Moderately sized, docile and found throughout North America, kingsnakes are divided into 6 distinct species. Their smooth, well-defined scales come in a range of colors from black to light grey, and even red and yellow. All of the kingsnake species in the genus Lampropeltis, derived from the Greek words for “shiny” and “shield," are nonvenomous and make popular pets.
Common kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula) look anything but drab and common. They come in hues of red, yellow, orange, tan and white, with stripes, speckles, spots and patches. The exact coloring and pattern depends on the subspecies. The California kingsnake has thick, dark bands with a cream color in between, while the scarlet kingsnake features broad red and yellow rings always separated by black bands. These snakes typically grow between 2 and 4 feet long, and are adaptable to many environments; they’re found in deserts, wetlands, valleys and estuaries throughout the United States, and northern and central Mexico.
Gray-banded kingsnakes (Lampropeltis alterna) live in a localized region of the southwestern United States (Texas and New Mexico) and northern Mexico. They prefer to make their homes in warm desert flats, hills, canyons and ridges. Similar in size to common kingsnakes (2 to 4 feet long), these constrictors always have a gray background and multicolored bands.
The Mexican kingsnake (Lampropeltis mexicana mexicana) prefers the semi-arid brush and sandy soil of northeastern Mexico and southwestern Texas. These nocturnal kingsnakes are less vibrantly colored than their counterparts: they’re usually mottled gray, brown, red and black. As carnivores, their main diet includes rodents, lizards and even other snakes.
California Mountain Kingsnake
The California mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata) often is mistaken for the poisonous Arizona coral snake. The two look strikingly similar; however, a thin black ring always will separate the California mountain kingsnake’s small yellow and thick red bands. These snakes inhabit northern Baja California all the way north to Washington, but don’t expect to spot one on a hike. They’re elusive snakes and spend most of the day under rocks or even underground.
The prairie kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster) is a bit larger than its cousins and generally measures at least 4 feet long. These brown, gray, tan and olive snakes patrol the fields and prairies of the southern United States from the Atlantic coast to Texas. The prairie kingsnake prefers warm weather and even hibernates during the winter, though it is known to pop out on sunny winter days.
Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake
Alternating red, black and white bands, and a cream-colored snout distinguish the Sonoran mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis pyromelana) from other kingsnakes. These diurnal beauties live in the higher elevations and mountain ranges in Arizona, though they’ve also been spotted in valleys and grasslands. Though these snakes prefer to spend most of their time on the ground, they’re skilled climbers and sometimes end up high in trees or boulders.
- Melissa Kaplan’s Herp Care Collection: Kingsnakes and Milksnakes
- Desert USA: Common Kingsnake
- Woodland Park Zoo: Gray-Banded Kingsnake
- Wildlife North America: Mexican Kingsnake (Lampropeltis mexicana mexicana)
- California Herps: Lampropeltis zonata – California Mountain Kingsnake
- Illinois State Museum: Prairie Kingsnake
- Reptiles of Arizona: Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake
Christina Stephens is a writer from Portland, Ore. whose main areas of focus are pets and animals, travel and literature. A veterinary assistant, she taught English in South Korea and holds a BA in English with cum laude honors from Portland State University.