A cloudy afternoon in the prairie brought about ephemeral troutlilies (Erythronium mesochoreum) and shooting stars (Primula meadia) peeking over the greenery. Habitats dominated by grasses and sedges make it difficult to find reptiles, but the damp conditions of early spring are most promising. Footsteps become quieter on mats of vegetation, and it’s easier to peruse the ground as opposed to being completely enveloped by plants from head to toe. So when a large prairie kingsnake darts across the fields, it’s very hard to miss. When disturbed, this individual vibrated its tail persistently, all the while tracking my movement through rapid head twitches.
Prairie kingsnakes (Lampropeltis calligaster) typically inhabit grasslands but will venture into adjacent woodland habitats. This species diverged from the mole (L. rhombomaculata) and yellow-bellied (L. occipitolineata) kingsnakes in the Pleistocene around 1.5 million years ago. Speciation in this group likely resulted from differences in ecological niche as distinct habitat types took form on opposite sides of the Mississippi River. In comparison to co-occurring species like black rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus) and bull snakes (Pituophis catenifer), kingsnakes cover much less distance on a daily basis. They tend to move underground, which makes them less often studied, and owing to this habit, roads prove to be major barriers to their dispersal. Agricultural land offers suboptimal conditions for kingsnakes due to periodic disruption of the soil layers, and intact grasslands are thought to be crucial to the conservation of this species. Kingsnakes are formidable predators, particularly to other snakes. Proteins in their blood neutralize viper venom, affording them little risk of injury when predating rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths (..but they are susceptible to neurotoxins, e.g., in coral snakes). For prairie kingsnakes, rodents make up the majority of their diet, particularly prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster), and they also feed on lizards, nonvenomous snakes, and the eggs of bobwhites (Colinus virginianus).
Photographed after disturbance