Seeing as gopher snakes are one of the most famous snakes in the United States, I figured I should probably get around to learning as much as I could about them in the event I should ever meet one. Then I would know whether to ask for their autograph or take to the hills. I found a lot of other cool facts I thought warranted mentioning on the way.
Their Appearance is Amazing and Frightening
Gopher snakes are a pinwheel of colors, from cream, yellow, and tan, to green, gray, and red. They have large blotches all down their back, and smaller ones dotting their sides, usually a brown or black color. Occasionally, you’ll find a striped gopher snake, but blotches are the most typical.
They also have a black line down the center of their forehead and two running around their eyes to their jaw.
Their bellies are lightly colored, and usually, have no pattern on them. Their colors will blend into the vegetation around them. They have ridged, or keeled, scales, as opposed to the smooth scales of water snakes or milk snakes. If you run your finger along the top of their back, you’re in for a bumpy ride.
Gopher snakes can reach up to eight feet in length, though they are usually closer to three to five feet long. Males and females are sexually alike, meaning they are the same size and length, and there are no big differences between their patterns.
Gopher snakes are often mistaken for rattlesnakes because of their similarity in color, size, and shape. Gopher snakes are non-venomous, so they use this sort of mimicry as a defense mechanism. The best way to tell the difference between a lovable gopher snake and its gnarly, venomous, pit viper of a cousin, look at the tail, the eyes, or the body.
When threatened, a gopher snake will coil up just like a pit viper, flatten its head, and shake its tail at light speed.
That, coupled with a fairly impressive hiss, is enough for your brain to jump straight to: “Red alert! It’s a rattlesnake!” However, just look closely at the tail. If you don’t see any rattles, it’s a gopher snake. If the tail is moving too fast to tell, take a second look at the neck. A rattlesnake’s neck is wider, and gopher snakes are longer than the average rattlesnake. Plus, like all non-poisonous snakes, the gopher snake’s eyes have round pupils, as opposed the cat-like slits of venomous snakes like rattlesnakes.
All that aside, if a snake is shaking its tail and hissing at you, it would be best to stay away, regardless of how poisonous you think the snake might be. Perhaps the best time to classify a snake species is not when it’s angry with you.
Fun fact: the scientific, Latin name for a gopher snake is Pituophis
The reason the gopher snake’s throaty excess is mentioned is due to an organ they have in throat called a glottis, which opens and closes rapidly, emitting a very good imitation of a rattlesnake rattle.
They Live in Deserts
Gopher snakes are found all over the United States. They particularly like the deserts of the American Southwest. Those include, among others, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Sonoran Desert, the Mojave Desert, and the Great Basin Desert. The snakes can be found up to 8,000 feet above sea level.
These snakes live in places as diverse as forests, deserts, cliffs, prairies, farmland, or thickets, just to name a few. They’re obviously not picky at all and will make their home anywhere.
Gopher snakes usually burrow into the ground and live in dens, sometimes sharing with other snakes. They will spend 90 percent of their time underground, coming out only when hungry, very much like a typical high school teenager.
However, in the summer, the snakes sometimes spend so much time sunning themselves and basking out in the open, that they have been known to give themselves sun cancer.
Gopher snakes are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. However, during the summer, when the sun is too hot, they do begin to switch their sleep cycle, coming out later in the day and staying up all night into the early morning.
To gain energy and warmth for such excursions, they can be found lying in the sun for hours on end.
Gopher snakes like to lay on flat, sunny rocks, or along the warm ground to bask. They have also been known to stretch out flat along the roadway. When a car approaches, instead of slithering away, they only curl up and hiss, trying to scare off what they presume is simply a stalking predator. This leads to a lot of squished snakes.
Gopher snakes are solitary creatures, preferring to stick to their own territory, which most of the time is only a quarter of a mile. They will stay within their self-imposed boundaries for years at a time, never giving it up, and never seeking new ground.
Because these snakes don’t live in the tropics and experience colder seasons, they hibernate during the winter months. They will retreat to dens for roughly three months to sleep and wait it out.
These dens are often communal dens, and they share their space with dozens of other snakes, even other species as well. They have been known to hibernate with rattlesnakes, whip snakes, and racers.
However, their tenuous friendship and eagerness to have roommates only lasts for as long as the temperature remains low. Once winter ends, males go right back to viciously defending their territory from other males.
