Adventures in Herpetology

The true amateur in any field is one who loves the work. A lifelong interest in herpetology is the result of my genuine love for the creatures I have studied and observed—truly this is the work of an amateur.

Occurrence of the Trans-Pecos Rat Snake in Doña Ana County


While seldom seen in southern New Mexico, researchers such as Wright & Wright, Stebbins, Degenhart, Painter & Price, all place the trans-Pecos rat snake in southern New Mexico, including the area of the Organ Mountains. Degenhart has adopted the new genus name Bogertophis for the traditional Elaphe subocularis, but a rose under any other name is still…

The illustrated Trans-Pecos rat snake was indeed found in Doña Ana County. Early on a June morning in 1992, Sandra Schilling was going to her job in Branson Library on the New Mexico State University campus. As she approached the front door, which is recessed and framed by concrete steps and porch several feet below the surrounding ground level. The adult rat snake was stretched out full length against the door and Sandy first thought it might be a dead snake someone had placed there as a prank. When she realized it was alive, she knew from our many snake hunting road trips that this was an unusual find. She picked up the snake and brought it up to Milton Hall where I was preparing to teach a summer semester course whose session would begin just after 0800. She knew I would be surprised.


I recognized the snake immediately and was very excited, since I had looked in vain for this species for years, even cruising the backs roads around Ft. Davis, Texas, where subocularis was most frequently reported. This handsome creature appeared underfed, but otherwise in perfect condition. After an obligatory check with the NMSU campus police to assure them that this was a species that occurred naturally in our area and was not an exotic species that might have escaped from the Biology Department in Foster Hall just west of the library, I was free to take the snake home for an overdue feeding. He lived another nine years in captivity, providing much pleasure and also posing for a series of photographs, one of which illustrates this unusual field note. Here is my original record from that day 4 June 1992:
“After 20 years of unproductive searching, a 36” Trans-Pecos Rat Snake was found sunning itself at 7:55 a.m. MDT at the entrance of Branson Hall, the NMSU library, after a cool night in the low 60s and a sunny morning in the 70s. Sandy (who works at the library) secured the snake. While recorded from the Organ Mountains, it is surprising to see this seldom-seen species in the middle of a bustling campus. Amazing is an understatement.”


Captive Breeding of the Blacktail Rattlesnake

The rattlesnake is emblematic of the American West, but more than that, it was almost the American symbol as shown on the flag “Don’t Tread on Me.”


It is natural for a born amateur herpetologist to be enamored of the rattlesnake, and I never tire of finding them in their natural habitat to be photographed and admired. Years ago I was given the never-surpassed two volume set written by Laurence M. Klauber, but many other researchers and artists have paid homage to this wonderful, mysterious snake in books and articles. Those who take the years necessary to understand the behavior of rattlesnakes know that anecdotal tales of rattlesnake attacks are mostly the result of human self-justification and that most rattlesnake bites area the result of accident or human interference. Of the known rattlesnake species, the Blacktail Rattlesnake Crotalus molossus is probably the most even-tempered of all rattlesnake species. The species shares with the prairie rattlesnake the tendency to have a varied coloration and morphology dependent upon its habitat.


For the past 13 years I have had in residence a male and female pair of blacktail rattlesnakes, both brought to me by other collectors. The female is from the Organ Mountains and is small-bodied for a rattlesnake and of subdued gray coloration with markings of subdued distinction. The male originated from the rocky hills and canyons east of Douglas, Arizona and has become a large, heavy-bodied snake with a large head, a bright yellowish-tan background color and bold rhombic saddles. While this pair was sometimes observed mating, the female was apparently not fertile from 1991 until 2000 when she first became gravid after an observed three-hour mating period, giving birth to one baby and six infertile egg masses. In 2002 she again gave birth, this time to four young whose coloration was intermediate between her and that of her consort. She then gave birth to another litter of four snakes in 2004, and again in 2006 gave birth to three healthy young. Of course rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous and their young are issued alive. In 2002 and 2006, the female also passed one infertile mass along with the live snakes.


The young are nurtured by tube feeding of egg mixtures, sometimes mixed with blended mouse parts, but the egg itself seems to be sufficient to aid the snakes in growing for an entire year until they are more likely to survive in the wild. The young are taken to locations in the Burro Mountains southwest of Silver City, NM, locations in between the habitats of the male and the female.

It is a statement of biologists that reptiles do not appear to take pleasure in their activities, but perhaps this means that biologists do not take pleasure, for the snakes certainly do. Despite the irregular fertility of the female blacktail rattlesnake (they don’t produce young every year in the wild, either), this male and female appear to mate relatively often, not being restricted to fertile cycles.

The digital photos included with this text show the young of 2006, with the mating photograph being taken three months after parturition.


