Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Western Fox Snake

Missouri is home to more than 50 types of snakes and one of my favorites is the Western Fox Snake. They are not common in Missouri, they occur in a few isolated populations and one such population is at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. At the refuge their numbers seem to be secure if not abundant. I've found several specimens at various times of the year, usually basking or crossing the road. Although we did find one hanging out in a hemp plant on top of a creek bank. Dr. Mills was able to capture it and show it to his students. It behaved remarkably docile and allowed us to handle it without offering to bite. This is not true however of every fox snake you will encounter. I've found them to be rather nippy and irritable. I assume just like humans or other animals each individual will have their own unique temperament.
(Fox Snake hidden in a hemp plant)

(Dr. Mills showing his skill at capturing a wild snake without being bitten)

(beautiful fox snake)

Western Fox Snakes like many other animals have gone through a name change. They were classified as Elaphe vulpina, now they are referred to as Pantherophis vulpina. They are closely related to rat snakes and corn snakes. As juvenile snakes they so closely resemble black rat snakes that I personally have a difficult time differentiating them.

(Western Fox Snake)
(Black Rat Snake)

As you can see by the above photos these snakes are very similar in appearance in the juvenile stage. It isn't until they reach the age of about 3 years that they begin taking on their adult color form.
 (Black Rat Snake adult (Pantheropis obsoletus)

While Western Fox Snakes are not especially common in Missouri, in much of their range they are considered abundant. In parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa and Indiana these snakes are secure in their population. In Missouri however they are protected as a threatened species. Missouri wildlife law states that an individual can own up to 5 reptiles or amphibians as long as they are not game species, venomous or protected. Fox snakes would be illegal to possess.

Habitat for this species varies considerably, they may be found in woodlands, prairies, hay fields or pastures. Squaw Creek is predominantly a wetland, they seem to thrive there in the wet prairies. Like other rat snakes they are opportunistic feeders, and will consume small rabbits, rodents, and birds. Like many snakes their diet as juvenile will vary some from the adult diet. They may feed on lizards, frogs and salamanders in addition to the rodents their adult counterparts seem to favor. 

Soon after coming out of winter hibernation males will seek females and mating will occur. 
Approximately a month after mating the female will seek a suitable site for her eggs. She may choose an old stump or hollow log, or even man made mulch piles and other man made litter. The temperature and moisture within the nest needs to be ideal to prevent dessication. In 2 months small, foot long, babies will emerge from the nest. The clutch may contain from 4 to 30 eggs depending upon the age and health of the mother. These juvenile snakes are perfectly equipped for life on their own and will receive no maternal care. Not all baby snakes survive to adulthood, in fact less than 10% survive the onslaught of predators. When you are a baby snake, everything wants to eat you, including foxes, skunks, other snakes, owls, hawks, eagles, coyotes, raccoons, and large bullfrogs. We all recognize that snakes are predators, they help keep rodent populations in check as well as controlling other small animal populations. They are key components in the habitats where they occur both as predator and prey.