Cochise County: The Sonoran Gopher Snake (2014), Pituophis Catenifer Affinis

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September 1, 2014. Labor Day. Definitely snake season. The Sonoran gopher snake (three names, just like its scientific name, Pituophis catenifer affinis) was sunning itself on Paloma Trail in southern Cochise County when my truck roared by, closely pursued–uh, I mean coincidentally followed–by a Border Patrol truck.

Photo op!

Seeing the sizeable reptile right out there in the open, I hit the binders, brought the GMC to a stop some sixty feet beyond the snake, and got out to unlimber the Canon PowerShot camera. The BP officer flew on by. I waved at him without looking, my attention all on The Reptile in the Road. Didn’t really know what species the beastie was just yet. It had looked pretty sizeable, even multi-squiggled as it was, reducing it’s total natural length by at least half. If it was a rattler, it was a huge one, bigger than anything short of an eastern diamondback (which isn’t supposed to be in Arizona, but it’s seldom wise to trust the so called experts).

Nope. Not a pit viper. By the time I’d closed to within twenty feet or so of the critter, the tapered no-rattle tail and smooth not-a-spade-shaped-head were obvious. What we had here was a Sonoran gopher snake, entirely nonvenomous. These gopher snakes can get pretty lengthy; in fact, they’re listed as Arizona’s longest snakes, the biggest one on record coming in at seven feet, eight inches. Most of those we’ve seen in this area have been more in the four foot range, but we have plenty of them…a testimonial to the plentiful supply of fast breeding rodents around here, since rodents are what they eat. This specimen, at a guess, would stretch out to five feet or more–maybe a good bit more–when not “squiggled up”. A vehicle had no doubt whizzed by close enough to produce the squiggles, but obviously not enough to convince the big fellow (or big girl) to move off his or her toasty sunning spot completely.

Some online sites list them as “fairly aggressive” in the wild, but so far we’ve not seen that, perhaps because we don’t make a habit of pestering them. I slowly circled, love talking quietly while snapping the shutter. The snake remained motionless, watching me but not even bothering to tongue-flick the air.

The big Sonoran gopher snake, Pituophis catenifer affinis, kept an eye on me but remained motionless, clearly unconcerned about being photographed.

The big Sonoran gopher snake, Pituophis catenifer affinis, kept an eye on me but remained motionless, clearly unconcerned about being photographed.

As I moved around my new friend, getting different camera angles, the considerable size of the animal began to strike home. Even squiggle-scrunched as tightly as it was, it still covered at least 30 inches of ground. Stretched out, it had to be at least twice that–which is why I guessed its real length at five feet or more–but it could have possibly managed a good deal more. Also, in this position, it looks heavier bodied than the other, younger Sonoran gopher snakes we’ve seen. Big thick granddaddy gopher guy, definitely.

As I began to move around, getting different camera angles, the real size of the snake became evident.

As I began to move around, getting different camera angles, the real size of the snake became evident.

The last thing I wanted to do was disturb the big fellow. The only excuse for doing so might have been to keep him from getting run over by a motorized vehicle, but our neighbors seem to be pretty careful about things like that.

With that in mind, the best option was obviously to go for a 360 degree circle-view and then call it a day.

The eye followed me, all right, but nothing else on the big Sonoran gopher snake even twitched.

The eye followed me, all right, but nothing else on the big Sonoran gopher snake even twitched.

This was the first of its species to hold still, basking in the sun, while I took all the photos I wanted. We’ve had any number of them show up around the Border Fort over the years, but they were always on the move when first spotted. The first one we saw, near our Subaru Outback in the middle of our first summer on the land (2009), fooled us for a moment as–to the snake’s detriment–it so often fools other humans. It doesn’t really resemble a diamondback rattlesnake, not really…but close enough to get itself killed far too often.

Fortunately, the existence of one this big indicates there’s a plentiful population of Pituophis catenifer affinis locally. That’s a good thing.

What? You’d like to see a close-up of the head? Perhaps get a look at the tough scale over the nose, used to push through dirt in rodent burrows when the snake is on the hunt for a twofer, gaining lunch and secure cover at the same time?

Why, sure. Thought you’d never ask. How about a look at the right side and then the left side?

Head of Sonoran gopher snake, right side. Note the tough, blunt dirt-digging nose.

Head of Sonoran gopher snake, right side. Note the tough, blunt dirt-digging nose.

Sonoran gopher snake head, right side.

Sonoran gopher snake head, right side.

Obviously, we can’t have snake head shots without at least one snake tail shot, right?

Sonoran gopher snake tail.  We love to see that taper, proving it's NOT a venomous rattlesnake.

Sonoran gopher snake tail. We love to see that taper, proving it’s NOT a venomous rattlesnake.

Another look at the gopher snake's tail.

Another look at the gopher snake’s tail.

I’d gotten used to thinking of Sonoran gopher snakes as long and slender, but the next photo really underscores the fact that this particular specimen is no scrawny weakling. Long, yes, but there’s some heft in them thar squiggles.

The Border Patrol officer headed back by the other way. This time, he slowed way down and we grinned at each other, exchanging a few pleasant words before he drove on. BP people in this area know us, we appreciate their service, and we all appreciate the local wildlife.

This is not only the longest Sonoran gopher snake we've seen to date; it's also the heaviest bodied.

This is not only the longest Sonoran gopher snake we’ve seen to date; it’s also the heaviest bodied.

At the very end of the photo shoot, I was almost looming over the critter, trying for as high an angle as possible while still refraining from disturbing my ultra-cooperative model. When this final picture was taken, I was standing no farther away than perhaps the length of the snake itself. The result is a great shot which shows the top of the head, not just the profile.

High angle shot (photographer standing about the snake's own length from the subject) showing the top of the reptile's head.

High angle shot (photographer standing about the snake’s own length from the subject) showing the top of the reptile’s head.

That felt like all that could be done without pushing the envelope, so I thanked the snake, wished it well, and headed on home.

2 thoughts on “Cochise County: The Sonoran Gopher Snake (2014), Pituophis Catenifer Affinis

  1. That is a very big snake. I usually glance at the tail first, when I see a snake. It is an easier to identify marking than the shape of the head for me. I always forget the precise shape of head I am supposed to keep an eye out for. If there are no rattles, I am usually safe. I still don’t like being around the things though. They give me the heebie jeebies.

  2. True; this particular snake was no runt. I stare pretty hard at both ends but, like you, go with a heavier dependence on the tail end IF both ends are clearly visible at the time of observation AND if the head hasn’t already grabbed my attention. I have a very clear image of what a rattler’s head (or for that matter any pit viper’s head) looks like, literally (more or less) spade shaped, with the neck (shovel handle) being quite narrow and the flare of the skull being wide and dramatic. That wouldn’t help with an elapid like a coral snake, of course, but for the rattlers it’s extremely helpful.

    As a youngster growing up, I had more than the heebie jeebies about snakes in general. Over the years, though, my attitude began to change…and the snakes know it, too. It used to be (decades ago) that just about every time I encountered a rattler, it was coiled and buzzing in alarm. Now it’s not that way. I’m pretty sure they can sense our emotions and know that if we’re scared, they’re in danger.

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