Lampropeltis getula splendida
Kingsnakes and Milksnakes are members of one of the most popular snake genera in herpetoculture, Lampropeltis. The genus Lampropeltis is endemic to North and South America, with many members present in the continental United States. The most popular kingsnakes in the reptile keeping hobby include the California kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula califoniae), and grey-banded kingsnake (Lampropeltis alterna), Desert kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula splendida) among others. The most popular milksnakes include the pueblan (L. t. campbelli), the sinaloan (L. t. sinaloae), and the honduran (L. t. hondurensis). Members of this genus are rightfully popular with reptile keepers, they are hardy, easy to breed, and come in a dazzling array of beautiful color and pattern morphs.
The Desert kingsnake, Lampropeltis getula splendida, has an overall dorsal coloration of dark brown or black. The lateral scales are heavily speckled with yellow. The head is black. The labials are pale colored with wide vertical lines. There are 20 to 42 moderately to poorly defined dark rectangular saddles. These saddles are seperated by yellow speckled crosslines, 2 to 3 scales in width. The belly is essentially black.
Hatchlings are usually around 7 – 10 inches and adults are usually around 36 – 45 inches, but can reach a length of 5 feet.
A nocturnal species, usually active only during the late afternoon and evening hours. It is secretive, spending much of its time hiding beneath logs and debris. When encountered in the wild it is a very nervous animal, vibrating its tail rapidly and putting on a valiant defensive display. Recently captured specimens defecate and discharge a foul smelling musk when handled. In captivity, most Desert Kingsnakes calm down and do very well.
Central and south Texas westward, across southern New Meico, to southeastern Arizona, southward to San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas, Mexico. In Mexico it ranges as far west as Sonora. It intergrades with Lampropeltis g. holbrooki in eastern and northern parts of its range and with Lampropeltis g. californiae and Lampropletis g. nigritus in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.
This species was formerly known as the Sonoran Kingsnake. Contrary to what both common names would lead you to believe, this kingsnake is not a true arid land dweller. While it may occasionally be found in arid areas, it is much more abundant in Mesquite covered brush land, generally not far from some source of water.
Kingsnakes and milk snakes must be housed separately (except during breeding season) because they are cannibalistic.
Kings, more than any other snake, is known for its tenacity for testing it’s environment, looking for a way out. The enclosure you select must have a tightly fitting, locking, top. If there is any small (very small) gap or hole, or any “give” to the fitting of the top attached to their tank or between the doors and casement, your snake will escape.
Enclosures may range from the strictly utilitarian (substrate, caves, water bowl) to being a vivarium, outfitted with substrate similar to that found in the snake’s native habitat, rocks, branches, backdrops, etc. It is easier to start off utilitarian, and then design and plan the interior design once you see your snake in place and it has acclimated to captivity.
Available commercially are a variety of glass enclosures with tops consisting of screen mesh and a hinged glass door which locks into place with a small swing latch. Available now are also locking screen tops which can be put on previously purchased tanks. With either of these enclosures, check the give of the tops before you place your snake inside and walk away. Snakes are, for the lack of a better word, squishy, and can squeeze themselves through impossibly tight spaces. Any gaps due to “give” in the doors or tops can be reduced significantly by fitting aquarium airline tubing all around the opening. (cut the tubing down the length and slide on the lip of the opening)
You can use inexpensive enclosures such as plastic shoe or sweater boxes providing there are small ventilation holes drilled in the sides and the lid has some sort of latching mechanism.
Many hobbyist and professional breeders do not utilize glass aquariums because of their bulk and weight. If you are planning on owning more than ten or so snakes, it may be advisable to purchase a rack system or stackable reptile enclosures. A rack system looks similar to a chest of drawers, there are several rows of cages, one on top of the other, all encased in one larger cabinet-like piece. In each row there are either one, or several (depending on the size of the individual cages) plastic cages. These cages pull out from the cabinet like a drawer does from a chest. Many rack systems are “lidless”; they are built so that the cages slide back in flush with the bottom of the next row, which acts like a lid. Running along the back of the rack system is a line of heat tape which heats one end of the enclosure, providing a thermal gradient. Heat tape must be controlled by a thermostat in order to provide the ideal “hot spot” temperature and to avoid a fire hazard. Rack systems allow herpetoculturists to keep snakes more efficiently and to provide the correct thermal gradient. Other options for reptile housing include manufactured cages, there are many companies specializing in custom reptile enclosures
Until you are certain that your new acquisition has no worms, protozoan infections or mites, start it off on paper towels or newspaper. Easily changed when soiled, these materials will also enable you to monitor the condition of the feces and to detect the presence of mites.
