A marsh-dwelling member of the ratsnake group, the western foxsnake, rare in Missouri, is moderately large with distinct brown blotches. The ground color is yellowish, greenish brown, or tan, with an average of 37 large brown blotches on the back and smaller ones on the sides. The head of foxsnakes may show some orange color, which might cause them to be misidentified as a copperhead. The belly is normally yellow, marked with a distinct black checkered pattern. When threatened, a foxsnake will vibrate its tail, coil with head and neck raised, and strike repeatedly to defend itself. When captured, foxsnakes give off a musky odor like the scent of a red fox, accounting for their name.
Young lack the yellow ground color and are gray with bold dark brown or black blotches. The head is boldly marked with a black mask running through the eyes and slanding back to the angle of the jaw. There are also black markings on top of the head and large black spots along the upper lips.
Hatchlings resemble western ratsnakes (black rat snakes). Counting ventral scales (belly scales, from neck to anus) is the best way to distinguish them (about 216 on foxsnakes, and about 221 on young western ratsnakes).
Similar species: The eastern foxsnake (P. vulpinus) is extremely similar to the western 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 north from St. Louis, while the western foxsnake is restricted to a few counties in the northwestern corner of the state. The eastern species has an average of 43 dark blotches on the back and sides with a brown to reddish-brown head.
Length: 36 to 54 inches.
Restricted to a few counties in the northwestern corner of the state.
Habitat and Conservation
The species generally inhabits open grasslands and borders of woods. In Missouri, the western foxsnake has been found near large, natural marshes and wet prairies, but it is not a common snake. 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 and Mississippi River counties north of St. Louis.
Food includes small rodents, including mice and chipmunks, birds, and bird eggs. Foxsnakes kill their prey by constriction. Young foxsnakes eat frogs and insects.
Critically imperiled in Missouri; a Species of Conservation Concern. Until recently, the foxsnakes in Missouri were all considered to be the "western" foxsnake, "P. vulpinus," comprising populations in both northeastern and northwestern Missouri. Now they have been divided into two different species. Our northwestern populations have retained the common name western foxsnake, but they have acquired a new scientific name, P. ramspotti. Meanwhile, P. vulpinus, in northeastern Missouri, has acquired the common name of eastern foxsnake.
Little is known of the life habits of foxsnakes in Missouri. Courtship and breeding apparently occurs in April, soon after emerging from overwintering dens. In June or July, the female lays 8–27 eggs in rotten stumps or logs, sawdust piles, or leaf litter. The eggs hatch in August or September. Hatchlings resemble western ratsnakes and are about a foot in length.
This critically imperiled species is valuable as a controller of destructive rodents. Some people might mistake it for a copperhead, but the round, dark brown blotches of the foxsnake are very different from the distinctly hourglass-shaped markings of the copperhead.
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.