Northern Pine Snake
Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus

Size:
 
Hatch: 12-16 inches
  Adult: 4-7 feet
:
(current record 6’-11”, taken near the extreme north of the range at LaHaWay Plantation, NJ)

Scalation:

Dorsal scale rows
Ventrals:
Sub-caudals:
Infralabials:
Supralabials:
Prefrontals:
Anal Plate:
Scales:
27-31
205-258
50-79
10-13
8
4
Single
Keeled

Written by Daryl Camby and Bob Fengya


Red Phase
Click on picture to enlarge

Photo by John Cherry

Coloration and Physical Description:

In the wild, the coloration of the Northern Pine is fairly variable. Some specimens have a ground color of crisp white, but this is a rarity rather than the norm. Most Northern Pines exhibit a ground color of off-white to light buff, with occasional specimens showing a fair degree of yellow. Rarely, a distinct "red" morph may be encountered, which can vary from a light orange wash to the ground color to a deep brick or wine-red.

Along the ridge of the dorsum are 30 to 39 blotches that appear black or dark brown. These blotches may be crowded together on the anterior dorsum, and some specimens may exhibit extra black pigment resulting in a very dark overall appearance. Some specimens have blotches that change near midbody from blackish to a mahogany or chestnut-red, making them particularly attractive.

The remainder of the dorsum will be suffused with smaller dark spots on the lateral surfaces. These patches of color are non-distinct and do not form a pattern.
The ventral side of Northern Pines will range from crisp white to any reflection of the specimens' ground color with some brown or black terminal spots at 4-5 plate intervals along the ventral scales.

Captive Varieties:

Amelanistic, or "albino" Northern Pines exist in herpetoculture that are descendants of an albino specimen hatched from a wild-collected clutch of eggs. This lucky find occurred near the eastern edge of the Pine Barrens in Ocean County, NJ in the early to mid-1980's. Interestingly, a 48" adult albino female was taken from the same area in the late 1980's, and one or two more albinos were hatched by a NJ university conducting research on the effects of temperature on hatchling sex ratios. Since the latter albinos occurred or were taken into academic settings, it is unlikely that any large-scale breeding attempts were made with them. Virtually all of the albinos in captivity that are "pure" melanoleucus are descendants of the original Ocean Co. hatchling.

Other lines of albino Northern Pines may exist, but these may be the result of outcrossing other common Pituophis albinos into P. m. melanoleucus. When trying to acquire a "pure" albino Northern Pine, research the lineage as thoroughly as possible. Other color morphs are becoming available; of note are "Red Phase", "Red Phase" albinos and "Peach Phase".

Patternless and Leucistic Northern Pines exist, but their subspecies purity is suspect due to those traits' prior documentation in P. m. mugitus. It should be noted that the availability of many of the morphs mentioned above is limited.

Range:

Of the pine snakes, P.m. melanoleucus enjoys the largest range. The Northern Pine, as the name suggests, does occur in the north, but the main body of the range traverses several southern states. An isolated population occurs in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, and small, scattered populations are known throughout the Blue Ridge escarpment in extreme west central Virginia. There is a lone record of a roadkilled specimen in 1940 from Monroe County, West Virginia, and more field work is needed to determine their status in that region.

The bulk of the their range occurs throughout the entire north-central section of South Carolina, with intergrades with P. m. mugitus filling in southeastern corner of the state. From South Carolina they extend into north Georgia and almost all of the eastern side of Tennessee. Small disjunct populations are recorded in two central Kentucky locations and the "Land Between The Lakes" region in the far southwestern corner of Tennessee. Respectable populations exist in central Tennessee moving south into the interior of Alabama.

Animals collected along the southern border of the range may exhibit some color or pattern characteristics of the Southern or Florida Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus mugitus). Some of these naturally occurring integrades can be strikingly handsome, with chestnut-red blotches evident over the latter half of the dorsum.

Additional populations of the Northern Pine Snake may still be extant throughout their historical range, but due to their secretive, burrowing habits, they are not easily encountered even in areas known to have strong populations.

Habitat:

Northern Pines like to inhabit pine "barrens" and sandhill regions throughout their range. Pitch, Virginia or Loblolly Pines are usually the dominant trees in their habitat, but they are occasionally found in mixed Oak or other plant associations if the soil is loose enough to allow burrowing. Pine snakes are burrowers by nature, and a sandy substrate may be essential to their successful breeding. This is not to say that they will not breed without this form of soil, it is just the best scenario.

Eggs have actually been collected in places as diverse as shingle pile and under an old mattress, and it possible that "mountain" populations may utilize rock crevices for egg deposition. Much is still unknown of the Northern Pines that inhabit the mountain ranges. They appear to exist in substantially lower population densities than those inhabiting the Coastal Plain, and have mostly been found D.O.R. in valleys or near ridges with shale and loose soil with an understory of mountain laurel and rhododendron.

Many Pine snakes spend much of their time in abandoned animal burrows or burrows of their own construction dug under old stumps or similar refugia. In ordinary conditions, females will dig massive burrows in which to deposit their eggs. These "nesting" burrows can be as long as five feet and several inches to over a foot deep. A pine snake burrow is truly an impressive sight, with the sand-pile excavated by the female sometimes 2 or 3 feet across!!

