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The Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake, Lampropeltis pyromelana, in Sierra County, New Mexico
by Dave Long
In 1992 there was a discovery of a new population of Sonoran mountain kingsnake, Lampropeltis pyromelana , in the Black Range in Sierra County, New Mexico. This was exciting news as this locality was much farther east than any previously known locality, occurring east of the continental divide. In August of 1992, I was invited by my good friend Doug Duerre to come to New Mexico and attempt to find one of these elusive creatures.
On August 23, 1992 I arrived at Doug's house in Las Cruces where I spent numerous hours looking at his outstanding collection of snakes, especially his gray-banded and other tri-colored kingsnakes. After showing me his favorite gray-banded kingsnakes, Doug opened one of his cages and lifted up the hide box, exposing one of the most beautiful specimens of Sonoran mountain kingsnakes I have ever seen. It was a large adult female that he had collected several weeks earlier while looking for rock rattlesnakes, Crotalus lepidus klauberi, in the Black Range. The snake had perfect banding with no black crossovers and all of the red bands complete mid-dorsally. The black bands were greatly reduced laterally, giving the illusion that the snake was red and white banded when viewed from the side. The top of the head was covered with an enormous bright red, clover shaped blotch. Then I observed something unusual. The snout of the snake was covered with black flecking, almost completely obscuring the white snout normally associated with Sonoran mountain kingsnakes! At this point I decided to take a closer look. The snake had nine (9) lower labial scales on the left side of the head and seven (7) lower labial scales on the right side. These counts were inconsistent with what you would expect with L. p. pyromelana which generally has ten (10) lower labial scales on each side. Also, this snake had all of its white bands complete on the ventral surface which is a characteristic usually only associated with the Utah mountain kingsnake, L. p. infralabialis . Doug and I agreed that a taxonomic review of Lampropeltis pyromelana may be necessary to determine if this new population is sufficiently different enough to warrant the description of a new subspecies.
I was so excited about the prospect of actually finding one of these beautiful animals that I barely slept that night. The next morning we drove from Las Cruces to the Black Range, located approximately thirty (30) miles west of the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. We arrived in Doug's canyon at about 8:00 am. According to my altimeter the elevation on the canyon bottom was 7200 ft. The canyon bottom consists of riparian woodland broken by occasional small meadows and marshlands. Above the canyon bottom is a mixed coniferous woodland comprised of several types of pine, fir, pinon-juniper, and oak. The canyon slopes are covered with numerous rocky outcroppings and talus slides.
Doug directed me to a small clearing adjacent to the creek where there were several pieces of corrugated tin lying in the knee high grass. We walked over to the first pieces of tin. Doug flipped the one on the right, and I flipped the one on the left. All of a sudden Doug lets out a whoop and yells "pyro!". Doug had captured a large adult male Sonoran mountain kingsnake. The snake was bright orange and nearly as pretty as the female he had at home, with many of the same characteristics. This snake had nine (9) lower labial scales on each side of its head. The top of the snake's head was almost completely orange with minor amounts of black tipping on the snout. I could hardly believe my eyes.
I had made numerous trips to southeastern Arizona over the previous five year period in an attempt to collect a Sonoran mountain king without success. We were in the Black Range for a total of a minute and a half and Doug had already found one of these elusive gems!
We searched the riparian habitat for several hours discovering numerous specimens of the wandering garter snake, Thamnophis elegans vagrans and Madrean alligator lizards, Gerrhonotus kingi. The beautiful crevice spiny lizard, Sceloporus poinsetti, was extremely common, and was observed basking on almost every rock pile. The adults of this species are a large, robust spiny lizard with distinct black and yellow barring on their back and shoulders. The Chihuahuan spotted whiptail, Cnemidophorus exsanguis, was heard crashing through the brush on several occasions, sometimes startling us by appearing directly under our feet.
At around 2:00 pm, as is typical in the monsoon season, awesome cumuli nimbus clouds started forming on the nearby peaks. Doug wanted to try to find a rock rattlesnake before it rained so we headed for a particular talus slide he wanted to try. Doug's skill at finding rock rattlesnakes, as well as his hiking ability and stamina, are legendary amongst the southwestern herp community. For reasons I cannot fathom, Doug believes that the best rock rattlesnakes live amongst the tallest peaks and steepest talus slides imaginable. He also feels it is optimum to hike for several miles before beginning the ascent to these lofty slides, even when there are numerous suitable slides within ten feet of the road. Doug had a slide he wanted to try that was several miles uphill from the nearest jeep trail. By the time I made it to the bottom of this particular slide Doug had been there long enough to eat his lunch, read a book, and take a nap. After allowing me a ten secnod break Doug led me to an area with several small talus slides near the base of a very large slide. Tree lizards, Urosaurus ornatus, were everywhere, even occasionally running over our boot tops. On the talus slide next to me I discovered a large adult mountain short-horned lizard, Phrynosoma douglassi, a species which Doug claims was named after him. According to my altimeter the altitude here was approaching 9000 ft., which seemed a little high for horned lizards! After searching several more slides Doug pointed to a small talus slide approximately ten (10) feet wide and twenty (20) feet long. In the center of this slide was a large flat rock approximately three (3) feet square. Doug said, "There's a lepidus (rock rattlesnake) under that rock!". Doug lifted up the rock and exposed a beautiful Sonoran mountain king coiled perfectly on the rocks underneath. We couldn't believe Doug had found two Sonoran mountain kings in one day! This one was also an adult male. It had nine (9) lower labials on one side of the head, and seven (7) lower labials on the other. It was not nearly as attractive as the first male and had numerous black crossover bands. We wondered if the higher elevation snakes tend to have more black pigment on them to allow for better thermoregulation when basking in the extreme temperatures characteristic of higher altitudes. This seems to be the case with several populations of California mountain kingsnakes, Lampropeltis zonata, that I have had experience with in the past. Shortly after finding the kingsnake it began to rain, significantly lowering the temperature and effectively ending our hunting for the day.