Metabolism of the Russian Rat Snake


Adopted from a colleague who found the species “snappish”, I have found the Russian Rat Snake Elaphe Schranki, also known as Schrank’s Rat Snake, to be an enthusiastic feeder, but not at all aggressive (or defensive). In residence for approximately 14 years, this handsome rat snake has proved hardy and interesting. Measuring approximately 30 inches when he was given over to my care, the snake is now nearly 5.5’ long with a slim, muscular build. The glossy black ground color and bright yellowish bands have apparently made this snake popular with the ophiculture hobbyists.

One of the most interesting behavioral traits of this serpent is his high metabolic rate during the warm months. From March to the end of September, his appetite is keen, and he sheds more frequently than any of the domestic species in my care. He moults 5-6 times during those months, but then his appetite and activity both wane over the winter months despite the relative comfort of the enclosure in which he is kept. Because this species is known from the Ukraine, it is possible that this snake is hard wired to endure the long Russian winters in hibernation while exploiting the summers for rapid growth and for satisfying a voracious appetite.



Digging Behavior of the Sonoran Gopher Snake


The Sonoran Gopher Snake is the most ubiquitous of western snakes save the rattlesnake and still is better known as the Bull Snake. Under the traditional species name of Pituophis catenifer affinis (recently reclassified as Pituophis melanoleucus affinis) much is known about the natural history of the gopher snake, a strong, restless reptile who forays for rodents and often goes into burrows to trap entire families of rodents, eating all the residents and then napping until time to search for new prey. I have never seen any notes regarding actual digging behavior of the gopher snake.

In June 1993 on a berm in the lava beds 15 miles west of Las Cruces, I watched a young Sonoran Gopher snake, approximately 18 inches long who was actually digging into a depression in the fine dirt at approximately 0900 MDT with an ambient temperature in the 80s F. The snake burrowed with his head into the dirt and then formed a hairpin loop with the anterior portion of his body and dragged the loosened soil out of the cavity, then repeated the operation several times while I watched. The behavior was photographed for my records before leaving him to his efforts.

Gopher snakes are relatively long-lived creatures, and the illustrated snake for this set of notes was first encountered in a parking lot at New Mexico State University in 1988 when a motorist saw a snake disappearing under her car in the student lot north of Milton Hall. The car owner telephoned the campus police who then called me. I found the adult gopher snake had crawled upward into a small space between the top of the fuel tank and the floor of the automobile’s trunk. Using my snake hook I was able to prod the snake until it abandoned its seemingly secure hideout. The bull snake was captured and brought home where it still resides, close to six feet long and of good health and appetite. The snake was probably 3-4 years old when captured and has thrived for 18 further years in captivity—far safer than crawling under automobiles.


Occurrence of Emory’s Rat Snake in Doña Ana County


On 12 July 1992 I was walking along the north edge of the Aden Lava Flow 20 miles west of Las Cruces at 7:25 p.m. MDT after daytime temperatures in the high 90s, two days before the full moon. I picked up Emory’s Rat Snake Elaphe guttata emoryi as he was leaving the lava dike that forms the northernmost edge of the flow. The snake was headed north into the desert sand. This is at best the extreme western range for this subspecies that is fairly common to Texas. Unlike colorful corn snakes from the eastern portions of the species’ range, the colors of this species are very similar to those of the common Arizona Glossy Snake Arizona elegans. Having kept corn snakes Elaphe g. guttata in captivity, I would say that this individual was not at all like his eastern cousins, not being amenable to capture and refusing to consider food. He was taken back and released several days after his capture, being released at the location of discovery in the comforting knowledge that a family of these species exists in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, so long as habitat destruction does not doom his race.


Late Appearance of the Spadefoot Toad in 2006


A photograph was taken on my Mesilla Park, New Mexico back porch, 18 November 2006 just before 5 p.m. after a touch of frost the night before, no rain recently, and a warm, dry day (72 degrees F at 4:50 p.m. MST). The photo shows a juvenile Couch’s Spadefoot Toad Scaphiophus couchi and the question of what the heck a nocturnal toad of summer is doing out in the late afternoon sun in November. The extraordinary rains of summer 2006 produced a wonderful crop of toads, and there are three species of spadefoot toad to be found in Doña Ana County. This one was a little larger than a quarter and was obviously one of the tiny new guys that had quadrupled in size since September. He's gone now, and I trust he dug down into his self-made hole, up to 18 inches below the surface where he will await the next warm summer rains to emerge again. File this one under "late appearance".


