The eastern foxsnake is rare in Missouri and occurs only along the Mississippi River floodplain north of St. Louis. It is a moderately large snake with distinct brown blotches. The ground color is gray, tan, or yellowish tan. There are an average of 43 rectangular, dark brown blotches on the back, plus a series of smaller dark brown blotches on each side. On the tail, the blotches become bars or rings. The head is normally yellow, orange, or orange brown, with few distinct markings. The belly is yellow and boldly checkered with black.
Hatchlings of this rare species closely resemble hatchling western ratsnakes (black rat snakes). To distinguish between them, you must count the belly scales, between neck and anus. There are about 216 belly scales on foxsnakes, and about 221 on young western ratsnakes.
When threatened, a foxsnake will vibrate its tail (which can fool predators, and people, into thinking it's a rattlesnake), coil its body with head and neck raised, and strike repeatedly to defend itself. When captured, foxsnakes give off a disagreeable musky odor.
- The western foxsnake (P. ramspotti) is very similar to the eastern foxsnake. In Missouri, these two species are mainly identified by their different geographic distribution: the eastern foxsnake occurs only in a few counties along the Mississippi River floodplain from St. Louis and northward, while the western foxsnake is restricted to a few counties in the northwestern corner of the state. The western species has an average of 37 dark blotches on the back.
- Because the head of foxsnakes may show some orange color, some people might be tempted to misidentify them as copperheads. Keep in mind that the markings on the backs of copperheads are hourglass-shaped, not rounded or rectangular.
Adult length: 24 to 54 inches; occasionally to 67 inches.
Occurs along the Mississippi River floodplain north from St. Louis. It is likely that a zone of hybridization occurs with the western foxsnake in Missouri's northeastern counties.
Habitat and Conservation
As with the western foxsnake, in Missouri, this species' principal habitat is grasslands near marshes. It mainly lives in open grassland, borders of woods, and along edges of agricultural fields next to wet prairies, marshes, and river bottomlands.
It is usually active from May into October, but it is sometimes active as early as the middle of April and as late as early November. Most people see them in May and June. People usually see them as they are sunning themselves in grass along levees, crossing roads, or, unfortunately, lying dead on roads.
These snakes are generally secretive and spend most of their time hiding in dense vegetation and animal burrows, or under logs, boards, or brush piles.
This species overwinters underground in rock crevices, building foundations, old wells, and animal burrows.
Food includes small mammals, including mice, voles, and chipmunks, and occasionally birds and their eggs. A foxsnake grabs its prey with its mouth and kills it by constriction. Young foxsnakes eat frogs, lizards, and insects.
Critically imperiled in Missouri; a species of conservation concern, due to loss of wetlands and adjacent grassland habitat, collection pressures, persecution, and road fatalities.
Before European settlement, our two foxsnake species, combined, may have occurred across much of the northern half of Missouri; now they are restricted to our far northwestern corner (western foxsnake) and Mississippi River counties north of St. Louis (eastern foxsnake).
The taxonomy of the foxsnakes has recently been revised. Regarding their overall ranges, the current understanding is that the western foxsnake (P. ramspotti) mainly occurs west of the Mississippi River, and the eastern foxsnake (P. vulpinus) mainly occurs east of the Mississippi.
Apparently, the foxsnakes in the St. Louis area are eastern foxsnakes; ones in northeastern Missouri are eastern/western hybrids; and ones in northwestern Missouri are western foxsnakes. Further genetic studies should help sort these out.
The foxsnakes in this group were formerly considered as two subspecies: the western foxsnake, Elaphe vulpina vulpina, and the eastern foxsnake (E. v. gloydi). These have now been elevated to full species. Our northwestern populations have retained the common name western foxsnake, but they have acquired the new scientific name, P. ramspotti. Meanwhile the northeastern/St. Louis populations are considered P. vulpinus, with the common name of eastern foxsnake.
Little is known of the breeding biology of foxsnakes in Missouri. Courtship and breeding apparently occurs in April, soon after the snakes emerge from overwintering dens, and continues into summer. In late June or July, the female lays 8–27 eggs in moist locations such as rotten stumps or logs, sawdust piles, or leaf litter. The eggs hatch in August or September. Eastern foxsnakes become sexually mature within three years; males mature earlier than females.
This critically imperiled species is valuable to people because it helps control destructive rodents.
Conservation efforts have included constructing riprap rock structures built specifically for use as overwintering sites; the snakes have been observed using these.
Some people believe the common name "foxsnake" was given to these snakes because of the musky odor given off by newly captured specimens. Scent glands at the base of the tail produce an odor that is said to resemble the scent of a red fox.
These snakes were apparently named after Rev. Charles Fox, who collected snakes many years ago. Fox (1815–1854), an authority in practical farming methods, was appointed the first professor of agriculture at the University of Michigan in 1854, but he died before he could take the position. He collected the original type specimen of P. vulpinus (the eastern foxsnake), the first of the foxsnakes/"Fox snakes" to be described. Vulpinus means "fox"; the Latin name is thus a translated version of the honoree's surname.
As a predator, this snake helps keep populations of other animals, especially rodents, in check.
Although it can defend itself by trying to bite, by vibrating its tail ominously, and by emitting a stinky smell when attacked, this snake often becomes food for hawks and other predators. The eggs and juveniles are especially vulnerable to predation.
This, like many other snakes, often relies on burrows excavated by other animals for summertime habitat and overwintering shelter. Thus it is linked to animals such as moles, shrews, woodchucks, and crayfish. Similarly, when large trees die, their root systems rot away, leaving tunnels that these snakes can live in; it's another example of how these snakes are connected to other organisms in their environment.