Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter


from the July 21, 2013 Newsletter issued from the Frio Canyon Nature Education Center in the valley of the Dry Frio River in northern Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, on the southern border of the Edwards Plateau, USA

It was one of those times when your reflexes take over and you find yourself doing something that surprises you. What I was doing was sliding my bike sidewise on loose gravel because an awfully big snake lay where my tires soon were to pass. Once I was standing astraddle the bike I found myself so close to the snake and the snake so long that I couldn't get his entire body into my camera's viewfinder, so the above picture just shows the front end.

The bold patterning was similar to that of a rattlesnake but being so close I could easily see the eye's round pupil, and of course rattler pupils are cat-eyed, like vertical slits. A close-up of the head showing the eye and facial scales better -- and the snake inflating his throat -- is shown below:

Gophersnake, PITUOPHIS CATENIFER, head

Taking into account that big snakes always look larger than they really are, I figured that this one was between six and seven feet long (2m). The back's dark blotches reminded me of a rat snake, but upon noticing the series of slender, black, vertical lines both above and below the mouth, and the snake's unusual thickness, I remembered the Gophersnake, PITUOPHIS CATENIFER, which we last met in California's Sierra Nevadas {below}. That was the subspecies catenifer, however; this is a slightly different looking one, subspecies sayi. Gophersnakes are sometimes called Bullsnakes.

I read that when Gophersnakes feel threatened they coil themselves into the strike pose of rattlesnakes, but then attack with their mouths closed, hitting with their blunt noses -- a gesture that might scare off most predators. Sometimes they shake their tails like rattlesnakes, and if they're in loose gravel or dry leaves it might even sound like a rattler rattling. Also, Gophersnakes sometimes gulp air and loudly hiss it out. Except for the inflated throat, which probably was gulping of air in preparation for hissing, I didn't witness any of these warnings. My snake just lay there, but when I dismounted the bike he began snaking through the grass, speeding up the closer he came to a thicket, until he disappeared there.

Gophersnakes are some of the nicest snakes you'd ever want to meet. Not only do they go to great ends to not actually bite their assailants, but also they eat lots of rodents. Sometimes they venture into ponds to hunt frogs. They're among our largest snakes, reaching eight feet or so (2.4m). In our area the Indigo Snake is bigger.

from the April 24, 2005 Newsletter issued from California's Sierra Nevada Foothills, USA

Wednesday morning my upslope friend Buck came for a visit on his motorcycle. Buck is 84 years old and his motorcycle is a '67 Honda, and that day he was carrying a sack with a small snake in it.

Buck said he thought he had a gopher snake, but that the more he looked at it the more he saw a rattlesnake's pattern, and recently he'd confused a rattlesnake for a safe snake, but rattlesnakes have flat heads and this one didn't, but...

A look at the snake's head convinced me that it wasn't a rattler. The eyes of pit vipers have elliptic pupils (cat eyes, like the cross section of a convex lens standing on its edge), and this snake's pupils were round. Also there were no pits between the nostrils and the eyes (the pits are heat- sensitive, used for locating warm-blooded prey), and there were no bulging poison glands behind the eyes giving the head a triangular shape (or flat head, in Buck's terms) so there was no way for this to be a rattler or other pit viper.

It was indeed a gopher snake, the subspecies known as the Pacific Gopher Snake, PITUOPHIS MELANOLEUCUS ssp CATENIFER. Gopher snakes are famed for their rodent- eating talents.

My Audubon field guide reports fifteen gopher-snake subspecies, and most of those subspecies at one time or another have been thought of as full species. Louisiana Pine Snakes, Bullsnakes, Great Basin Gopher Snakes and our Pacific Gopher Snake are all the same species, just different, interbreeding, blending together subspecies. In appearance they range from nearly entirely black ones to those striped like garter snakes, to gray-blotchy or brown-blotchy ones, to some that are white with dark red blotches! You can just imagine how many herpetological publications and symposia it took before they were all finally accepted as under one name.

It happens that I needed a picture of someone using a field guide making an identification, so Buck and my friend Fred took the neat picture below:

Gopher Snake, PITUOPHIS MELANOLEUCUS, immature