Comments on Prairie Rattlesnake Pattern Variation


The Prairie Rattlesnake Crotalus viridis is one of the most widely distributed rattlesnakes with widely varied patterns, some of which have earned subspecies recognition, and some which may deserve such but have yet to be considered. In the Province of Ontario, Canada, herpetologists have made a cottage industry out of creating different species from the common garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis and it seems that species based on scalation or pattern lend themselves to such ideas, and the Prairie Rattlesnake may become a cottage industry for ambitious herpetologists seeking to complicate the genus. The black and white print shows a 20-inch Prairie Rattlesnake photographed 20 miles west of Las Cruces, New Mexico in the summer of 1994, just north of Interstate 10. The pattern is consistent with others found in this area and as far north as the Cook’s Peak area. The beige coloration and indistinct blotches are characteristic of the species found here. The color photograph shows Crotalus viridis, the same species as found near Hurley, New Mexico, approximately 50 miles northwest of where the first snake was photographed. The Prairie rattlesnake as found in southern Grant County has a dark background color and bold blotches. The layman might question whether the two were of the same species. The major difference between the two location is altitude, with Hurley being at 5,200 feet and Hatch/Las Cruces being at 4,000 feet. It will be profitable to photograph many examples of viridis along the highway between Hatch and


Deming and north to Hurley, N.M., as well as along the Mimbres river up to San Lorenzo to see if there is a gradual gradation of pattern or a sudden change from one to the other consonant with altitude, terrain or some other factor. Because of the interesting pale variation of the Prairie Rattlesnake found between Deming and Las Cruces, I kept a snake with this pattern as shown in the B&W photo from 1978–1984, and it was this rattlesnake that provided me with my first rattlesnake bite, proving the herpetological dictum “There are two kinds of herpetologists—those who have been bitten and those who will be.”The “dry” bite caused swelling but no pain, and was experienced in the comfort of my home as the result of injudiciously sticking my hand into the cage without first checking the location of the snake.


The Arizona Coral Snake


The Arizona Coral Snake Micruroides euryxanthus is one of the more reclusive snakes, and I was fortunate to capture one on 17 October 1977 on Forest Road 63 that runs from Cloverdale in the boot heel of New Mexico, through the mountains and down into Douglas, Arizona. Prior to encountering the coral snake that day, we found a feisty Mexican Green Rat Snake, Elaphe triaspis the tip of whose habitat just barely edges into the United States. Buoyed by this good omen, we continued down toward Douglas and saw a brilliantly banded snake crossing the road. I jumped from the car to confront a 15” Arizona Coral Snake. He coiled defensively, hid his head, and presented his tail as a defensive measure. I took him home to photograph and the next day he disgorged his last meal that turned out to be a partially digested Hooknosed snake Ficimia Canum (now reclassified as the genus Gyalopion).


The Arizona Coral snake is an inoffensive venomous snake with a head so small that he is unlikely to be capable of biting a human except perhaps the webbing between one’s fingers. There are few, if any, records of bites by the Arizona Coral Snake. Note in the photo that the coral snake has a completely black snout. Tricolor king snakes and milk snakes have light colored snouts initiating their color pattern. Coral snakes are almost impossible to keep in captivity as they prefer eating small snakes such as Tantilla, Leptotyphlops, Gyalopion, etc. The example shown was carefully photographed and taken back within a hundred yards of where he was initially captured in Arizona. Seven years later I captured an injured Arizona Coral snake at night during summer monsoon rains on the highway between Lordsburg and Red Rock, New Mexico.


The Irrepressible Hognose Snake


The most fascinating domestic non-venomous snake has to be the Hognose Snake Heterodon nasicus kennerlyi. This pudgy little snake was the first snake I ever captured, at age 7, at a time when herpetological literature was pretty much limited to the books written by Raymond Ditmars. I kept my hognose snake for years, struggling to find small toads for his diet through the winter months and saved by Quivira Specialties Co. of Topeka, Kansas. Since then, the Hognose Snake has always had a special place in my heart. The illustrated example was captured in 1990 on the Corralitos Ranch Road west of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Kept for a month that summer, the snake ate 30 toads in 30 days. There is much that could be written about this snake, but much is readily available in the common literature. I will say that I have personally observed the Hognose Snake death ritual both with the Mexican Hognose Snake (nasicus kennerlyi) and with the Eastern Hognose snake encountered in Ontario (Heterodon platyrhinos). In my experience, the Eastern Hognose Snake is more definite in his death act and is more difficult to “revive.” The Mexican Hognose snake, when first touched in the wild, hisses, inflates with open mouth, then contorts, writhes and rolls onto his back, bleeding from his self-lacerated mouth, but when I retired a few feet, he would soon come back to life and begin a retreat. Interestingly, once captured, the snake never can be induced to play dead again. The uninitiated should realize that most non-venomous snakes will bite in self defense, but the Hognose Snake cannot be induced to bite, even if one’s finger is inserted into its mouth. This gentle snake, with its upturned nose, is well equipped to hunt its favorite prey, the toad, and he has been a comforting reptile companion to the dedicated young herpetologist.