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Hands Off Our Snakes, Saint Patrick!

Updated: Mar 14


"St. Patrick Expels the Snakes."
"St. Patrick Expels the Snakes." Photo from the Library of Congress (Public Domain).

According to lore, Saint Patrick once rid Ireland of its snakes. In truth, post-glacial Ireland never had snakes, and “snakes” may have been a metaphor for pagans converting to Christianity, but no matter; St. Pat’s anti-snake agenda isn’t welcome here at EPIC.


Northern California’s diverse landscapes produce a diversity of life (snakes included), each with its unique adaptations and irreplaceable ecological roles.


Join us as we delve into the distinct snake species that call Northern California home, and explore their habitats, behaviors, & conservation statuses!






 

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus)

The Northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus), also known as the “western rattlesnake,” is a venomous pit viper characterized by its diamond-shaped patterns and rattling tail. Exhibiting a behavior common throughout western North American serpents, the western rattlesnake inhabits a variety of habitats, including forests, grasslands, and rocky slopes.


Using its heat-sensing facial pits, the western rattlesnake can “see” radiant heat from its warm blooded prey, including birds and small mammals. As a predator, the western rattlesnake helps keep our ecosystems in balance. It is presumed to have a large, stable population and is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


 

Western Yellow-Bellied Racer (Coluber constrictor mormon)

Known for its speed and agility, the western yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor mormon) is a common sight in oak woodlands and grassy areas.


Its slender body and distinct yellow belly make it easily recognizable. As a non-venomous species, it preys primarily on small mammals and birds. To defend itself, if a predator comes too close, the racer will smear secretions from its scent glands all over its body. California’s yellow-bellied racers are common and abundant in much of its range throughout most of California, but absent from some historical range areas along the South Coast.

 

Pacific Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer)

Adapted to a variety of habitats, including grasslands, scrublands, and forests, the Pacific Gopher Snake is a constrictor that feeds on rodents, birds, and eggs. Often mistaken for rattlesnakes due to their similar appearance and defensive behavior, they are harmless and beneficial to ecosystems.





 

Forest Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia longicauda)

Endemic to coastal Northern California and Southern Oregon, and found in shady forest habitats dominated by Douglas fir and redwoods and in mixed woodlands with oaks and conifers, the forest sharp-tailed snake spends much of its life in burrows or hidden under objects. Not much is known about the diet of this non-venomous snake, but it is known to feed on slugs, earthworms, and salamanders.



 

Northwestern Ring-Necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus occidentalis)

Perhaps the most striking snake on our list, the northwestern ring-necked snake boasts a striking coloration, featuring a glossy black dorsal surface adorned with a vivid orange or yellow ring encircling its neck. When disturbed, the snake tightly winds itself into a curl and releases foul-smelling musk. Mildly venomous, the snake poses no health risk for humans and preys on salamanders, tadpoles, small frogs, small snakes, lizards, worms, slugs, and insects. There are no known conservation issues facing the species. 


 

California King Snake (Lampropeltis californiae)

Sporting bold black-and-white bands, the California king snake is a powerful constrictor that feeds on birds, lizards, small mammals and even other snakes. It is the “king” of California snakes because it can even feed on the venomous rattlesnake. Its range extends across Northern California, where it inhabits diverse habitats, from chaparral to suburban areas. Kingsnakes are popular pets because of their docile nature, varied coloration and ease of care, although the sale of wild snakes is illegal. The kingsnake does not have any known conservation issues.


 

Although we humans harbor an evolutionary fear of snakes (as well as spiders) from very real dangers early in human development, the EPIC team encourages you to also learn to understand and appreciate these reptiles that may seem foreign, but are really just fellow organisms in our collective ecosystem.

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