The speckled kingsnake is a medium to large, shiny black snake covered with small yellow spots. The ground color is dark brown or black. Each dorsal (upperside) scale normally has one white or light yellow spot that causes the snake to appear speckled. The scales along the top of the head also have these yellow spots. Occasionally the light spots form crossbars along the back, giving it a chainlike pattern. This is apparent on hatchlings and young speckled kingsnakes, but it will change to an overall speckled appearance with age. Adult speckled kingsnakes found in western Missouri may have deep yellow spots that cover over 50 percent of each scale. The upper and lower labial (lip) scales are yellow, with bold black or dark brown bars along their edges. The belly is light yellow with a series of irregular, dark gray to black, half-circular to rectangular markings that become larger and more numerous near the tail. The final scale of the tail is a sharp spike. The upperside scales are smooth, and the anal plate (the last belly scale, which covers the anal opening) is single.
Like the rest of our kingsnakes, this species vibrates its tail when alarmed. When captured, a kingsnake may try to bite and will smear a foul-smelling musk onto your hands, but then it quickly calms down and can be easily handled.
Similar species: The eastern black kingsnake (L. nigra) was recently rediscovered in our state; in Missouri, it is known only from a few counties along the Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri. It is mostly black, with the pale speckles forming chainlike markings along the sides. A series of yellow or white dotted crossbands are present along the back from the neck to the tip of the tail, especially in young individuals; 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 speckled 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 speckled kingsnake.
Adult length: 35 to 48 inches; occasionally to 72 inches. Males are larger than females and have a longer tail.
Presumed to occur statewide.
Habitat and Conservation
This handsome snake occurs in a wide variety of habitats: prairies and along prairie streams, brushy areas, edges of forest and old farm fields, rocky, wooded hillsides, and along the edges of swamps and marshes. In Missouri, it is often found on rocky, wooded hillsides with some openings.
Speckled kingsnakes are mainly active between April and October, with most surface activity occurring in April into June. They are active during the day in spring, early summer, and autumn. They become active at night in summer to avoid hot temperatures.
This species is secretive. It takes shelter under rocks, under logs, in rotten stumps, and in small mammal burrows, especially mole burrows.
Speckled kingsnakes spend winter dormancy underground in small animal burrows, rock crevices, hollow logs and stumps, sawdust piles, and foundations of abandoned buildings, and, rarely, caves. They have been documented using crayfish burrows in northern Missouri's dry upland prairies as both summer and winter retreats.
Speckled kingsnakes kill their prey by constriction and consume mice and shrews, bird eggs, small birds, lizards, and snakes, including venomous species. This snake, as with all kingsnakes, is immune to the venom of the Missouri’s various native pit vipers. Prey animals and their eggs are located by scent. In some areas, the diet of speckled kingsnakes is primarily reptiles and their eggs. They can be cannibalistic, as well, and are known to eat their own young.
Relatively common and widespread nonvenomous, harmless snake. Considered beneficial because it consumes many rodents.
Until recently there were five subspecies of kingsnakes in the Lampropeltis getula group (combined and called “common kingsnakes”), which were elevated to full species in 2009. This group includes the speckled kingsnake, L. g. holbrooki, now classified as L. holbrooki. Likely this species intergrades with or is replaced by the eastern black kingsnake (L. nigra) in southeastern Missouri.
Courtship and mating occur in April through early June. A female will usually lay more than one clutch of eggs per season. In June or July, females lay some 2–23 eggs (up to 29, with an average of 10) in a rotten log, stump, old sawdust pile, or old small mammal burrow. The eggs adhere to each other. Incubation lasts about 60–70 days, and the eggs hatch in late summer or early fall.
Sexual maturity is reached at the age of 2 or 3. In captivity, individuals of this species have lived slightly more than 14 years; the lifespan is likely more than 20 years.
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.
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.
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, holbrooki, honors John Edwards Holbrook (1796–1871), an American zoologist and medical doctor who published the first complete illustrated reference to North American amphibians and reptiles, a multivolume work (ca. 1840) that described many U.S. species for the first time. He originally determined the snake to be Coronella sayi, but that turned out to be a different species (the bullsnake). In 1902, the herpetologist who sorted this out, Leonhard Stejneger, proposed the snake's new epithet, holbrooki, to honor Dr. Holbrook. Holbrook was a respected zoologist. He was working on a multivolume reference on southern fishes in the late 1850s when fire destroyed a great deal of that work. Toward the end of his life, he endured the death of his wife and, then, at the end of the Civil War, the theft or destruction of nearly all of his drawings, manuscripts, books, and zoological specimens.
As a predator, this snake helps keep populations of other animals in check.
Although it can defend itself by biting, by vibrating its tail ominously, and by smearing a stinky musk on attackers, this snake can be eaten by other predators. The eggs and young are especially vulnerable. 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.
The discovery of this species using prairie-dwelling crayfish burrows as shelter in summer and winter impresses upon us the interconnections between it and those dry-land crustaceans. It also reminds us of these species' need for native prairie habitat and the enormous variety of plants and animals they embrace.