Cochise County Reptiles: The Gopher Snake


Today’s gopher snake sighting nearly cost the reptile dearly, but its luck held.  Our Cochise County home in southern Arizona is off grid and is reached via two miles of dirt road after you leave the highway.  I was bombing along at 35 mph or so, didn’t see Jake the snake lying there all stretched out until the Subaru Outback was almost on him.

Or on her.  I’m no gender expert when it comes to snakes.

There was only one chance to avoid hitting the critter.  The vehicle rumbled over the near-victim, driver side wheels missing its head by inches and the passenger side missing its tail by inches as well.

Good thing it was “only” a four-footer.  This species, Pituophis Catenifer, can reach seven feet or more in length.

Well, hey.  We takes our wildlife photo ops where we finds ’em.  U-turn, wheel back up thataway, roll down the window, dig the Canon PowerShot out of its hip case, and see what the gopher snake has to say about posing for a few shots.

Turned out it didn’t have much to say at all.  This beastie can constrict-and-swallow everything from insects to full grown rabbits–except maybe our oversized jack rabbits–but it’s not instinctively equipped to deal with a 3,000 lb. set of wheels scaring the bejabbers out of it.

The snake didn’t rear in a defensive imitation-rattlesnake coil or anything like that, just sort of shortened itself into a series of squiggles that would make a switchback logging road engineer proud.  In fact, I kept moving the car, more or less circling the reptile to get different camera angles, and it never moved a muscle.

Mainly, it looked like one worried gopher snake, as in, “Dude!  Why’d you terrify me with that machine-monster-thing?!  I’m not looking for trouble!”

One worried-looking reptile.

In truth, I felt bad and I felt good about this gopher snake encounter, as follows:

1.  I felt bad for scaring the poor thing with my big, noisy Subaru.

2.  I felt good that I’d managed to miss actually running over one end or the other.

3.  I felt bad that I was still hanging around–not close enough to make it feel it had to go into defense-threaten mode, but close enough to prevent it from relaxing and stretching back out, maybe even getting around to crossing the ever dangerous road into safer, grassy territory on the other side.

4.  I felt good that I was getting great pictures with minimal effort.

And so forth.

This happens to be Arizona’s longest snake.  Not this exact specimen, but this species.  It also somewhat resembles a rattlesnake, a fact that gives it an edge against nonhuman predators who are wary of pit vipers but also causes any number of humans to kill before properly identifying it as non-venomous and completely uninterested in biting humans.

At a glance, yeah, you could mistake that for a diamondback rattler.

However, if you run across one of these guys and the adrenalin rush doesn’t push you into blind terror, there are two easy ways to prove it’s one of the “good” snakes–and one of those ways is at each end of the snake.

The head is not spade-shaped, and there’s no pit behind the eye.  Plus, their pupils are round, there’s that black stripe down from the eye…and I’ve never yet seen an actual rattlesnake display that worried look.

Round pupil, black stripe below the eye, no pit viper pit.

Gopher snakes live pretty much anywhere except for wa-ay up high in the mountains (above 9,000 feet).  Despite that, and despite living most of my years in the country rather than in cities or towns, I don’t recall having seen a single representative of the gopher snake tribe in the wild until Pam and I moved to New Moon Ranch and built the Border Fort.  Now we see an average of at least one a year.

They’re egg layers.  Rattlers bear live young, but not the gopher snakes.  The females pick a likely spot (where the eggs will remain warm enough to eventually hatch) and have at it, dropping from 2 to 8 eggs (or from 2 to 24, depending on which articles you read on the subject), and boogie on.

Other than picking a likely spot and depositing the eggs, Mom has no maternal responsibilities.  The kids are on their own, right out of the shells.

At the other (tail) end of the gopher snake, it’s rather obvious there are no rattles.  When scared enough, though, they’ll vibrate their tails in a lowdown way.  Low down to the ground, that is, rattling grass or dead leaves or the Earth itself. Whatever works.

The tail is tapered, but to a somewhat blunt tip.  They’re not like the coachwhips whose tails trail off in a practically threadlike taper before ending up at a tip so sharp you could use it for a spear.

Or it seems that way, at least.  I haven’t actually tried it.

Tapered tail, though a bit blunt at the tip. No rattles.

This snake had been sunning itself smack dab in front of a neighbor’s driveway.  That family has a passel of children at home, ranging from nearly grown on down to barely walking.  Which meant I was glad indeed to note that this was a gopher snake, not a Mojave green rattlesnake–which we definitely have in this area in some abundance.  The Mojave green can kill you with its neurotoxic venom, far deadlier than the poison packed by other rattlers.

The gopher snake, however, is a good neighbor and no threat to any homo sapiens…unless you count the occasional individual who has a heart attack and drops dead at the very sight of those patterned scales.

On the other hand, if you’re a pocket gopher or a ground squirrel, this powerful constrictor is not only a horrible neighbor but the worst house guest you could possibly imagine.  That hardened nose will thrust right into your home burrow, squeeze you to death or smash you up against the side of your own domicile with the same result, then swallow you whole and take over the place while you’re being digested.

As they say, it all depends on whose ox is getting gored.





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