Unlike most snakes, who mate during early spring, gopher snakes mate in July and August. Males mate with as many females as they can in those 2 months.
Females will excrete a pheromone that attracts males to them, and males will fight, sometimes for hours, over the females. The battle between the males often looks fairly similar to the mating rituals between the males and females, which is just a perfect opportunity for the common phrase: “All is fair in love and war.” Because this is a little bit of both.
About six weeks after mating, the females will lay a clutch of eggs ranging from two to 24 eggs. These eggs will stay in a communal nest with the eggs of other female gopher snakes for 10 weeks, where they all hatch together, fully developed; they can be almost a foot long.
After they hatch, the babies are on their own; the mothers feel no maternal instinct. The babies are big enough at birth to eat small mice. Females will reach sexual maturity in three to five years while the males reach sexual maturity in only one to two years.
In the wild, gopher snakes will live between 12 to 15 years. In captivity, it’s roughly the same, although there have been plenty of gopher snakes that have lived past 30 years in captivity. The oldest recorded gopher snake was just a little older than 33 years old.
Gopher snakes are non-venomous, as mentioned before, so when it comes time for catching dinner, they are what are called constrictors. And yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like. The horrible reoccurring nightmare you’ve been having since that fourth-grade field trip to the zoo is coming true. Snakes really do squeeze their prey to death. And then swallow it whole. Lovely.
Hopefully, you were not reading this aloud to your child as a bedtime story. If that is the case, I apologize
Alright, all that out of the way? Little Timmy is in bed with his nightlight on? You all comfortable in your armchair, safe to satisfy your macabre appetite? Okay, onward then.
There are a few misconceptions when it comes to the term “constrictors.” The first one is that snakes squeeze their prey so hard, they break all the bones in its body.
I want you to try an experiment for me. Get a pencil or a small toy, like one that comes in a Happy Meal. Now wrap your fist around it and squeeze as tight as you can. It didn’t break, did it? You probably have some pretty sweet indentations in your palm, but you most certainly did not break it to pieces. And if you can’t do it, then a snake definitely can’t either.
The second misconception is that snakes squeeze the lungs of their prey so tightly, that they can’t inflate and the rodent slowly suffocates to death.
Here’s another experiment for you. Think back to the last time you were hungry. And I don’t mean peckish. I mean “stomach pangs, can hardly move, hangry” sort of hungry. Were you going to take the time to methodically cook up a nice meal, smelling the tantalizing aroma of simmering veggies and cooking pasta? No, you were going straight for that one-minute microwavable hot pocket, scarfing it down before those pesky pockets of cheese had cooled down from the temperature of lava.
A snake hasn’t eaten in more than a week, and you guess it’s not going to wait those extra couple minutes for that rodent to die.
What a constrictor really does, is overwhelm the circulatory system of its prey. It cuts off the blood supply to the brain and the rodent dies within a couple of seconds of ischemia. Kind of anti-climatic, I know, but I can’t fudge the facts.
After it’s killed its prey, the gopher snake will unhinge its totally awesome jaw, opening its mouth to two or three times the normal amount and swallow the rodent whole. This actually takes quite a while, as the aforementioned “totally awesome jaws” work like some kind of biological conveyer belt, slowly shifting the rodent further and further inside the snake’s body.
Once the gopher snake can close its mouth again, internal muscles continue to work the rodent along to its stomach.
What’s on the Menu?
You’d be surprised to learn this, but gopher snakes eat a lot of gophers. It’s their favorite meal, and they can find it almost anywhere, considering they live in
Besides their namesake, gopher snakes eat a lot of what most other snakes eat. Small mammals like mice, rats, shrews; birds, bird eggs, and lizards make up most of the rest of their diet. They especially enjoy birds and bird eggs. They don’t typically eat other snakes, though they won’t ever back away from a fight with one.
Occasionally, if they’re in a marshy area, gopher snakes will venture into ponds and seek out the odd frog to munch on. After all, variety is the spice of life.
Gopher snakes are active hunters. They will follow their prey down their runways and into their dens, trapping them there at the same time as procuring a safe place to feed. They only eat once every seven to ten days.
Gopher Snakes as Pets
Gopher snakes are actually widely known as one of the best kind of snakes to get if you are thinking about getting a pet snake. They are extremely calm and docile, even in the wild.
