One of at least eight subspecies of gopher snake, the Pacific gopher snake lives in California, north of Santa Barbara County and up the coast into Oregon. The subspecies' range doesn't extend east of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Because gopher snakes never stop growing, their growth is limited only by life span.
Pacific gopher snakes mate once a year, typically between June and August. The snakes are solitary by nature; males and females don't associate with each other except while mating. Females secrete chemicals through the skin, advertising availability and attracting males. If more than one male happens upon a receptive female, an elaborate dance between the two males ensues. The males posture and hiss, striking at each other and wrapping their bodies around each other, in fearsome competition to establish dominance and mate. Males will mate with literally any receptive female they encounter, sometimes interbreeding with rat snakes and kingsnakes as well.
Six weeks after mating, female Pacific gopher snakes lay clutches of between two and 24 eggs in abandoned animal burrows or other protected places. These nests are occasionally communal. Mothers do not actively incubate, protect or care for their eggs, and have no further involvement with them. The eggs incubate for between 60 and 75 days before hatching. Some females lay two clutches of eggs during a single breeding season.
Hatchlings and Juveniles
When the young hatch, they are already between 11 and 13 inches long and fully able to take care of themselves. At that size, they are already large enough to eat small mice. For the first three years of their lives, Pacific gopher snakes grow rapidly until they've reached a minimum adult length of about 3 feet. They establish home ranges of between 2 and 4 acres that seldom overlap with the home ranges of other Pacific gopher snakes. Males reach sexual maturity between 1 and 2 years of age, females at around 4 years.
Although Pacific gopher snakes continue to grow throughout their lives, their rate of growth slows significantly once they're 3 years old. Adults graduate to hunting larger prey, voles, squirrels, rabbits and gophers. In the wild, Pacific gopher snakes spend as much as 90 percent of their time underground. They often follow the runways of burrowing animals to capture them in their tunnels. They are active during the day but become nocturnal in the hot summer months and hibernate through the winter in communal burrows. Given their relatively long life spans of between 12 and 15 years, Pacific gopher snakes can reach lengths exceeding 7 feet. They average around 5 feet.
Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.