Information regarding individual species and subspecies names, geographical ranges and
habitat; color, pattern, scale differences; and behavior and diet was cross-referenced using:
A1. Briggs, Patrick, "Pituophis Parade: The Bull, Gopher, and Pine Snakes", Reptiles Magazine,
1. Pages 664-665, The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and
Amphibians c. 1979.
2. Pages 182-185, Reptiles of the Northwest c. 2002.
3. Pages 361-362, and 497, Western Reptiles and Amphibians (3rd ed.) c. 2003.
4. Pages 4-9, Pine Snakes c. 1994.
Fish and Game regulations: Web6: (www.dfg.ca.gov/regulations/07-08-inland-fish-regs.pdf)
What used to be a subspecies of the P. melanoleucus complex in the East is now a
title carrier in the West. The P. catenifer complex covers all gopher snakes. Some
subspecies are still in question. Some dispute that the Bullsnake may still belong to
the melanoleucus group or may be its own species. Some claim that the Cedros
Island Gopher Snake (P. c. insulanus) off of Baja California may also drop the
cateniferin its name.
The Pacific Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) is the only gopher snake to
find itself in our neck of the woods. This snake may be found throughout Humboldt,
Del Norte, Trinity, and Siskiyou Counties. Intergradation occurs with P. c. deserticola
in the NE Siskiyou and north through Central Oregon east of the Cascades. Its
normal range in Oregon is west of the Cascades veering inland in NW Oregon
towards the Washington border. Moving east along the Columbia River it meets the
intergradation area in the East, and characteristics of the Pacific may even be found
in SC Washington. In California, outside of our area of observation, the species
moves south throughout Mendocino County and continues as far as San Luis Obispo
and Santa Barbara Counties (where it meets with P. c. annectans); moving east from
our area, intergradation with the Great Basin Gopher continues in a southeastern
route west of the Southern Cascades (Shasta, Tehama, Butte Counties, etc.), then
west of the Sierra Nevada stopping in the foothills northeast of the Sacramento area
(Nevada, Placer Counties). Any gophers northwest, west, or due south of these
foothills are generally Pacifics, from Sacramento to the Bay Area, from Chico to
Bakersfield. Practically the entire central valley of California is home to these snakes.
At the southern end of the Sierras the Pacific meets P. c. deserticola once again; in
fact, characteristics of the Pacific, the Great Basin, and the San Diego may all be seen
among snakes found in or near Kern County or Los Angeles Counties.
The Pacific Gopher Snake makes its home in a variety of habitats. The usual
preference is open grasslands, sagebrush, and chaparral; but oak woodlands,
coniferous forests with sunny openings or large meadows, coastal hillsides,
pastures and farmland are all suitable. In Northwestern California these snakes are
seldom seen near the immediate coastline (too foggy) or some of the denser forests
(esp. Sequoia) due to the fact that they prefer an overall dryer habitat. This is not to
say that they can't withstand some of the colder winters. Gopher snakes will
hibernate during winter months and for longer if they reside in higher altitudes.
Elevations for the Pacific's habitat range from above sea level up to 6,000 ft (near
alpine). Some subspecies of P.c. catenifer have been found at up to 9,000 ft.
Aside from the hiss, rattle and bluff behaviors, identifying the Pacific is best done with
a quick look at the head. Gopher snakes typically have a dark stripe across the head
between their eyes like a mask; most have a pronounced stripe on each side of the
head that starts behind the eyes and moves down and back diagonally across the
cheeks;and most also have a short vertical stripe just below the eyes. The overall
background color of this snake is grayish-brown, sometimes olive-tan. Dark dorsal
blotches start at the neck and are well-defined and separate; they do not generally
connect with the corresponding small upper side blotches, nor do the upper touch the
even smaller lower side blotches. Blotching continues down the length of the snake
to the tail where most of the side-blotches fade out. Some adult specimens may have
a reddish background hue near the tail. (Note that populations dispersed throughout
areas of California's northern central valley often carry a recessive pattern mutation for
striping). The dorsal scales are strongly keeled, however taper to smoother scales
on the sides. Belly is cream-white to pale yellow with random black spots.
