Eastern Black Kingsnake

Lampropeltis nigra (Yarrow, 1882)

eastern black kingsnake
Eastern black kingsnake, Johnson Co., IL photo by C.A. Phillips
eastern black kingsnake
Eastern black kingsnake, Johnson Co., IL photo by C.A. Phillips

Key Characters: Some or all back and side scales black with a small light dot in the center; belly checkered black and yellow; back scales smooth; anal plate not divided.

Similar Species: North American Racer, Gray Ratsnake, Plain-bellied Watersnake. See the Key to Illinois Snakes for help with identification.

Subspecies: None recognized, but see Nomenclatural History below.

Description: Large (up to 125 cm TL) glossy black snake with white dot in the center of each scale. In the southern third of Illinois the small light dots form 40 – 50 narrow cross-bands with intervening scales lacking dots.

Habitat: Wooded hills.

Natural History: Mates in spring and lays 8-12 eggs in June in rotting logs or tree stumps. Young hatch in August or early September at 20-30 cm TL. Like many snakes, it is largely nocturnal during summer and more active during the day in spring and autumn. Slow and deliberate in its movements, this is a constricting predator of other reptiles, especially snakes (even venomous ones), lizards and their eggs, birds, and small mammals. Main predators of juveniles are other snakes; main predators of adults are hawks, raccoons, skunks, and opossums.

Illinois distribution of eastern black kingsnakeStatus: Locally common in the Shawnee Hills and along the southern Mississippi River bluffs.

Etymology: Lampropeltis – lampros (Greek) meaning bright, brilliant, radiant; pelta (Latin) meaning small shield; nigra – niger (Latin) black.

Original Description: Yarrow,H.C. 1882. Description of new species of reptiles and amphibians in the US National Museum. Proc. US Natl. Mus. 5: 438-443.

Type Specimen: Holotype: USNM 12149, collected by Robert Ridgway.

Type Locality: “Wheatland, Indiana”

Original Name: Ophibolus getulus niger Yarrow, 1882

Nomenclatural History: Davis & Rice (1883) used Ophibolus getulus var. Sayi (Holbrook, 1842) and Garman (1892) used Ophibolus getulus.  Smith (1961) listed two subspecies of Lgetulus in Illinois, Lgholbrooki Stejneger,1902 and Lgniger, but Pyron and Burbrink (2009, Mol. Ecol. 18:2443-3457 and 2009, Zootaxa 2241: 22-32), using molecular data, showed that they are distinct species. Lampropeltis holbrooki, however, is not found in Illinois, being restricted to west of the Mississippi River.