Thursday, August 12, 2010

Species Profile: Gray-banded King Snake

For years the gray-banded king snake, lampropeltis alterna, was considered one of the rarest of Texas' snakes. Originally described to science in 1901 from a specimen found in the Davis Mountains, a second specimen wasn't found until 37 years later. These small, very secretive snakes are, in fact, relatively common throughout their range in west Texas and northern Mexico.

The gray-banded king snake is highly variable in appearance. It's background color ranges from pale gray to almost black or even slate gray. There are two distinct color phases. The blairi phase generally displays a number of wide red or orange bands or saddles bordered by black bands which are edged in white. The alterna phase displays little or no orange between the black bands. Some specimens are speckled with black.
Unlike most other king snakes, it has a wide head, narrow neck and is somewhat bug-eyed.

Gray-banded kings live among limestone outcroppings and rocky hills. They are seldom seen except late at night after when they cross highways after thunderstorms.

24-36 inches, with a few individuals exceeding 4 feet.

Lizards, rodents and other snakes. Hatchlings in the wild prey solely on lizards.

In Captivity
Gray-banded king snakes make great pets with one caveat: hatchlings are very difficult to feed, often refusing all food except for tiny lizards (see below). Once they are well-started on mice, these boldly colored snakes are a joy to keep. They are moderate in size and tend to be very docile and calm.

Adults do well in 15-20 gallon aquariums or similarly-sized plastic tubs. Hatchlings should be kept in very small cages or plastic boxes. Provide plenty of places to hide.

Any typical substrate is fine, such as aspen, newspaper or cypress bark.

Water and Humidity
Humidity should be kept low. Provide water in a small container. If shedding problems arise, a deli cup filled with moist sphagnum moss may be placed in the cage to provide the snake an area of higher humidity.

Heat one end of the cage to 85-90 degrees while allowing the cooler end of the cage to remain around 70-75 degrees.

This is the stumbling block for many inexperienced hobbyists who try to keep this species. Hatchlings often refuse to feed on anything except for tiny lizards. There are tricks, however, to get them switched over to pinky mice. Generally this involves feeding a few lizards to the baby snake, then scenting a pre-killed pinky mouse by rubbing it with a lizard and/or de-scenting the mouse by washing it with unscented bar soap. Live pinkies may also be offered. For more on problem feeders, check out this post.
Once the snake accepts pinky mice, it will grow quickly and should be offered appropriately-sized rodents.

Gray-banded kings should be cooled for 3 months at 50-55 degrees. Clutches usually consist of 5-7 eggs which hatch after 55-60 days at 80-82 degrees. Hatchlings are 7-12 inches.

Where to buy
You aren't likely to find these in pet stores, but there are a number of reputable breeders who deal in gray-banded kings. is a good place to start.

Gray-banded kings are very popular among some keepers, many of whom keep and breed separate lines after the various locales where they are collected, such as Langtry, Juno Road, Loma Alta, River Road, Black Gap, Lajitas, Sanderson and the Christmas Mountains.

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