Once you are sure your snake is parasite-free and healthy, you can continue using the paper towels or newspaper. You also have some other options for the bedding. Sterilized reptile bark is one choice, it is attractive and easy to clean, just lift out the poop when needed, and replace all the substrate once a month Aspen bedding can also be used, it has the benefits of bark and allows snakes to burrow, creating their own hiding spots.
Do not use cedar or pine because the aromatic oils from these products irritate the respiratory system of your animals.
The more difficult or complicated you make the inside of the enclosure to clean, the less likely a busy person is going to do it. Find that delicate balance between providing as much interest and variety for your snake and what you can reasonably expect to be able to do on an at least weekly basis.
Kings are rather secretive snakes, preferring to curl up in a rocky crevice or under a log. Shelters of some sort should be provided in both the cool and in the warm ends of the enclosure. They can range from commercially available “rocky” caves, half-circles of tree bark, and upside-down flower pots. Hiding areas can also be made out of old margarine tubs turned upside down with a hole cut in the side, cardboard shoeboxes, or terracotta plant saucers with access holes knocked in the side (these come in many different sizes, are cheap, and easy to find at any greenhouse or home supply store).
The most important factor for keeping kingsnakes (all reptiles actually) is providing the correct environmental conditions. Caring for reptiles is very different than caring for other pets because reptiles are what are called ectothermic. Ectothermic, which is sometimes called “cold-blooded”, means that reptiles do not maintain a stable body temperature by creating heat from their metabolism. Reptiles rely on a behavioral mechanism called thermoregulation to regulate their body temperature. What this means is that when a reptile is too hot, it moves into the shade or down into its den to cool down, and when it needs to heat up (to digest food for example) it basks in the sun or moves into a warmer area. This is important for reptile keepers to understand because in captivity, we determine what temperatures a reptile has access to. Reptile keepers must provide a thermal gradient for their animals so that they may heat up or cool down, as they would do in the wild.
The Lampropeltis that live in climates that experience extremes in heat and cold alter their daily habits to accommodate such extremes. Hibernating through the cold winters, northern and mountain snakes spend the season dormant. Desert species will hide in cool crevices during the hottest part of the day, becoming crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk).
In captivity, the extremes do not need to be provided unless you are trying to breed your snakes. Almost all kingsnakes do well with a maintenance temperature gradient of 84-88 degrees F on the warm end and 70-75 degrees at the cool end. At night, the temperature can safely drop to 65 degrees F as long as the snake can warm up during the day.
Do not try to guess the temperature. Temperature control is important as it maintains feeding response and digestion. You must use thermometers. Ideally, one should be placed in the cool end, the warm end, and at any other area where the snake spends much of its time. The hottest areas should not exceed the maximum stated range by more than a couple of degrees, especially for snakes from temperate areas. There are many different ways to provide a thermal gradient, but all require that you purchase a good digital thermometer to make sure you are providing the correct temperature range.
If you are using an aquarium to house your snake, one good choice is to purchase an undertank heater. Undertank heaters are made out of flexible plastic and work a lot like a regular heating pad. One side of the heater is adhesive and this side attached to the bottom of the outside of the aquarium. It is important to place the heater on one end of the cage, so that the other end remains cooler. Undertank heaters work well because they can be left on a night without disturbing the animal. The other choice is a heat bulb. The heat bulb must be located on one end of the enclosure and most not be accessible to the snake (to prevent burns). One method that works well is to have a screen top with a clamp light sitting on top of one end of the cage. The wattage of the bulb necessary to provide the correct temperature will vary with the ambient temperature, so it is best to test the heat light by leaving it on for a few hours and monitoring the temperature closely. If the heat area provided is too hot, the snake will still use it because it must warm up to digest it’s food properly, but it can be seriously injured by thermal burns in the process, which brings me to the subject of heat rocks.
It is not recommend to use heat rocks for any reptile at all. The reason why is that heat rocks provide a small, localized heat source which is fully accessible to the reptile. Heat rocks often have “hot spots” and can overheat quickly, possibly causing severe thermal burns. If a reptile is housed in an enclosure that is cold everywhere except a tiny little heat rock, it will spend most of it’s time curled around, and in direct contact with, this unstable heat source, even to the point of causing severe injury to itself. Our advice is to find other, safer, heating alternatives.
Bright white Incandescent and other heat lights are impractical as the sole source of heat for two reasons: they must be turned off a night, thus allowing too great a drop in temperature, and they bother the snakes, especially the nocturnal ones. With a large enough enclosure, you can use a white light heat source for daytime, and a radiant heat source, such as a ceramic heating element (CHE) or nocturnal reptile bulb, for night. Radiant heat from below can be supplemented with a non-light emitting heat source such as a CHE. If the ambient room air temperature is always warm (in the low to mid part of the gradient required), then you may be able to make do with only one heat source, at least during part of the year.
