The California kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae) is a nonvenomous colubrid snake endemic to the western United States and northern Mexico. It is a relatively small subspecies of the common kingsnake and is naturally found in a wide variety of habitats. One of the most popular snakes in captivity, the California kingsnake can vary widely in appearance due to numerous naturally occurring and captive-developed color morphs.
The California kingsnake is found in many places on the West Coast, including the highest mountain ranges to approximately 6,100 ft (1,900 m) in the south (Tehachapi Mountains) and over 7,000 ft (2,100 m) in the southeastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, as well as southern portions of Nevada,and/or Utah, Oregon, northwestern New Mexico, and in extreme southwestern Colorado, northwestern Mexico. In Arizona, they intergrade with the desert kingsnake and the Mexican black kingsnake.
The California kingsnake was introduced to Gran Canaria (Spain) by the accidental or deliberate release of individuals bred in captivity. In 2007, its naturalization was confirmed on the northeastern side of the island, and in 2009 it was discovered in an area on the northwest side.
The California kingsnake is generally diurnal, but they become more nocturnal if the weather is too hot. In the winter, they will usually go deep underground and enter a hibernation-like state called brumation, which is characterized by a slowed metabolism and reduced activity.
California kingsnakes are opportunistic feeders, feeding on almost any vertebrate they can constrict, just as all Colubridae do. Common food items include rodents, other reptiles, birds, and amphibians. All kingsnakes are non-venomous, but are powerful constrictors and generally kill their prey through suffocation. The “king” in their name refers to their propensity to hunt and consume other snakes, including venomous rattlesnakes that are commonly indigenous to their natural habitat. California kingsnakes are naturally resistant to the venom of rattlesnakes but are not totally immune. They feed on rattlesnakes when the opportunity arises and a rattlesnake will make an easy meal for a hungry kingsnake, but do not seek out rattlesnakes specifically, nor consume them on a regular basis.
When disturbed, California kingsnakes will often coil their bodies to hide their heads, hiss, and rattle their tails, which, if done in dry vegetation, can produce a sound somewhat resembling that of a rattlesnake’s rattle. They are considered harmless to humans, but if handled it is common for this species to bite as well as excrete musk and fecal contents from their cloaca, but this latter habit is usually restricted to the females.
Kingsnakes usually shed four to six times per year at which point they go “opaque”, meaning the snake’s skin becomes dull and its eyes will turn a milky white color, rendering them practically blind. However, a snake’s sight is not frequently their optimal sense, but can still disorient and/or change their behavior, especially in snakes kept in captivity. Like all snakes, they usually shed in one piece, which includes their eye scales. Juvenile snakes will shed more frequently, up to once a month, than adult snakes because of their faster rate of growth. Prior to shedding, they will generally seek out humid microclimates in their habitat and rub their heads (where the shedding begins) on rough surfaces like rocks, hardened earth, tree bark or dry vegetation.
The California King is an oviparous internal fertilization animal, meaning it lays eggs as opposed to giving live birth like some other snakes. Courtship for this kingsnake begins in the spring and involves the males competing for available females. Their mating ritual begins by the male snake vibrating uncontrollably. Eggs are laid between May and August which is generally 42–63 days after mating; in preparation the female will have chosen a suitable location. The typical clutch size is five to twelve eggs with an average of nine, though clutches of 20 or more eggs are known. The hatchlings usually emerge another 40–65 days later, and are approximately eight to thirteen inches in length. Adult California kingsnakes seldom exceed 48 inches and are most commonly 2.5–3.5 feet in length.
The California kingsnake is one of the most popular pet reptiles, due to its ease of care, attractive appearance, and ability to be tamed. It is also the most widely bred, and as such most available, subspecies of the Common kingsnake. They are also very widely bred with other certain breeds, and breeders have made many different color patterns and morphs such as changing the stripes to run down the length of the body rather than across, or other patterns of color and body length. The most popular morphs are wild type, “Black and White”, “High White”, “Ruby Red-eyed” and albino. They are kept in glass, plastic or wooden enclosures with suitable equipment to provide the right temperature and humidity. Regardless of the type of cage, its security is of utmost importance to prevent the reptile from escaping. Young individuals do best in smaller cages roughly the length of their body, and can be moved to larger environments as they age, as enclosures that are too large can cause unnecessary stress. Common substrates suitable for use with California kingsnakes are aspen shavings, newspaper, and paper towels. Cedar and pine shavings are toxic to most reptiles and should not be used. When a kingsnake is preparing to shed, it needs a humid environment to help shed the old skin. A box containing damp moss or moistened paper towels is often provided to facilitate this process.
Temperatures should be kept at around 80–85 °F (27–29 °C), with the cool end of this range at one end of the enclosure and the warm at the other end. This provides a thermal gradient within which the snake can self-regulate its own body temperature. Temperatures should not be allowed to go above 90 °F (32 °C) as this can cause severe health problems. Room temperature at night is suitable; most wild snakes can take overnight temperatures as low as 45 °F (7 °C). Humidity should be kept low (below 40%), and one suitable water bowl can provide this.
Snakes should not be handled extensively for the following 48 hours after eating, which can cause the snake to regurgitate its prey. When handling a kingsnake, the entire body of the animal should be supported and not tightly restrained. Young snakes and any individuals not accustomed to being handled may bite and smear cloacal contents on the handler, though most kingsnakes learn to tolerate being handled by humans relatively quickly.
The King Snake is a non-venomous species that loops around, constricts and then squeezes the prey until it suffocates. The snake must not be fed food items that are still frozen. The food should be thawed to room temperature and then if desired, warmed slightly in warm water or on a heat pad. Frozen prey will cause frostbite, which can be deadly for a snake.
Because of their cannibalistic nature, no more than one California kingsnake should be kept in a single enclosure at once. Snakes in shared enclosures may attempt to eat one another, resulting in the death or injury of one or both snakes. The only time two snakes should be in one enclosure is if breeding efforts are ongoing, and even in this case, it is recommended to go through selective steps of breeding.