Mid-dorsal scales are keeled in 27-37 scale rows. Anal plate is single.
The Pacific Gopher Snake Is often considered the smallest of the mainland gopher
snakes seldom reaching over 5 feet, especially in cooler regions. Reported lengths
up to 8 feet among species of the catenifer complex are extremely rare and if not
exaggerated are usually attributed to the Bullsnake and possibly the San Diego
These snakes are egg layers. Mating occurs in between April and May in the cooler
terrains, and as late as June in the hotter zones. An average of 2 - 20 eggs are
likewise laid in late June to early July, or July to August. Hatching takes place
between late August or early September, or September to October.
Our Gophers of California
Gopher snakes are excellent burrowers, and as the name implies, gopher snakes
love to eat gophers, as well as mice, rats, squirrels and other rodents within this size
range. Insectivores such as moles may also be taken. Although their diet is mostly
mammalian, since they are efficient climbers as well, many will dine on birds and
their eggs. Younger snakes may start on lizards.
It's a shame that these snakes are so often mistakenly killed, for they play an
important role in keeping prey populations in check. Let it be known that
rattlesnakes and many other snakes play that same role as well!
The Great Basin Gopher Snake's (P. c. deserticola) range intersects with the main
stem of the Pacific Gopher's range at least three times at its western boundaries: SC
Washington and NC Oregon with Pacific influences carried along east of the
Cascades south to a second juncture in SC Oregon and NE California which hence
continue south ending in the western foothills of the Northern Sierra; the third
connection is made at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada when the Great Basin
Gopher swings around west to California's central valley area. Intergradation with the
San Diego Gopher Snake is made as it moves southeast and passes a split in the
coastal ranges near Palmdale, CA. From here its territory heads east, north of the
San Bernardino Mountains, and into the Mojave Desert and most all of San
Bernardino County stopping on the west side of the Colorado River. The Great Basin
Gopher Snake may be found throughout Nevada, Northern Arizona (North Rim), NW
New Mexico, Western Colorado, Southern and Western Idaho, all of Eastern Oregon,
Eastern Washington, and there is a small finger that reaches into SC British
Columbia, Canada. The Rocky Mountains play a major role in separating the
Bullsnake subspecies in the East. Note that intergradation with the Sonoran Gopher
Snake (P. c. affinis) may occur at any of the Great Basin Gopher's southern or eastern
desert borders. NC New Mexico might harbour a Great Basin Sonoran Bull-gopher
The Great Basin Gopher Snake differs from the Pacific in that its background color is
much lighter consisting of tans, cream or light clay. Also, the dorsal dark blotches,
beginning at the neck tend to be connected to smaller elongate lateral blotches or
stripes (often creating a pattern reversal effect near the neck only); these carry on
down the length of the snake, and when viewed from a dorso-lateral angle often
inspire one to think of a zipper. Dorsal blotching viewed from above is quadrangular.
The tails (or latter third of the body length) of P. c. deserticola often come with
accentuated hues of reddish-brown or burnt orange. Mid-body has 27-35 scale rows.
The San Diego Gopher Snake (P. c. annectans) will be mentioned here of course due
to my occasional visits to San Diego and the fact that I have one of these beauties in
my collection. This snake differs from the two previously described by beginning once
again at the neck: In this case the dorso-lateral blotches are larger and alternately
connect with the dorsal blotches to create an almost double zipper effect. Moving
down the body dorsal patterning begins to resemble that of the Great Basin Gopher,
however the dark blotches are wider at the width and narrower in the length and there
are more of them; these dorsal rectangular bands often make the snake look as if it
has a flat back, especially towards the tail. Railroad tracks! Background colors are
more brownish-tan or tan-yellow. Mid-body has 29-37 scale rows.
