Kingsnake is one of those snake words that is thrown around a lot. One of the most common things we hear about “kingsnakes is that they are cannibalistic because they eat other snakes. Technically speaking, kingsnakes are snakes in the genus Lampropeltis, and many species exist. They include Speckled Kingsnakes (L. getula), Prairie Kingsnakes (L. calligaster), California Mountain Kingsnakes (L. zonata), Arizona Mountain Kingsnakes (L. pyromelana) and even Milksnakes (L. triangulum).
Oklahoma has Speckled and Prairie Kingsnakes as well as Milksnakes, and all three occur across most of the state. Speckled Kingsnakes are black with yellow “speckles,” usually one on the back edge of each black scale. Prairie Kingsnakes have a background color of brown and have distinct blotches in the western part of Oklahoma but are often very drab with only a faint hint of blotches in eastern Oklahoma. Both of these can reach 3 feet in total length or more. Milksnakes have red, white, and black bands that do not extend across the belly. They usually do not exceed 2 feet in total length. These brief descriptions and the photographs in this blog, should make it rather easy for you to identify the three kingsnakes in the state.
So, what about cannibalism? It is the case that most kingsnakes eat other snakes as well as lizards, mice, and even frogs occasionally. However, the various species of “kingsnakes” usually do not eat their own species, so technically speaking, they are not cannibals any more than you or I are cannibals because we eat beef. All species of kingsnakes can discriminate between their own species and other snake species by use of a highly developed chemical sensing system. They touch other snakes with the tips of their forked tongue, bring chemicals into their mouths, and deposit those chemicals on the surface of a large and highly developed chemical sensing organ known as the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ. This organ transmits information to the snake brain (yes, snakes have a brain!), where the information is used to identify whether the other snake is a species that they want to eat or whether it is one of their own species. This same chemical sensing system is used to locate and identify mates during the breeding season.