Snakes, in general, make really good pets because they require relatively minimal care, and they won’t run around your house knocking expensive things off the coffee table with an over-excited tail.
Gopher snakes are the largest snakes native to North America, excluding imported, invasive snakes like Burmese pythons and anacondas. That does mean that they need a bigger enclosure than most snakes, but because they are ground dwelling snakes, the enclosure only has to be long, not tall.
Unlike most snakes, gopher snakes actually enjoy being held. They are curious and like to lift up their head to look around them. They are active and will slither around if you let them. If you just want to hold them, keep re-positioning your hands as they move, so they never actually get very far. Hold them underneath their body, supporting their neck and body, but not in a way that feels constricting to them. They like to be the ones doing the constricting.
Along with milk and corn snakes, gopher snakes actually have the best temperament of all pet snakes, making them ideal for beginners or hobbyists. However, they seem to literally be the only snakes that enjoy being held, so if that’s what you’re looking for, pick a gopher snake over a milk or corn snake.
Gopher Snake Care
Like all snakes, gopher snakes are very skilled at escaping. My theory is that when Harry Houdini died, a little bit of his soul passed into every snake in the world. A secure, tight enclosure is a must. Preferably one with a lock.
Like mentioned before, what really matters for gopher snakes is floor space, not height, since they are ground snakes. So a rack system tub will work quite well for them, as well as a reptile terrarium. Aim for a 30 gallon one. What they really need is about four feet of floor space, since they are extremely active.
That being said, they do like to climb occasionally, to survey their territory I suppose, so providing them with a few branches and foliage is a good idea.
Because gopher snakes like to burrow, using a lot of loose particle bedding as substrate (the stuff that lines the bottom of the cage) will make them the happiest. Of course, that sort of bedding is quite a mess to clean up, so you could look for alternatives. Newspaper is a cheap, easy substrate, but I guarantee that your gopher snakes will not be as pleased.
A small hide box is important, as well as a tub of water large enough for your snake to lay in.
Make sure to keep it fresh and clean. Cleaning your snake’s enclosure is one of the most important things you can do.
All snakes are “cold-blooded,” so they regulate their internal body temperature by moving constantly from cooler areas to warmer areas. You should provide them with these areas in their enclosure. Have a basking area that’s around 90 degrees and an ambient temperature of about 85 degrees.
During the night, the temperature can safely drop the high 70’s, but monitor the temperature of the enclosure vigilantly; if your snake gets too cold, it can die.
Aim to give your snake about 12 of daylight and 12 hours of night light. Often, the light in your house will work just fine, since we typically have our light on for 12 hours and off for 12 hours. If you want, you can get a light that cycles through day and night cycles for your snake.
Having your snake’s enclosure within sight of a window is also beneficial. During the winter, when there is less light, your snake will probably be less active and eat less, so don’t worry.
If your snake’s lethargy persists, consider purchasing a UVB light. A UVB light emits UVB rays, which the sun also does. This will help the snake get all the vitamins possible since it is not actually in the sunlight.
Gopher snakes are known for their big appetites. They will over-eat, so be aware of how often you’re feeding them. They need to eat every seven to ten days. My suggestion is to stock your freezer up with mice and rats.
When it comes time for feeding time, thaw one out and place it in the enclosure on the opposite side as your snake. Do not handle your snake shortly after feeding. And always wash your hands. If your snake smells food on your hands, it might bite you. You can even feed a gopher snake an occasional small egg as a treat, and they will love you for it.
Are gopher snakes dangerous? Gopher snakes are non-venomous and typically not aggressive. However, if they do bite you, it’s going to hurt really badly. If they feel threatened, they will hiss and even excrete a foul smelling musk. That’s a warning you should probably heed.
Do gopher snakes kill rattlesnakes? Gopher snakes and rattlesnakes are often in direct competition over territory and food since they have the same diet and habitat preference. Having gopher snakes around help keep rattlesnakes away. If the two get in a fight, a gopher snake can kill a rattlesnake.
Is a bull snake the same as a gopher snake? Bull snakes, pine snakes, and gopher snakes are all the same snake. They are the species Pituophis catenifer. In the west of the United States, the term gopher snake is used more often, and the term bull snake is used more often in the east.