Black Kingsnake Lampropeltis getula

Adult from Jackson County

Identification

Black Kingsnakes are only locally common in parts of Indiana and are easily confused with other black snakes. Black Kingsnakes are relatively robust with an indistinct neck and head and glossy, smooth scales. While juvenile Black Kingsnakes are black with thin white bands and scattered speckles, most adult Black Kingsnakes in Indiana are almost all black on top, with few scattered speckles. The scales above the mouth are white and bordered with black, giving a unique black and white "piano key" barred pattern to the mouth. Black Kingsnakes are not as large as other black snakes Indiana, and most large adults are around three to four feet (0.9 - 1.2 m) long.

Adult from Posey County
Ventral of adult from Posey County

With their speckled pattern and shiny smooth scales, these are probably the most distinctive of Indiana's black snakes. Eastern Racers are more slender with a long tail and no dorsal pattern as adults. Gray Ratsnakes usually have more extensive dorsal patterning, have slightly keeled scales, and a bread loaf-shaped body. Both of these other species lack the black and white bars on the lip scales that are so unique to Black Kingsnakes.

Ecology and Conservation

Black Kingsnakes are frequently found in cleared areas that are overgrown, such as fields, clearings, or abandoned areas. They inhabit deserts, chaparral, and river bottoms to the west. When threatened, the Black Kingsnake will attack and make loud hissing noises to ward off a threat. It preys on small mammals, making it important in controlling rodent populations. Black Kingsnakes prey on other snakes as well, including venomous species. Immune to their venom, they are able to survive bites from Copperheads, Cottonmouths, and rattlesnakes.

Old field in Jefferson County
Marshland in Jackson County

The Speckled Kingsnake is a State Endangered species in Iowa. The Black Kingsnake is a State Imperiled species in Ohio.

Distribution

Black Kingsnakes are found throughout much of southern Indiana and into west-central Indiana along the Wabash River. Though most often associated with open habitats such as old fields and meadows, Black Kingsnakes may inhabit woodlands, especially near forest edges. They are commonly found along wetland margins and tend to prefer moist environments. Most commonly found under cover or crossing roads, these snakes spend much of their time under ground and out of sight.

Taxonomy

Traditionally, the Black Kingsnake was recognized as a subspecies (L. g. nigra) of the more widespread Common Kingsnake (L. getula). Pyron and Burbrink (2009) recommended a restructuring of the taxonomy of this group, with all Indiana representatives now recognized as the Black Kingsnake (L. nigra). Like many taxonomic recommendations, this has remained controversial, and future data will shed light about evolutionary interactions between these putative species.

Literature Cited

Distribution Map
Distribution map of Black Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula)
Photographs