Coachwhips—Fast as Lightning?

Most snakes are slow compared with how fast a person can walk. As a result, running from a snake means that you can easily put some distance between you and the snake if you are afraid of snakes. A few snakes, like coachwhips and racers are pretty fast, and they are very alert when they are warm. Coachwhips in particular, can be intimidating snakes, even though they are completely harmless.

Adult coachwhip—note the braid-like tail

Adult coachwhip—note the braid-like tail

Several years ago, a large coachwhip was spending the night in a hole inside of a shrub bed alongside of our house. When I would walk out on the porch, I would hear the bushes moving as the snake headed into the hole. I finally was able to sneak up on the snake and sure enough, it was a five-foot long coachwhip. The snake hung around for about a month, rustling about in the shrubs every time we walked by. As time passed, we noticed that we were not seeing very many lizards or frogs in our yard, most likely because the coachwhip was eating them. It finally wandered off, either looking for a mate or for more food.

Adult coachwhips vary considerably in color. Some are tan, some black, and some are almost neon orange, with no obvious pattern. They get their name because their tails look like braided whips used to regulate the speed of horses drawing coaches. Juvenile coachwhips have a barred pattern, but they are fast just like adults. Coachwhips have very large eyes and good vision, so they usually see you long before you see them. Often, by carefully looking across the top of grass in uncut fields, you can spot the neck and head of a coachwhip sticking up above the grass. They use their head like a periscope to look around as they move through the grass.

Juvenile coachwhip—note the large eyes

Juvenile coachwhip—note the large eyes

If you decide to chase one down (assuming that you are quick enough), keep in mind that they can and will bite. For the naïve naturalist, it can be quite a surprise to grab a large coachwhip only to have it chew up and down your arm while you are trying to get it under control. Again, they are not venomous, the bite really doesn’t hurt, and the needle-like teeth do not do much damage. Moreover, unlike dog or cat bites, it is highly unlikely that any infection will follow. If you don’t touch the coachwhip, it won’t bite, contrary to what you might think, so perhaps it is best to just observe it.

Finally, coachwhips have been the object of some fascinating wives’ (or perhaps husband’s) tales. This is one of the snakes that some people believe will bite their tail and roll down the hill like a hoop (hence, “hoop snake”). They don’t really do that, but it does make for a good tale!

2 Responses to “Coachwhips—Fast as Lightning?”

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