Kingsnakes are one of the most widespread and common groups of snake in North America. All kingsnakes are non-venomous, and many of them are actually resistant to the venom of other poisonous snakes. Tennessee is home to several species kingsnake, including one species of milksnake, which is part of the same genus. In this article we’re going to be learning about the kingsnakes in Tennessee.
Kingsnakes live in a wide variety of habitats, and many of them prefer to feed on other snakes, including venomous ones. This actually makes kingsnakes good to have around.
Tennessee is ranked as the 36th largest state in the country with 46k square miles of land, 1393 lakes, several major rivers including the Mississippi and the Tennessee, and 11,000 miles of shoreline. All that coupled with Tennessee’s warm summers and fairly mild winters makes for plenty of welcoming habitats for kingsnakes.
For this article we’ll be including all snakes that are a part of the Genus Lampropeltis, aka kingsnakes, which includes milksnakes.
With all that being said, let’s have a look at Tennessee’s 8 types of kingsnakes!
8 Different Species of Kingsnakes in Tennessee
The 8 species of kingsnake in Tennessee are the eastern kingsnake, eastern black kingsnake, speckled kingsnake, prairie kingsnake, mole kingsnake, eastern milk snake, red milksnake, and the scarlet kingsnake.
1. Eastern kingsnake
Scientific name: Lampropeltis getula
The eastern kingsnake is one of Tennessee’s largest kingsnakes, often reaching 48 inches in length. They’re deep, glossy black in color with thin, white or yellow stripes. There are actually 3 subspecies of Lampropeltis getula found in TN, this variant is only found in extreme southeastern parts of the state.
Like most kingsnakes, they have a strong resistance to the venom of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths, which are some of their favorite things to eat. In fact, the “king” in their name is a reference to their habit of feeding on other snakes (the same is true for king cobras). Although they aren’t venomous, wild snakes do tend to bite when captured. It’s harmless, but painful.
2. Eastern black kingsnake
Scientific name: Lampropeltis nigra
This subspecies of Lampropeltis getula is found throughout most of the state, especially in Middle Tennessee. Eastern black kingsnakes are not common in Northeastern or Southwestern Tennessee however. They are sometimes referred as the black kingsnake.
This subspecies may also reach up to 4 feet in length and get somewhat large for a kingsnake. Eastern black kingsnakes are mostly black in color, however they are usually covered in yellowish spots. They enjoy living in forests, wetlands, and near water. They breed in the spring and the females lay eggs in the early summer.
3. Speckled kingsnake
Scientific name: Lampropeltis holbrooki
Speckled kingsnakes are a subspecies of Lampropeltis getula, aka the common or eastern kingsnake. According to tn.gov, subspecies is found in the western and southwestern third of Tennessee where it interbreeds with Eastern Black Kingsnake.
They’re easily recognized by their yellow and white speckled patterns. Speckled kingsnakes grow to about 4 feet in length as adults and often live near swamps, streams, rivers, and other wetlands. Like other kingsnakes they feed on reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and many times other snakes.
4. Prairie kingsnake
Scientific name: Lampropeltis calligaster
Also called the yellow-bellied kingsnake, the prairie kingsnake is most common in the northern half of western and central Tennessee, where it prefers open grassland near permanent water sources. It grows to a bit over three feet in length and looks much like the rat snakes with which it shares it’s habitat.
They prefer to stay out of sight as much as possible, so to find one you’ll have to start flipping over rocks and old logs. Just be careful- they’re not the only snake that likes to hide in those places!
This species is unique among kingsnakes, in that it eats primarily rodents and lizards, instead of snakes. If they feel threatened, they will rattle their tail. In the dry leaf litter and grass of their typical habitat, this can sound just like a real rattlesnake.
If you try to handle one in the wild, it’s probably going to bite you- often several times. Since they’re non-venomous, there’s no danger. But they do have a mouth full of very sharp teeth, so those bites can hurt.
5. Mole Kingsnake
Scientific name: Lampropeltis calligaster rhombomaculata
A subspecies of the yellow-bellied kingsnake, the mole kingsnake is named for it’s habit of spending much of it’s time underground. They’re usually light reddish brown in color with darker elliptical spots down their back. They rarely get bigger than about 40 inches in length.
Mole kingsnakes are rarely seen, but they’re very common. Since they tend to live underground, they often live in suburban and agricultural habitats that other snakes wouldn’t survive in. You may even have a few in your backyard without ever realizing it.
Mole kingsnakes occur in eastern parts of Tennessee, though they’re one of the most rarely seen snakes. Since rodents are their main source of food, it’s actually a good thing to have them around. They can make a huge difference in the size of the rodent population.
6. Eastern milksnake
Scientific name: Lampropeltis triangulum
The eastern milk snake is closely related to the scarlet kingsnake, but they’re very easy to tell apart. The milk snake is much bigger, with grey or cream colored scales and black and reddish brown splotches on it’s back. It’s named for the distinctive cream-colored triangular or y-shaped marking at the bas of it’s head.
Milk snakes can often be found in large barns, and folklore claims that their name is not because of their markings, but because they sneak into barns at night and milk the cows. This, of course, isn’t true. Instead, the reason they’re so common in barns is that barns usually have a lots of rodents, which are a milk snakes favorite prey.
There are 1 other type of milk snake in Tennessee, the red milksnake. This one however, can be found primarily in Northeast Tennessee. They prefer to live in mountainous, wooded regions and East Tennessee is full of that.
Milk snakes are harmless to humans and have some of the prettiest markings of any snake in Tennessee. They’re actually a treat to see!
7. Red milksnake
Scientific name: Lampropeltis triangulum syspila
The red milksnake can be found throughout most of western Tennessee. Red milksnakes can reach about 3 feet in length as adults. They can be identified by their dominant red bands that are outlined with black borders, separated by tan or pale bands.
Like other members of the genus Lampropeltis, red milksnakes are constrictors. They feed on other snakes, small mammals, amphibians, and lizards. Milksnakes are comfortable in a variety of habitats including forest edges, open woodlands, prairies, grasslands, near streams or rivers, and rocky hillsides.
8. Scarlet kingsnake
Scientific name: Lampropeltis elapsoides
One of the most recognizable and famous species of kingsnake, is the scarlet kingsnake. It was once referred to as the scarlet milksnake, because it was thought to be a subspecies of the eastern milksnake. Its colors and appearance is very similar to the colors of the highly venomous coral snake.
If you’ve heard the rhyme “red touch yellow, kill a fellow, red touch black, friend of Jack,” or any of the similar ones, those are a reference to the scarlet kingsnake and the coral snake.
These two species are so similar in appearance that the scarlet kingsnake is often used in movies to depict venomous snakes. Both “Snakes on a Plane” and “The Mummy” use a scarlet kingsnake in scenes where venomous snakes are supposed to be present.
In Tennessee, you can also simply say “red face, your safe,” since the scarlet kingsnake always has a red face, while the coral snake always has a black face. The rhyme is necessary because, while true coral snakes are actually quite timid and avoid biting except as a last resort, scarlet kingsnakes, taking advantage of their similarity to the coral snake, will bite aggressively if handled. Fortunately, their bite is harmless.
Scarlet kingsnakes like to hide out underneath the leaf litter and old logs, where they ambush lizards and small snakes. You won’t likely spot one out crawling along the forest floor, and they even live underground much of the time, like the mole kingsnake. These snakes are quite common in the coastal plains, but rarer in the piedmont.