San Diego Gopher Snake
Pituophis catenifer annectens

Common Name:
San Diego Gopher Snake

Scientific Name:
Pituophis catenifer annectens (Baird & Girard, 1853)

Size:
    Hatch: 8-10 inches average; some 12 inches
    Adult: 4-5 feet in length with a few specimens reaching 6 feet

Scalation: Shannon Haitt personally feels that with a limited range closely bordered by the ranges of three gopher snake species, scale counts are of little value. In fact, all species have similar average scale counts. Catching a snake in a specific locale is the only way to determine the species in hand or whether it might be an intergrade specimen. Even blotch characteristics are more accurate in some instances, but certainly not all.

    Dorsal rows (mid-body): varies from 27-35; average 29
    Prefrontals: Four
    Anal Plate: Undivided   
    Scales: Keeled

By: Shannon Hiatt

Coloration and Description:

General:
San Diego Gopher snakes have a wide range of ground colors: tan, gray, cream, and yellow are all common. The large, generally black or brown blotches on the back are square shaped in many specimens and run the full length of the snake's dorsum. There are smaller blotches on the sides that are of the same coloration as the dorsal blotches. The blotches near the head, which may fuse with adjoining blotches, are often darker than those near the tail. The mid-body blotches may also fuse with adjoining blotches but tend to be lighter than those at the anterior or posterior.

Albino, anerythristic, hypomelanistic, snow (albino and anerythristic gene combination), and striped specimens are commonly available to herpetoculturists. One enhanced version of the albino, selectively bred for beautiful enamel white colors coupled with bright orange-red blotches on a deep yellow, is known as the Applegate phase.

Head and Neck:
There is a distinctive dark line that intersects the eye; another is found just behind the eye and runs to the jaw (supralabials) and is typical in the Pituophis. Some older specimens have a slight bulge at the forehead; this look often generates the term "bull snake" even when the snake in question is not Pituophis catenifer sayi. The rostral scale on the tip of the nose is convex and protrudes prominently and is an adaptation that allows the snake to dig.

Ventral:
The ventral scales are yellow, tan, or off white and some snakes will have dark spots on the edges of these scutes.

Range:

In Southern California from Santa Barbara County into the central Baja region of Mexico; even though specimens may be found in mountainous areas, they rarely venture above 9,000 feet with any regularity. With the range of the Pacific gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) to the immediate north, the Great Basin gopher snake's (Pituophis catenifer deserticola) range to the northeast, and the Sonoran gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer affinis) ranging directly to the east, expect some variation in the San Diego gopher snakes found along these ranges where intergrades occur.

Habitat:

Seems to prefer the open regions along the coast but also found with regularity in the inland desert regions of both California and the Baja. In California they can also be found in the small mountain ranges scattered from Los Angeles south to San Diego. This species, like all gophers snakes, spends considerable time searching through the burrows of its prey where there is more humidity than at surface levels. Around human habitation, they also seek their prey under boards, in trash piles, and among abandoned buildings.

Prey:

Mammals with the pocket gopher purportedly being one of the primary prey animals, hence the name gopher snake. A good climber and an opportunistic hunter, the San Diego gopher snake will also take eggs of ground dwelling birds, eggs and young in nests in low desert bushes, and some lizards. It is not known to regularly eat smaller snakes but certainly is capable of doing so.

Behavior:

Generally diurnal (movement during daylight hours); extremely warm temperatures will force this adaptable species into forays at dusk and nocturnal (movement at night) hunting. The San Diego Gopher Snake produces a loud hiss with the rapid opening and closing of its glottis. This adaptation is found in all gopher snake species and forces air out, and through, the glottis and serves to scare off predators or curious humans. In fact, along with its tail rattling display, this defensive behavior often causes great fear in the uninitiated with drastic results for this harmless snake.

Male gophers are known to combat each other during the breeding season. This behavior is similar to that found in many species, including rattlesnakes. The males intertwine their bodies and attempt to force each other to the ground. This is harmless to both combatants.

Captive Behavior:

Many wild caught specimens become docile and easy to handle within weeks. Some, in fact, can be picked up in the field without consequence. Others never seem to adapt and continue the S-shaped neck defensive display, loud hiss, and closed-mouth biting associated with any perceived threat. Some are moody and might be docile one time and go into a full-blown threat display the next. Melissa Kaplan's advice is appropriate. Observe your snakes and "read" the moods they communicate to you with their body language. If the head and neck are in the S-shaped defensive display, back off and let the snake settle. If there is concern about being bitten by a large adult, however, always use a snake hook to remove snakes from their cages.

Most captive-bred neonates have that innate fight-or-flight behavior upon hatching but soon settle. For the most part, the San Diego gopher snake is easy to manage in captive breeding. A few adults in my collection always rattle their tails when I disturb them for cage maintenance, but cease the rattling and become quiet once in the hand. My adults also tend to do more tail rattling during feeding, warning me not to bother them as they ingest their meals.

Captive Breeding:

After a normal brumation period, San Diego gophers will breed quite successfully. Although some breeders might entertain adding an extra male to a cage in order to induce breeding behavior, it is not recommended as few captive males will display this behavior. The average clutches produced contain three to 12 large eggs; other clutches might contain more eggs, up to 24, that are smaller in size. Communal nests are known in the wild. Eggs hatch in 65 to 70 days.

Literature Cited:

Bartlett, R.D. and Patricia P. Bartlett. Snakes: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series, Inc, 1998.

Barlett, R.D. and Alan Tennant. Snakes of North America: Western Region. Houston, Texas: Gulf Publishing Company, 2000.

Behler, John L. and F. Wayne King. National Audubon Society Filed Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Mara, W.P. Pine Snakes: A Complete Guide. Neptune City, NJ: TFH Publications, Inc., 1994.

Pituophis, Serpentes-Snakes, The Center for North American Amphibians and Reptiles, 1997 at
http://eagle.cc.ukans.edu/~cnaar/CNAAR/NamesPage/serpentes.html

Rodriguez-Robles, Javier A. and Jose M. De Jesus-Escobar. "Molecular Systematics of New World Gopher, Bull, and Pinesnnakes (Pituophis: Colubridae), a Transcontinental Species Complex." Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Vol 14, No 1, Jan 2000, pp 35-50.


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