Doug had to get back to Las Cruces to work but promised to return in a couple of days. I decided to camp in the canyon along with my friend Scott Merrick from Arizona. The next morning we cooked bacon and eggs on the Coleman stove and drank instant coffee. We wondered what interesting animals awaited us just outside the boundaries of our camp.
After breakfast we went back to the corrugated tin spot hoping to find another easy mountain king but it was not to be. We did see several more alligator lizards and garter snakes, some of which looked like they hadn't moved from the spots where we found them the day before. I also found an outstanding adult specimen of the Great Plains skink Eumeces obsoletus. It was a beautiful specimen with salmon flecked sides and a pale orange tail. As we drove back to camp Scott spotted a mountain patchnose snake, Salvadora grahamiae, crossing the road in front of us. According to Doug these quick moving snakes are commonly seen in the late afternoon, basking on the dirt roads in the canyon bottom.
We still had not seen a rock rattlesnake so Scott and I decided to drive up the canyon in search of talus slides next to the road. Sometimes laziness pays off and it did in this case. We stopped next to a likely talus slide and got out of the truck. When we got out of the truck we heard the tell-tale buzz of a rattlesnake just fifteen feet away! It was a rock rattlesnake which Scott picked up with the tongs and carried back to the road where we photographed it, and released it back into the slide. The snake was a large adult male with a silver-gray background color. The bands were velvety black with fluorescent white edging. The snake had an outrageous iridescent green stripe down the middle of its back. Rock rattlesnakes are without a doubt one of the most beautiful reptiles on the face of the earth. I searched another area of nearby talus and quickly discovered another rock rattlesnake, a female this time. This snake also had velvety black bands, but on a pink background color. A short while later I discovered a pair of black tailed rattlesnakes, Crotalus molossus, lying together at the base of a large boulder. They were beautiful jet black animals with a lemon yellow background color. Neither animal rattled its tail, displaying the docile attitude for which they are known. Over the next two days we saw several more rock rattlesnakes and a total of thirteen (13) black tailed rattlesnakes. Black tailed rattlesnakes proved to be extremely common in the Black Range, but rarely gave warning of their presence until you were right on top of them.
Scott and I decided to try our luck at night driving on the paved highways in the vicinity of Hillsboro. At dusk we found several neonate specimens of western diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, and a freshly killed female rock rattlesnake, Crotalus lepidus. At 9:42 pm we found an adult male Texas lyre snake, Trimorphodon biscutatus vilkinsoni. This was very exciting to me because the Texas lyre snake is not commonly seen in New Mexico. In Doug's fifteen years of observing herps in New Mexico he has only found two specimens! We decided to drive to Kingston in search of more herps. At 11:30 pm I spotted an unidentified amphibian hopping acrosss the road. It turned out to be a canyon treefrog, Hyla arenicolor. It was getting late so we headed back to camp to get some rest after an eventful day.
We woke up on our fourth and final day to overcast skies. Doug was coming to meet us at about noon so we decided to hunt close to camp. I had checked the tin spot at least twice a day since that first day without finding any mountain kings. This morning at 8:00 am. was no exception. I hiked for several miles without finding any reptiles. It was cool and overcast and even the lizards weren't out. I was discouraged and decided to go back to camp and read a book. By 11:00 am it had warmed up a little so I decided to try the tin one last time. I approached Doug's piece of tin with reverence, wishing I had turned it on the first day instead of Doug, and praying for it to produce another mountain king. I lifted the tin and ..........nothing. My heart sank.
I half-heartedly turned the piece of tin on the left, expecting nothing. I couldn't believe my eyes! Coiled under the tin was a juvenile female Sonoran mountain kingsnake, the first one I ever found. It literally glistened in the dew, looking like a pile of bright red rubies. It was a beautiful treasure to be admired.
I have made several return trips to the Black Range and it will always be one of those special places I hold close to my heart. I will never forget that first trip when I discovered the Black Range's many treasures and found my first Sonoran mountain king.
Photo by Dave Long; F1 female L. pyromenana ssp., Sierra Co., New Mexico
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