Northern pines will drink copiously, but are seldom found near the environs of streams and creeks, and tend to avoid swamps or other damp habitats altogether. Since radio-tracked individuals have been found to have covered as much as 2 miles in one day, these great wanderings no doubt occasionally bring them across the water they need to survive in their dry, sandy habitat.

Prey:

In the wild, Pine snakes will consume a variety of prey items. Among these are mice, moles, gophers, chipmunks, squirrels, birds, small rabbits and eggs in some cases. Occasionally a Northern Pine will enter an animal burrow, consume the inhabitants, and then take possession of the burrow.

In captivity the Northern Pine can be sustained on a diet solely consisting of mice and/or rats. Gerbils and small Guinea pigs may also be accepted, but chicks should be avoided, as they have a tendency to create loose stools, and an active, large species like the Northern Pine can quickly make an unsavory mess of its enclosure when fed such a diet.

Hatchlings should not be "pushed" with too many or too-large feedings, as they may be prone to regurgitation. As a member of the genus Pituophis, the Northern Pine is also known to occasionally go "off feed". These periods of fasting can be as short as two weeks but can last as long as two to three months. Typically feeding resumes without harm to the animal's health and after much worrying on the owner's part. This is one of the few drawbacks to these snakes.
A medium-sized bowl of clean water should always be provided, though these snakes may be seen to drink infrequently.

Captive Behavior:

Wild caught individuals are offered infrequently, and may take some time and special treatment in order to adjust to captive life. A wild-caught Pine Snake may be restless and irritable while adjusting to its new surroundings, and will settle in more quickly in a large enclosure with deep substrate and one or more strong hideboxes. They may refuse food for several weeks after capture, but fresh-killed or small live prey left in the hidebox overnight will usually tempt a reluctant specimen to feed. Occasional wild specimens will not feed or "calm down" in captivity, and will strike and hiss vigorously whenever the cage is approached. Such animals are best released at the exact point of capture before losing enough bodyweight to jeopardize a successful hibernation.

Captive-bred specimens are infinitely more well suited for herpetoculture, and such specimens make hardy additions to any collection. Their voracious appetite, rapid growth, and typically docile behavior are some of the reasons for their popularity. Most hatchlings will feed immediately and though they may strike and hiss at first, with frequent handling they usually calm down. Adults can be more difficult to calm down if the animal was not handled frequently as a hatchling or juvenile. Such specimens may remain "head shy", flighty, and aggressive the remainder of their lives.
In most cases, Pines are not like boids or certain kingsnake species in that they are not content to lay motionless, coiled around an arm or hand. They usually are very active and tend to gently keep in motion during handling. Even adults that have been handled frequently may hiss vigorously and rattle their tail when startled, but in most cases these bluffing tactics will cease immediately when grasped. While caged, well-adjusted specimens are usually content to lie motionless under a basking light or within their hidebox, with activity picking up when the animal becomes hungry or is searching for a mate.

Captive Breeding:

The typical North American colubrid breeding regime applies to Northern Pines. The snakes should be well fed and in excellent shape before starting the brumation process. In early to late Fall, stop the feeding process. Maintain the normal temperature for two weeks after the last feeding. This two-week period allows the animal to digest all the contents of its stomach. The snakes' enclosures should then be darkened and cooled to temperatures between 45 and 55 degrees, for a minimum of 8 weeks, preferably 10 to 12. A small water bowl should be provided for the duration.

After that period, the temperatures can be gradually raised to normal, a basking light provided, and normal feedings can resume. After the second or third feeding, the female may be introduced into the males' enclosure on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. (note that the females' post-hibernation shed may NOT be a reliable indicator of ovulation in this subspecies.) When the female becomes receptive, courtship typical of the genus will ensue, with the male steadily wriggling his body along the female's dorsum, and occasionally biting the females' head and neck before and during actual copulation. Eggs can be laid 6 to 10 weeks after the last successful mating, and are generally 2" to 3" in length, approximating a small-to-medium hen's egg. A typical clutch is 6 to 10 eggs, with 15 or 16 being the most accurately recorded maximum. (Larger clutches from the wild have been noted in the literature, but these are now believed to be the efforts of more than one female at the same nest burrow.)

Eggs may be incubated by any of the popular methods suitable for North American colubrids, and hatchlings will emerge in 60 to 80 days. The young will begin to feed in earnest following their post-natal shed, and can easily reach breeding size in 18 to 24 months.

Literature Cited:

1.) Amphibians and Reptiles in W. Virginia. Green + Pauley, 1987
2.) Field Guide to Reptiles + Amphibians, Eastern/Central NA. Conant, 1991
3.) Handbook of Snakes of the US and Canada. Wright + Wright, 1957
4.) Reptiles of Virginia. Mitchell, 1994
5.)Mara William P. 1998. (Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus) A Brief Study. [Online] www.escape.com

Power 1999 kingsnake.com