It will come as no surprise that many of my employees have particular obsessions within the herpetological universe. For instance, one of my managers is focused—to an almost unhealthy degree—on water snakes of the genus Nerodia, a thick-bodied, ill-tempered, and typically dully colored and patterned group that also produce a wince-inducing odor. His interest in these mostly bypassed pets has extended to similar genera from other continents and bespeaks his extremely contrarian nature. Most people, on the other hand, go for snakes that are nice, lack a strong odor and are, well, pretty.
Truth be told, to my eye, most, if not all, snakes are pretty, so I do understand my manager’s point of view. But some snakes are extraordinarily beautiful, almost gaudy in the richness of color and vividness of their pattern. The mountain kings, Mexican kings—I am using this term to cover a wide range of related species—and milk snakes, which are all genus Lampropeltis and often referred to as “tricolors,” are at the top of that list. They are vividly banded in red, white (or yellow or cream) and black. Add to their visual image the fact that most of them are relatively small, hardy and docile, and you have one of the most easily sellable and pleasing of all the snakes.
Tricolors evolved their coloring in an interesting manner. They are coral snake mimics. The coral snake is an elapid (aka a cobra relative) that is legitimately a potentially lethal snake. Within the United States, tricolors range throughout the deep south and in parts of the southwest. Kings and milks share much of that range, but also greatly exceed it, often occurring hundreds of miles away from any possible coral snake habitat. However, the bright colors still work as a warning signal to other animals, and thus the strategy works. However, there is more to the coloring than the simple attempt to look like a coral snake.
Let’s say that you are hiking in the early morning along a forest trail. You come upon a fallen log, small enough to easily lift, but large enough to provide cover and habitat for interesting creatures. Who wouldn’t want to look underneath? You lift the log, and there is a stunning mountain king. Now, the mountain king will at first stay stock still in the hopes that you will think, “Oh! Coral snake!” and move on. If you don’t retreat, or if you actually pursue, the King will whip through the grass at blinding speed.
Just as movies work by quickly flashing still images that blend together into a cohesive illusion of movement, the shades of red, black and cream on the snake seem to blend into a greenish hue, turning the warning nature of its basic coloring into traditional camouflage, as it disappears into the greenery. Now, that is a neat trick.
The largest group of the tricolors on the marketplace is the milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum spp.), many of which are commonly captive bred enough to be competitive with corn snakes in pricing. Some of my favorites of the low-end milks are the Sinaloan, distinguished by broad, deep bands of red; the Pueblan, whose banding tends to be evenly divided between black, red and cream; and the Honduran, whose “tangerine” phase replaces the cream with a startling band of an almost artificial-looking shade of orange. These are all also available in genetic variations with aberrant patterning and albinism. The “candy cane” variant of the Honduran is an amazing thing to see, every bit as dazzling as the name suggests.
The tricolor kingsnakes are a large group of related snakes. Mountain kings (L. pyromelana spp. and L. zonata spp.) tend to be small and brightly colored, but relatively uncommon in the pet trade due to their protected status in the wild. The scarlet king (L. elapsoides) is a diminutive Floridian directly named for the coral, whose range it shares. Notoriously lizard feeders, in recent years they seem to have either been wild-collected from areas that produce more mouse-inclined feeders, or the species has somehow shifted en masse to a more collector-friendly diet. Still, they are not commonly seen in collections.
Of all the tricolors, my personal favorites are the grey banded (L. alterna) and Mexican (L. mexicana) varieties. The coloring on these snakes is often extraordinary, even by the standards of the genus. Grey bandeds tend to have wide bands of a lovely mauve to slate-grey, with fine bands of black and orange, while the Mexicans have similar but even more diverse patterns and colors. One species, the nuevo leon (L. m. thayeri) can even throw nearly every color variation in the genus in a single litter, thus leading to the common name variable kingsnake. These snakes tend to be short and a bit stockier than most tricolors and have very calm dispositions, though the Grey Banded babies can sometimes be a bit tricky to get feeding well.
So, why are these snakes not as popular and commonplace as the corn snake? There is one simple and rather bad reason: babies tend to be a bit nervous and flighty. My overwhelming experience with them is that, with even a little bit of time, patience and handling, they calm down and end up as docile and sweet as any other snake on the market. They do, however, leave a first impression that requires you explain this and get the potential customer past their juvenile delinquency.
One more bit of lore regarding tricolors: There is a famous poem that people use to test the safety of an unknown snake and figure out if it is king or coral by the order of colors in the banding: “Red touch black, venom lack; red touch yellow, kill a fellow.” Or is it “Red touch black, death to Jack; red touch yellow, friendly fellow?” I know it’s one of those two, but which one?
I have just demonstrated the inherent silliness of trying to go by that poem. Add to this two more factors: Once you cross the border into Mexico, that poem can reverse itself! And, a snake you encounter in the wild might be local species or, less likely but still possible at this point in the hobby, an escapee from someone’s collection, making its identity open to conjecture from hundreds of species worldwide. The truth is, experience with these snakes is the best teacher. At this point, I can easily identify most North American species without even being able to tell you what gives them away, and I find most of my peers have the same ability. It may seem daunting at first, but over time you will get there too.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.