.3-9.1 g body mass (ave. = 8.1 ± 1.6, based on means of 3 litters).

Confusing Species: The other black snakes in Virginia are the Coluber constrictor, Pantherophis alleghaniensis and melanistic Heterodon platirhinos. None of these species has white or yellow crossbars or spotting on the head and venter; all have a uniformly black to gray black dorsum. The dorsum of P. alleghaniensis may show a narrowly defined blotched pattern in some snakes, especially in southwestern Virginia, but the lateral white to yellow pigment is lacking. Juveniles of these snakes have a series of brown blotches on a gray dorsum.

Geographic Variation: Geographic variation in Virginia L. getula is expressed in pattern, color, and scutellation. The differences in pattern between the two species has been described above. The L. nigra pattern is confined to the southwestern corner of Virginia, whereas the chain pattern in L. getula occurs in snakes to the north and east of the New River drainage. Some individuals in the southeastern corner of Virginia have reddish crossbands, as well as wider crossbands than snakes to the north and west. Scutellation in L. nigra was within the range of variation exhibited by L. getula in number of ventrals (nigra 203.0 ± 1.4, 202-205, n = 4; getula 209.8 ± 4.4,191-220, n = 106), number of subcaudals(nigra 49.3 ±2.1,47-51, n = 3; getula 44.9 ± 4.4, 34-54, n = 99), and number of ventrals + subcaudals (nigra 252.7 ± 1.2, 252-254, n = 3; getula 254.6 ± 6.9, 230-268, n = 99).

Within L. getula, the average number of ventral scales varied from a low of 207.3 ± 4.5 (199- 212, n = 7) on the Eastern Shore to a high of 210.8 ± 2.0 (207-214, n = 9) in the lower Piedmont. Number of ventrals + subcaudals varied from 252.9 ± 7.2 (234-267, n = 29) in the upper Piedmont to 257.4 ± 5.5 (251-265, n = 9) in the lower Piedmont. The number of crossbands averaged higher in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains (32.3 ± 2.4, 29-34, n = 4) than in the southeastern corner (24.2 ± 3.6,19-31, n = 37).

In eastern North America, the number of ventrals and subcaudals increase clinally from low counts in the north (New Jersey) to high counts in the Florida panhandle (Blaney, 1977). Ventral scale counts decrease westward within the latitudes encompassing Virginia. Number of crossbands is highly variable and range from counts of about 31 in central Virginia to New Jersey, to about 24-25 in Delmarva and the Carolinas, and to highs around 52 in southern Florida.

Biology: Lampropeltis getula occurs in a wide variety of habitats, including hardwood forests, mixed pine-hardwood forest, pine forest, abandoned fields, upland portions of swamps, and adjacent freshwater marshes, as well as along creeks and streams in agricultural and urban areas. Individuals are not uncommon around abandoned sawdust piles and old buildings in fields. They are completely terrestrial, seldom climbing into vegetation. Herpetologists find them most often under surface objects, such as boards, logs, tar paper, and discarded car hoods. Kingsnakes are diurnal, but are occasionally found on roads at dusk. Clifford (1976) found them active April-October. Museum record extremes are 24 March to 17 November. An adult in Gloucester County was killed by a hunter in December when snow was present (Glo-Quips [newspaper], 10 January 1990). Body temperatures of active snakes (18.9-33.0°C, ave. = 28.3 ± 6.4, n =4) were similar to those of snakes found under boards or metal siding (20.0-33.8°C, ave. = 28.9 ± 6.2, n = 4).

Eastern Kingsnakes are widely known as predators of other snakes, including venomous species. However, they do eat a variety of other prey types. The following species have been recorded for Virginia specimens: Eastern Gartersnakes (Thamnophis s. sirtalis), Northern Watersnakes (Nerodia s. sipedon), Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus), Smooth Earthsnakes (Virginia valeriae), Eastern Wormsnakes (Carphophis amoenus), Five-lined Skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus), and white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) (C. H. Ernst, pers. comm.; J. C. Mitchell, pers. obs.). Wilson and Friddle (1946) listed the following additional prey for West Virginia Eastern kingsnakes: Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes (Heterodon platirhinos), Northern Red-bellied Snakes (Storeria occipitomaculata), Northern Black Racers (Coluber constrictor), Eastern Ratsnakes (Pantherophis alleghaniensis), Eastern Fence Lizards (Sceloporus undulatus), Red-spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens), house mice (Mus musculus), and meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus). Knight and Loraine (1986) found specimens of L. getula in South Carolina that had eaten eggs of Southeastern Mud Turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum) and Eastern Musk Turtles (Sternotherus odoratus). Megonigal (1985) observed an Eastern Kingsnake as it killed and ate an Eastern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) in the Dismal Swamp. Wright (1988a) observed one eating bobwhite quail eggs in Brunswick County. The primary predators of Eastern Kingsnakes are humans, although some people do recognize their value as rodent and venomous snake predators.

Reproduction in L. getula has been little studied in Virginia. Mating presumably takes place in the spring (Fitch, 1970). Size at maturity is about 600 mm SVL for both sexes. Known egg-laying dates in Virginia are between 16 and 22 June. Clutch size was 9-17 (ave. = 12.6 ± 3.2, n = 5). Ernst and Barbour (1989b) reported clutch sizes of 3-24 eggs (ave. = 10.8) for this species. Eggs averaged 37.5 ± 2.5 x 20.7 ± 1.0 mm (length 32.8-44.6, width 19.4-23.4, n = 36) and weighed 8.4-10.7 g (ave. = 9.5 ± 0.7). Laboratory incubation time for these eggs was 60-62 days. Hatching occurred on 14-18 August.

Eastern Kingsnakes are more commonly encountered in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont than in the mountains of Virginia. Clifford (1976) found 6 in a sample of 278 over a 4-year period in Amelia County. Martin (1976) recorded 1 out of 545 snakes in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Uhler et al. (1939) found none in a sample of 885 from the George Washington National Forest. In my sample of 103 specimens, 65 were from the Coastal Plain, 31 from the Piedmont, and 4 from the western parts of the state. The population ecology of this species has not been studied.

Eastern Kingsnakes are noted for vibrating their tails when disturbed and for discharging musk from glands at the base of the tail when picked up. Individual temperament varies, but many specimens will constrict one's arm when held and will chew, rather than bite. A defensive behavior sometimes exhibited is hiding the head in a ball of coils.

Remarks: Other common names in Virginia are king snake, master snake, black moccasin, and cowsucker (Dunn, 1915a); common king snake and chain snake (Burch, 1940; Carroll, 1950); pine snake, thunder snake, and black snake (Linzey and Clifford, 1981); and corn snake (Brothers, 1992). Lampropeltis getula is notorious for being immune to pit viper venom (Ernst and Barbour, 1989b). Linzey and Clifford (1981) noted that a superstition ascribed to this species says that should one be killed, a thunderstorm will follow. Another myth is that the mere sight of this snake will cause thunder.

Several instances of two-headed Eastern Kingsnakes have been reported by Cunningham (1937). A juvenile (USNM 21164) from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, had two distinct heads. The lack of records from the New River drainage is puzzling. Is there an hybrid zone between L. getula and L. nigra in Virginia? Additional records and voucher specimens are needed to clarify this problem.

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