The eastern black kingsnake occurs in Missouri's Bootheel; it is similar in appearance to the speckled kingsnake, which is more common and widespread in our state.
The eastern black kingsnake is a medium to large snake that is mostly black with small yellow to cream speckles or with faint, white or cream chainlike markings along the sides. A series of yellow or white dotted crossbands is present along the back from the neck to the tip of the tail, especially in young. These crossbands usually fade with age. The top of the head is mostly black. The belly is cream to pale yellow, with black checkered markings that are mostly concentrated along the middle of the belly. The dorsal (upperside) scales are smooth.
Similar species: In Missouri, the speckled kingsnake is most likely to be confused with this species. Where their ranges overlap, the two species may breed together and produce offspring that show a blend of characteristics. A principal difference is the intensity of the speckling: The speckled kingsnake has boldly marked with pale speckles, while the eastern black kingsnake's speckles are fainter.
The eastern black kingsnake's other close relatives in Missouri, the eastern milksnake and prairie kingsnake, have different colors and patterns. Although they are in the same genus, they are unlikely to be confused with the eastern black kingsnake.
Adult length: 35 to 45 inches; occasionally to 58 inches.
Restricted to the Mississippi Alluvial Basin section of southeastern Missouri. Overall North American range is mostly east of the Mississippi River.
Habitat and Conservation
Little is known about the natural history of this species in Missouri, as it has only recently been verified in our state. Generally, this species occurs in a wide variety of habitats from open lands to forests, including dry, rocky hillsides, open woodlands, overgrown fields, and areas with loose soil suitable for burrowing. Black kingsnakes can also occur in urban areas, especially around old buildings.
Eastern black kingsnakes are likely active from late March through October. They are mostly active during daytime during the warmer months of the year, especially in spring, early summer, and again in autumn.
Eastern black kingsnakes prey on a variety of animals, especially reptiles and their eggs. They are known to feed on numerous species of snakes, including venomous species, and turtle eggs. They also eat small mammals, lizards, birds, and bird eggs. If prey is not swallowed immediately, it will be killed by constriction. Individuals will grab larger prey by the head and quickly constrict them.
This snake, as with all kingsnakes, is immune to the venom of the Missouri’s various native pit vipers.
Although the eastern black kingsnake was recently documented from two counties in Missouri in 2014, it apparently has been present in the state since 1932. Researchers had acknowledged the eastern black kingsnake in southeastern Missouri, based on color and pattern, but they assumed it was an intergrade with the Tennessee population. In 2014, genetic data, along with coloration and pattern, confirmed the presence of the eastern black kingsnake in southeastern Missouri.
This species likely intergrades with the speckled kingsnake along the boundary between the Ozark Highlands and the Mississippi Alluvial Basin. Additional studies will help sort out the details of distribution and natural history in our state.
The eastern black kingsnake was formerly considered a subspecies of the common kingsnake group (Lampropeltis getula) and was recently elevated to full species status.
The reproductive biology of this species in Missouri is presumably similar to its close relative, the speckled kingsnake, with courtship and mating in spring, eggs laid in summer, and the young hatching in late summer. Courtship and mating begin when individuals emerge from overwintering sites and continue into June. In June or July, some 3–30 eggs are likely laid in animal burrows, rotting logs or stumps, and sawdust piles. The incubation period is 56–81 days, and hatching likely occurs from August into September in Missouri.
Reproductive maturity is likely reached at 2–4 years of age, with males maturing earlier than females.
On a very practical level, snakes help humans by consuming many rodents that are injurious to our interests. Think of them as natural, nontoxic, free pest control.
Snakes have always captured the imaginations of humans. In myth, religion, and story, snakes perform the role of seducer, sneak, guardian, healer, killer, and transformer.
The relatively new technology of genetic analysis has enabled biologists to verify this species' presence in our state. Being able to study DNA has revolutionized taxonomy, allowing biologists to better understand the relationships among related species. This is essentially the same technology used to study and identify diseases and to determine paternity and heritage among humans.
The genus name, Lampropeltis, is from Greek root words and means "shiny shield." It refers to the glossy, smooth scales on the upperside of the body. The species name, nigra, means "black," for the main color of this snake.
The name "king," applied to this group of snakes for their ability to fight and win against seemingly overwhelming opponents, is used in other animal names as well. The kingbird, for example, is famous for its spirited and seemingly fearless territorial defense against larger birds, including crows and even hawks, chasing, screaming, sometimes landing on them in flight, and pecking fiercely on their backs. Kingfisher birds are named for their mastery of fishing and behavior of beating their prey against a perch before swallowing it. King mackerel are famous for their voracious, predatory appetites and for defending themselves against perceived threats by biting. These animal names perhaps reveal more about our ideas of monarchy than they do about the animals.
We're used to thinking of snakes a predators, since they are so good at eating rodents and other small animals. But their defense strategies, such as rattling their tails when frightened, or smearing foul-smelling musk on a perceived attacker, remind us they are preyed upon themselves. Natural predators include hawks and owls, kingsnakes and racers, and mammals, such as raccoons and skunks, which will eat their eggs or hatchlings. Domestic cats likely kill young kingsnakes.
Kingsnakes (genus Lampropeltis) are native to North America. There are about 26 species, with 45 subspecies, and they have a variety of colors and markings. As a group, they are constrictors and are famous for capturing and consuming snakes, including venomous species. They are typically immune to the venom of venomous species in their locality, but they are not necessarily immune to the venom of snakes outside their native range.