The range of P. c. annectans begins where the Pacific intergrades north of Santa
Barbara County. It continues west of the Sierra Madre Mountains, south through the
Los Angeles area and surrounding counties, as far east as the west side of the San
Bernardino , San Jacinto, and Santa Rosa Mountains, and south throughout most of
San Diego County west of the desert. The San Diego is also found in Northern Baja
Gopher snakes often fare well in
captivity providing they are given
living conditions comparable to
their native environments,
In accordance with the Native
Reptile and Amphibian Captive
Propagation Laws and
Regulations of the California
Department of Fish and Game,
you are allowed to possess only
four at any one time with a
standard up to date California
The gopher snake is only one of
three reptile species in
California that are allowed to be
commercially propagated with
the issue of a current
propagation permit. Breeders
obtain an ID number that must
accompany each and every
snake given away or sold.
Being caught propagating
without a permit will result in
fines as well as the confiscation
of the captive collection and its
destruction. Both captively bred
and kept wild-caught
specimens should never be
returned to the wild without
special permission and
Many enthusiasts may go all the
way and indeed build the ideal
habitat. This is no guarantee
that the specimen will adapt,
especially those captured as
adults (often set in their ways
with behaviors, territory, and
preferred diets). Stress is a
major factor in captive deaths.
Parasites brought in with a
captive snake may also speed
up its demise. Mites, which are
often removed during the
slinking and burrowing through
larger territories, multiply into
dangerous densities within the
confines of an artificial
environment. Mites can infest
other captive herps you may
have in your collection.
Wild caught gopher snakes that
are returned to the wild often
don't survive simply due to the
stress endured trying to adapt in
captivity. Lowered immunities
result in sickness. Combined
with internal or external
parasites one sick specimen
released into the wild could
contaminate the local
population, especially if the
animal is released in a location
other than where it was found.
For more info on gopher snakes
in captivity check out ...
Great Basin Gopher Snake
|Pacific Gopher Snake
(Del Norte County)
April 21, 2009
San Diego Gopher Snake
The Sonoran Gopher Snake (P. c. affinis) will be mentioned here as it too resides in
California. In the southeastern counties of Riverside and Imperial this snake makes
its home in dry hot terrain. Its overall range is extensive and covers most of Arizona
up to the South Rim, most of WC and SC New Mexico, SW Texas, and much of
Northern Mexico including NE Baja California. Great Basin intergrades have been
mentioned. At the western boundary the San Diego cross is less frequent.
Intergrades with P. c. sayi occur in New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.
This snake is striking! Strikingly beautiful, that is! P. c. affinis has lighter blotches at
its anterior; these may be brown to reddish-brown. As one follows the length of the
snake these blotches become much darker, the darkest being those at the tail.
Complementing this is a light tan to yellow background with increasing yellow at the
tail. At the neck, connectivity between dorsal and smaller upper lateral blotches does
occur, but not always; there are neck blotches that attempt the Great Basin pattern;
some necks have a stretched leopard look where both the dorsal and the
dorso-lateral blotches are separate, rounded and elongated; others are seemingly
chaotic where all the blotches at the neck are somewhat dissipated like buckshot.
Overall body railroad effect is similar to that of both the Great Basin and the San Diego
subspecies. We have seen this gopher snake at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
near Tuscon, as well as within the pet trade. The yellows and the blotch-darkening
effects are awesome! Mid-body has 29-35 scale rows.
Members of the genus Pituophis subdue their prey in a fashion similar to that of their
kingsnake and rat snake cousins, by way of constriction. Inward facing upper and
lower teeth take firm hold of prey ,while coils wrapped around the body tighten with
each exhale of the lungs - causing suffocation. In some cases the constriction is so
severe that the victim actually succumbs via high blood pressure stroke. While the
classic coil is the infamous method, many Pituophis, because of their subterranean
lifestyle of slithering through tight passageways, often throw just a single loop over
their prey and use it to pin the animal against the tunnel walls. This technique is
also common among other snakes underground.
We often describe the
connectivity between the dorsal
and dorso-lateral blotches in
gopher snakes as a zipper or
railroad track pattern. The Latin
word "catenifer" implies an
equally appropriate description.
"Catena" translates to "chain",
and "ferre" is "to carry." Thus,
Pituophis catenifer actually
translates to "hissing snake
Funny that the Pacific Gopher
Snake (P. c. catenifer), the
species name-holder, usually
tends to carry the least amount