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There are 9 subspecies of milksnakes distributed across the United States; their range extends through the lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Plains, and beyond the Midwest to along the east coast. The distribution of the Pale Milksnake runs from Montana south into Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska. In Wyoming this subspecies is found below 6,000 feet (up to 7,000 feet in the Laramie Range) in the grassland and scarp woodland communities of the prairie and foothills life zones of the eastern counties and within the Big Horn Basin. They inhabit a diverse range of habitats including: foothill canyons, riparian zones, shrub covered hillsides, and grasslands with rocky cover or sandstone outcroppings.
These colorful but secretive snakes are primarily nocturnal (occasionally crepuscular) and spend most of the day hiding under rocks and logs and inside rotting stumps. They are active from late April into October, feeding on small rodents, an occasional egg, and are especially fond of eating other snakes. They kill by grasping their prey by the head, looping coils around the victim’s body, and then constricting until death occurs by asphyxiation. When disturbed they may coil and strike and vibrate their tail; when handled they may bite and chew and then become docile. They are a mimic of the poisonous Coral Snake. (On milksnakes every other band is black while on North American coral snakes every other band is yellow—giving rise to the saying “red on yellow will kill a fellow; red on black is a friend of Jack.”)
They are medium sized snakes with a total length (TL) of 24-30 inches. They have smooth scales and the anal plate is entire. These tricolored snakes have an overall background of cream or yellow with dorsal blotches of reddish-orange surrounded by black. Sometimes these dorsal blotches run across the belly and connect to form rings; sometimes the blotches remain isolated and form saddles which leave the belly white or pale yellow.
Mating occurs just after emerging from the den in May. Courtship begins with a male chasing after a female, biting her on the neck during alignment of the bodies, followed by coitus with the insertion of one of the hemipenes. In June a clutch of 4-13 eggs is laid under rocks, in mammal burrows, or in rotting logs and stumps. Hatching takes 42-62 days and young of the year begin showing up in August and September. Sexual maturity is reached in the 3rd or 4th year.
*The captive snake for these 6 images was provided by the courtesy of Wyoming Game & Fish and held under a state permit and care of Charles Plymale. All photographs copyright © Dan Lewis.