Humidity and Water
Another aspect of providing the correct environmental conditions is humidity. Most kingsnakes do well with the relative humidity ranging from 40-60%.
Provide a bowl of water for your snake. They will often soak in the water, especially prior to a shed. As they often defecate in the water, you much check it daily, cleaning and disinfecting it before placing it back in the tank.
Relative humidity becomes and important issue before a snake is about to shed. Snakes shed at variable intervals, with more sheds as a snake is growing. When a snake is close to shedding its skin, its eyes will become milky and its scales will become duller. Then this will clear up and a few days after that, the snake will shed. When you notice your snake beginning to shed, the humidity must be increased to aid in this processes. Most incomplete sheds are caused by low humidity.
One way to raise the humidity is to mist the cage lightly for a few days until the snake sheds. One of the problems experienced years ago by Herpetoculturist’s and hobbyists keeping Lampropeltis is that the substrate was kept too damp, causing bacterial, fungal and respiratory infections. Make sure that the substrate remains dry at all times.
Also, a humidity box can be put in, and left in the enclosure for the snake to use whenever it needs to. Humidity boxes can be easily and cheaply constructed out of plastic Rubbermaid containers large enough to house a loosely coiled snake. An access hole must be cut in the side, but otherwise the box should remain closed. A layer of moist moss such as sphagnum or peat should be put inside the humidity box and kept moist at all times. Moist paper towels work as well and are easier to replace but tend to dry out more quickly. With baby snakes, a deli cup can be used to make a humidity box.
The Desert Kingsnake is a powerful constrictor feeding upon other snakes (including rattlesnakes), lizards, birds and small mammals. On occasions it has also been reported to feed upon frogs. It appears to be immune to the venom of native venomous snakes, upon which it feeds.
All snakes should be fed pre-killed or frozen thawed prey, never live. Live prey could inflict an injury that could cause your snake serious problems. If frozen mice are used, make sure to defrost thoroughly (leave on counter, under a light, or soaking in warm water).
Captive born hatchlings are started off on one-two day old pinkie mice, and so feeding them is rarely a problem. Wild caught snakes, on the other hand, may have been feeding primarily on lizards or frogs, making it quite a bit more difficult and time consuming to get them switched over to mice.
Hatchlings can be feed one to two mice every week, depending upon growth rate desired. Generally speaking, a snake will grow faster being fed several small prey a couple of times a week rather than one big prey once a week. The smaller prey are more digestible than the larger prey, so the snake is getting more nutrition from them.
Sub adults can be offered bigger mice one or more times a week. A good rule of thumb is to feed prey that is as big girth-wise as is the widest part of the snake’s body. You will find that they are hungrier in the spring and summer, winding down during the fall; many stop feeding altogether during the winter months even though the may still be somewhat active.
Adult size is generally reached within three years at which time the amount and rate of feeding can be reduced. Feed adult mice or just weaned pink rats. At this point, judgment must come into play. You want your snake to be well rounded, with no visible line of backbone or ribs. The amount of food it takes to maintain that weight and appearance varies between species. Start with once a week; if the snake looks too lean, increase to one mouse twice a week. Another rule of thumb: snakes over four feet long need at least two adult mice each week.
Occasionally, a snake may refuse to feed. Food refusal is caused by a number of things such as incorrect environmental conditions, a shed phase, pregnancy, or illness. If you snake refuses food for more than four weeks, has the correct environmental conditions (including hiding spots), is not shedding and has never been with a member of the opposite sex, it should be checked for illness. Some snakes will refuse food in the wintertime, even if provided with the correct environmental conditions and if they are not sick, shedding, or gravid. These snakes are acting upon their instinct to hibernate and should be allowed to do so. Most Lampropeltis hibernate for some time during the cool season. To hibernate your kingsnake make sure it has no food for two weeks but still has access to a warm spot so that it can remove all material from its digestive tract. After this time, the temperature should be lowered gradually to between 60-65 degrees. The snake should not be fed during this time, but fresh drinking water should be provided. Leave the snake in these conditions, checking on it frequently for signs of illness, for 4-6 weeks. After this time, slowly warm the animal back up to its maintenance temperature and offer food. Hibernation is often helpful if one wishes to breed their snakes.
Regurgitation is a common problem with captive kings. Regurgitation can be caused by handling a snake soon after it has eaten (don’t), too cool temperatures, illness, or feeding a prey item that is too large. If your snake barfs more than twice, and has the correct environmental conditions and has been fed appropriately sized food, take it to a herp vet.
Breeding occurs during April and May. During June and July clutches of 5 to 12 adhesive shelled eggs, each measuring about 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches, are laid underground in loose moist soil. Hatching occurs from late August through early October.