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Southwest Wildlife

The Great Pretender

With an unmistakable hiss and a trick of tail rustling, the Sonoran gopher snake evolved to mimic a rattler. Now the joke may be on it.

by Jay W. Sharp



The Sonoran gopher snake — one of the longest and most frequently encountered in southwestern New Mexico — looks and behaves something like a rattlesnake (without the rattles), hisses like a leaking truck tire, and engages in prolonged ritualistic combat.

gopher snake 1
Sonoran gopher snake, Chihuahuan Desert floor, south of Las Cruces, at an elevation of about 4000 feet. (Photo by Jay W. Sharp)

Otherwise, it's just an ordinary non-venomous snake.

Typically, the Sonoran gopher snake (Pituophis melanoleucus affinis), fairly heavy bodied, measures three to five feet in length, although it may reach up to seven to eight feet. Somewhat like a western rattler, it has a yellowish tan to cream-colored body with dark brown to reddish brown to near-black blotches along the centerline of its back, from its neck to its tail. It has smaller blotches along its sides, with patterns varying considerably from snake to snake.

According to Shannon Hiatt, writing for The Pituophis Page ("Pituophis" refers to the snake's genus), the snake's colors and patterns may vary considerably within the species. For instance, the Sonoran gopher snakes at "White Sands National Monument tend to have the creamy white ground color with a few specimens displaying an off white to grayish white coloration that complements the white sands of that habitat."

The snake's belly, much lighter in color, usually has few blotches. Like a rattlesnake, the snake's scales are ridged or "keeled" along its full length, especially along its back and upper sides.

The Sonoran gopher snake's roughly triangular-shaped head — a bit like that of the rattler — has no splotches although it may have a few dark dots. It usually has thin dark lines between, below and behind the eyes. It has a fairly rounded snout. Its mouth has numerous small sharp teeth — but, unlike the rattlesnake, no fangs. It is non-venomous, its bite perhaps startling, but essentially harmless.

Like other snakes, the Sonoran gopher snake has a two-pronged tongue and a Jacobson's organ, which it uses for "chemo-sensing" the body odors of a potential prey, a predator or a possible mate. With its shiny, wet, ebony-black tongue, it samples particles from the air and nearby objects. It transfers the particles to the Jacobson's organ, in the front part of the roof of its mouth, for chemical assessment. Combined, the snake's tongue and Jacobson's organ and its nasal organs yield an acutely sensitive and informative sense of smell.



Range, Habitat and Diet


The Sonoran gopher snake — one of six subspecies in the American West — ranges across New Mexico (particularly our southwestern quadrant), Arizona, southeastern California, western Texas, and the northern Mexican states. Its habitat extends from the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Desert floors well up into the mountain ranges, perhaps as high as 8,500 feet.

In his article "The Sonoran Gopher Snake," Patrick Briggs says that it "frequents varied habitat with cover and food. It can be found near streams and rivers, desert flats, scrub, grass land and agricultural lands. Its favorite areas… are high grass or desert bushes, bare ground with many holes or tunnels, or rocky flat areas." The snake also favors abandoned or intermittently occupied rural structures, where rodents often thrive.

According to Hiatt, the Sonoran gopher snake preys predominantly on "small rodents (with the pocket gopher being the prey of choice), young nestling rabbits, lizards, sometimes (although rarely) other snakes, a few young birds from nests, and occasionally bird eggs taken from ground nests or low lying nests in bushes."





In mild weather, the Sonoran gopher snake — a facile crawler, climber and swimmer — hunts throughout the daylight hours. A constrictor, it bites and seizes larger prey, enveloping the victim in coils to suffocate it before swallowing it. The snake may simply bite and swallow whole the smaller prey such as nestling rodents or fledgling birds.

gopher snake 2
Head of a Sonoran gopher snake, Chihuahuan Desert floor, south of Las Cruces. (Photo by Jay W. Sharp)

In the summer, the snake may take refuge in rodent burrows or other sheltered places during the hottest hours of the day, especially on the desert floor, foraging primarily in the early morning and late afternoon. In colder months, the snake retires underground, where it will stay largely dormant through the season. Using its strong snout and front coils, the snake can move soil to modify an abandoned burrow or to excavate its own sanctuary.

If threatened, the snake may try to slither away for escape and cover, or it may defend itself aggressively, flattening its head, hissing repeatedly, vibrating its tail, and striking and biting. If it vibrates its tail in dry leaves or grass, it can produce a sound much like that of a rattlesnake's rattle. Its hiss, write Charles E. Shaw and Sheldon Campbell in Snakes of the American West, "may well register the highest decibel count of any hiss in snakedom." That is made possible, they say, "by a special modification of the glottal region of the trachea."

The bellicose, rattling behavior sometimes costs the snake its life. Naturalists Joseph and Hilda Grinnell (quoted by Shaw and Campbell) commented, "Along comes the city man with his instinctive but unreasonable fear and hatred for snakes in general, and he attacks the harmless and slow-moving gopher snake to the usual destruction of the latter."

Ironically, as Shaw and Campbell point out, "natural selection may have betrayed the gopher snake. For thousands of years selection apparently favored those gopher snakes that could best imitate rattlesnakes, perhaps because they could convince most predators that they were not to be trifled with." Now, it is that same behavior that causes people to kill the Sonoran gopher snake because they have confused it with the rattler.



Life Cycle


By April or May, the Sonoran gopher snake has emerged from its winter quarters, and its thoughts have turned to mating. During courtship, the male, according to Briggs, "will slither along [the] female's side, and attempt to impress her with some rubbing, flexing, nudging and intertwining of body and tails." He may also seize her neck quite insistently. If she is agreeable after all this attention, the two copulate. Then the male snake goes on his way.

gopher snake 3
Close-up of a Sonoran gopher snake, Chihuahuan Desert floor. Note the ebony black tongue.
(Photo by Michael M. Sharp, son of the author)

About a couple of months later, the female uses her snout and front coils to prepare an underground nest, where temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and high humidity will be maintained. There she lays a clutch of perhaps half a dozen to two dozen off-white leathery eggs, which can absorb moisture. She provides no further parental care.

Some two to three months later, the young snakes hatch from their shells and emerge from their nest. Each newborn, perhaps a foot or more in length, arrives self-reliant, capable of capturing and swallowing nestling rodents, for example. A male will reach sexual maturity within two years, and a female, within three to five years. The snake may live up to 20 years in the wild, notes the Phoenix Zoo, and it may live for 30 years or more in captivity according to Mary Studer in the Encyclopedia of Life.





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