Lampropeltis zonata zonata - St. Helena Mountain Kingsnake
Considered harmless to humans. (There are no venomous snakes in California that can be mistaken for this snake, but the similar-looking Arizona Coral Snake, found in Arizona, is venomous and dangerous.)
Adults are 20 - 30 inches long (51 - 76 cm.) Average length is around 24 inches (61 cm.) Hatchlings are 7 - 10 inches in length (18 - 25 cm.)
A medium-sized slender snake with a head not much wider than the cylindrical body with smooth shiny scales. The scale count at mid-body is usually 21 - 23..
Black, red, and white or yellowish rings circle the body. The red bands are wider than the black and white bands, but in many specimens all bands are near the same width. Some black bands may widen and cross over the red bands on the back. A red band surrounded by two black bands is referred to as a "triad." Typically, more than 60 percent of the triads have complete red bands with no black crossovers. On this subspecies there are 24 - 37 triads, with an average of 27. The bands continue across the belly, but the coloring is paler, more faded in appearance, and the bands are more irregular, often encroaching into adjacent bands. The snout is black. The rear edge of the first white band on the head is located behind the corner of the mouth.
Secretive, but not rare in suitable habitat. Spends most of the time underground, under surface objects, or inside rock crevices. Occasionally seen active on the ground in the daytime, especially near shaded streams on hot sunny days. Active during the day at high altitudes during times of low nighttime temperatures (which is typical habitat.) When temperatures are more moderate, it can be crepuscular, nocturnal, and diurnal. During very hot weather, activity is primarily nocturnal. This snake is normally active at temperatures between aproximately 55 - 85 degrees.
Enters into winter hibernation typically around November, emerging some time from February to April, depending on location and weather conditions.
Eats lizards, small mammals, nestling birds, bird eggs, amphibians, and occasionally snakes, including its own species.
Breeding takes place a few weeks after emergence in the spring. Eggs are laid June-July and hatch after 50 - 65 days.
This subspecies, Lampropeltis zonata zonata - St. Helena Mountain Kingsnake, occurs from southern Napa and Sonoma Counties north along the north coast ranges to Trinity County where a large intergrade range with the Sierra Mountain Kingsnake - L. z. multicincta begins. There are unconfirmed reports from Marin County.
Intergrades with the Saint Helena Mountain Kingsnake - L. z. zonata in the Diablo Range. Brian Hubbs refers to this snake as the Diablo Mountain Kingsnake. Intergrades with the Saint Helena Mountain Kingsnake - L. z. zonata have fewer triads and are large, averaging over 36 inches (91cm.)
The species Lampropeltis zonata - California Mountain Kingsnake, occurs from northerm Baja California, to southern Washington. In California it is found in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, San jacinto, Santa Monica, and Santa Ana mountains of southern California, and throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains into the Tehachapi mountains. It ranges along the south-central coast and through the south coast ranges and part of the Diablo Range, continuing north away from the coast along the north coast ranges into the mountain ranges in the far north of the state. There are unconfirmed sight records from the White Mountains, Mt. Diablo, the interior south coast ranges, Santa Catalina Island, and Marin County.
A habitat generalist, found in diverse habitats including coniferous forest, oak-pine woodlands, riparian woodland, chaparral, manzanita, and coastal sage scrub. Wooded areas near a stream with rock outcrops, talus or rotting logs that are exposed to the sun are good places to find this snake. From about 60 ft. (18 m) to over 4,000 ft. (1,219 m.) Apparently most common above 2,000 ft. (610 m.)
Rodriguez-Robles, Denardo and Staub (1999 Molecular Ecology 8: 1923-1934) Publication #19 have called into question the recognition of 7 subspecies of Lampropeltis zonata, but not the existence of any subspecies:
"Examination of colour pattern variation in 321 living and preserved specimens indicated that the two main colour pattern characters used to define the subspecies are so variable that they cannot be reliably used to differentiate taxonomic units within this complex, which calls into question the recognition of 7 geographical races of this snake."
Mitochondrial DNA studies found 2 clades of L. zonata, a southern clade from Baja California and southern California, and a northern clade comprised of two subclades - a coastal subclade from the central coast and southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a northerneastern subclade of populations north of the San Francisco Bay and most of the Sierra Nevada.
The SSAR, whose taxonomy we follow on this website, does not recognize any subspecies of L. zonata but I will continue to treat separately the 5 traditionally-recognized subspecies found in California to illustrate some of the regional variations found in this snake.
Conservation Issues (Conservation Status)
When slabs are torn off rock outcrops by someone searching for this snake or other reptiles, the habitat this snake uses for refuge is irreparably damaged. It takes thousands of years for this rock fissuring to occur, so this habitat will not be replaced for many centuries. Such rock destruction is illegal in California: "It is unlawful to use any method or means of collecting that involves breaking apart of rocks, granite flakes, logs or other shelters in or under which reptiles may be found." (2007 regulations 5.60.4.)
Reptile hunters are usually blamed for rock habitat destruction, but bulldozers are far more destructive. I have also witnessed people tearing off huge slabs of granite with a crowbar then carrying the slabs back to their truck to haul them away.