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Mistaken Identity: Gopher Snakes

Gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer).
Gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer).
The holler of "Rattlesnake!" from the rear of the line snapped each of us from our contemplative walk.

"A gopher snake can be quite intimidating, especially when it imitates rattlesnake behavior."

"On Earth Day I organized a trip to take students to a ranch in the Bitterroot Valley to remove fencing in order to make life a bit easier for roaming wildlife. One stretch of fence cut a straight line on the rounded peak of a sagebrush hilltop and provided striking views of the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and the April storms that scattered snow on the eastern slopes. While walking single-file to the far end of the fence – our starting point for coiling up the barbed wire and sawing off the fence posts – the trail of boots from the seven of us lifted the fine dirt that hung for a moment before settling back down in the breezeless mid-morning. Our silence was greeted with the distant songs of Western meadowlarks and the huff of four white-tailed does as they flagged their way away from our intrusion.
The holler of “Rattlesnake!” from the rear of the line snapped each of us from our contemplative walk. When I got back to the snake all I was able to see was the head and about a foot of the body poking out of a hole in the ground as the snake retreated backwards down its tunnel. After a closer look, I dismissed the notion that it was a rattlesnake, recognizing it as a gopher snake, Montana’s largest and perhaps most ubiquitous snake.
Also known as a bull snake, individuals up to eight feet long have been reported, although most range from three to five feet in length. Generally, the body is yellow to cream-colored with large brown, black or dark brick-red splotches running along the snake’s back, with smaller blobs of similar color trailing along the side. The belly is usually yellow to cream-colored as well, with much smaller black or brown spotting along the snake’s underside.

A gopher snake can be quite intimidating, especially when it imitates rattlesnake behavior. When threatened or angered a gopher snake may coil up, hiss at the intruder, and might even produce a rattle-like sound by vibrating its tail. However, the rattling sound comes from the snake shaking nearby dry grasses, not from actual rattles. A gopher snake also has the ability to flatten its head, which is slightly larger than its body, furthering its rattlesnake impression.

Unfortunately, since they can be mistaken for rattlesnakes, many gopher snakes are needlessly killed. And, like many snakes that seek the warmth of roads, gopher snakes also commonly fall victim to vehicles.

Gopher snakes are effective predators on rodent populations, and they are a food source as well. Hawks, owls, and coyotes will make a meal out of a gopher snake, and badgers, weasels, and skunks will feast on their eggs.

Speaking of eggs, gopher snakes mate in the spring after emerging from their winter dens in April or May. Once a male locates a female, which he does by following pheromone trails, the mating ritual is combative: prior to copulation the male rubs his body over the female and may even bite her neck. Females will lay a clutch of two to twenty-four eggs, commonly in abandoned mammal burrows. Incubation lasts from seven to fourteen weeks and the young will hatch sometime in September or October.

The gopher snake we encountered that spring day slowly backed the rest of the way into its tunnel and provided a great lesson to all of us. Although it is wise to err on the side of caution when encountering a snake, understanding the habitat and behavior of any species can help avert unnecessary harm to people or to the critters themselves."

(Broadcast: "Fieldnotes," 6/9/15. Listen weekly on the radio, Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., or Fridays at 4:54 p.m.,  or via podcast.)

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