What Is a Gopher Snake?

Angie Bates

A gopher snake is a large, nonvenomous constrictor snake common to the American Southwest. Sometimes mistaken for a rattlesnake, this reptile has a defense mechanism similar to the rattlesnake's noise-making tail. The scientific name for the gopher snake is Pituophis catenifer. This snake may also be referred to by its previous scientific name, Pituophis melanoleucus.

One environment that gopher snakes can occupy is the desert.
One environment that gopher snakes can occupy is the desert.

Although they can be up to 7 feet (2.1 m) long, gopher snakes average 4.5–5 feet (1.4–1.5 m) and may be as small as 2.5 feet (0.76 m). Similar to rattlesnakes, gopher snakes are tan with dark brown saddle-shaped or blotched patterning. Their bellies usually have dark spots as well, but they are a lighter yellowish color. One color morph of this snake exists, replacing the blotched pattern with stripes.

Gopher snakes are commonly seen on farmlands.
Gopher snakes are commonly seen on farmlands.

When threatened, gopher snakes can flatten their narrow heads, intimating the triangular-shaped head of a rattlesnake. They also raise their upper bodies and flick their tail rapidly back and forth, which creates a buzzing noise similar to that created by a rattlesnake. Most animals will mistake the harmless snake for a rattler and flee rather than attack. Unfortunately, humans often make the same mistake and many gopher snakes are kill as a result of misidentification.

Diurnal, the gopher snake is active during daylight hours. In the hottest months, however, they become more active at night when it is cooler. These snakes are often found along roadways and trails, particularly in the spring and fall. In the winter, they hibernate in dens.

Highly adaptable, the gopher snake is found in a variety of environments. Though most often seen in grasslands and on farmland, gopher snakes may make their homes in deserts or on mountains, in suburbs or in forests. They are primarily concentrated in the American Southwest, but reach north into Canada, west through California, east to Indiana, and south into Mexico.

The gopher snake eats mainly small mammals, like pocket gophers, and birds. It also consumes bird's eggs and occasionally will eat other reptiles and insects. These snakes are prey of red-tailed hawks, as well as kit foxes and coyotes. Many are also killed by cars because they commonly cross roadways.

Mating occurs in late spring. The males fight, entwining their bodies around each other in plays for dominance. The winner mates with a female, who lays her eggs about six weeks later, during summer. About two months later, in August through October, the eggs hatch. Hatchlings are born self-sufficient and may be over 20 inches (50.8 cm) long.

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