A marsh-dwelling member of the ratsnake group, the western foxsnake is rare in Missouri and found only in our far northwestern counties. It is a moderately large snake with distinct brown blotches. The ground color is gray, tan, or yellowish tan. There are an average of 37 brown blotches on the back, plus a series of smaller brown blotches on each side. The head is normally yellow, orange, or orangish brown and is usually unmarked. The belly is cream to yellow and boldly checkered with black.
Young individuals 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 slanting back to the angle of the jaw. There are also black markings on top of the head, and black bars along the upper lips. Adults lack these dark head markings.
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 eastern foxsnake (P. vulpinus) is very 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 from St. Louis and northward, 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.
- 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.
Adult length: 24 to 54 inches; occasionally to 61 inches.
Restricted to a few counties in the northwestern corner of the state.
Habitat and Conservation
Compared to other members of the ratsnake group, the western foxsnake is strongly associated with marshes. The species generally inhabits open grasslands and borders of woods that adjoin wet prairies, marshes, and river bottomlands. In Missouri, it is most abundant in the few remaining patches of natural bottomland prairie in our far northwestern counties.
This species is active from late April and early November; in our state it is most commonly seen in May and June.
Western foxsnakes are active during the day. People may see them sunning or attempting to cross roads, especially near wetlands, in morning or late afternoon. Sadly, many individuals are struck by cars and killed.
These snakes take shelter under dense vegetation; under boards, logs, and brush piles; in mammal and crayfish burrows; and sometimes in hollow trees a few feet above the ground.
They overwinter underground in rock crevices, around the foundations of buildings, and in mammal and crayfish burrows.
Food includes rodents such as mice and chipmunks, small birds, bird eggs, and frogs. Foxsnakes kill their prey by constriction. Young foxsnakes eat small frogs, lizards, earthworms, and insects.
Critically imperiled in Missouri; a species of conservation concern. This species has lost range in northern Missouri due to the conversion of native prairie to agriculture in past 200 years. Its remaining range in our state is quite limited. This species also suffers from senseless persecution and from unlawful collection pressure.
The taxonomy of the foxsnakes has recently been revised. 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 life habits of foxsnakes, in Missouri or anywhere else. Courtship and breeding apparently occur in April, soon after emerging from overwintering dens; it probably extends into mid-June. In late June or July, the female lays 10–20 eggs in rotten stumps or logs, sawdust piles, or leaf litter. After incubating 35–75 days, the eggs hatch in August or September. Most individuals reach sexual maturity by their third year of life.
This critically imperiled species is valuable to people because it helps control destructive rodents. Because it is rare in Missouri, people should make efforts to preserve it in our state. These include conserving its wet prairie, woodland-border, and bottomland habitats in northwest Missouri, and also protecting it from persecution and unlawful collecting.
Some people might mistake a foxsnake for a copperhead, but the round, dark brown blotches of foxsnakes are very different from the distinctly hourglass-shaped markings on copperheads.
The species name, ramspotti, honors Joseph Ramspott (1976–2004). The 27-year-old was a few months from graduating with his MS in herpetology at Southeastern Louisiana University when he died after a car struck him while he was riding his bicycle. In 2005, the university started awarding a scholarship in biology in his honor. Brian Crother, one of the herpetologists who named the species, had been a faculty advisor to Joe Ramspott.
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; badgers, for instance, have been documented digging up and eating western foxsnake eggs.