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Wildlife Spotlight: Gopher Snake

PictureGopher snake. Photo courtesy of Mark Friedman.

Gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer) are found in many different parts of North America, ranging from deserts, wide-open grasslands, and coastal areas. They are so named for their taste for gophers and other small mammals and play an important role in rodent population control. Adults range from 3-8 feet in length and typically live from 12-15 years. Thankfully, gopher snakes are not a threatened species and maintain strong numbers across California.

There are several ways to recognize gopher snakes. They generally have smooth, light yellow or tan undersides, with light brown backs marked by darker brown or black splotches, which sometimes form a chain-link pattern. (Catenifer is Latin for “chain-bearing”.)  Although gopher snakes are sometimes mistaken for rattlesnakes, they have narrower heads, and do not have the black-and-white-banded tail rattles sported by their venomous cousins.

The gopher snake has some curious defense mechanisms. A threatened gopher snake may curl up in what seems to be a striking position, but rather than biting, it will strike with a closed mouth, bloodlessly warning off potential foes.

If you see a gopher snake on the trails, give it a respectful berth and admire it from a distance – but not because there is anything to fear. Just like the other animals on the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, the gopher snake has its role to play, and it likes to do so in peace.