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Rattlesnake vs Kingsnake (Behavior, Diet, Habitat)

Rattlesnakes and kingsnakes are fascinating. Rattlesnakes are more dangerous to humans, but kingsnakes hunt and kill rattlesnakes!

Rattlesnakes belong to the Viperidae family of snakes, which consists of some of the most venomous snakes. Kingsnakes belong to the Colubridae family which contains venomous and non-venomous species, but most are considered harmless to humans.

Rattlesnake vs Kingsnake
Rattlesnake vs Kingsnake

The rattlesnake and kingsnake inhabit the same geographical regions and share some features. The two snakes have an almost similar diet and primarily feed on smaller animals.

Fun Fact: Kingsnakes hunt and eat rattlesnakes. Their tolerance for the rattlesnake’s venom gives them an edge over the rattlesnake in a battle.

Disclaimer: This is information for entertainment and educational purposes only. Do not approach a wild animal and keep your distance. Only professionals should handle wild animals. Seek professional help immediately if you have been bitten or otherwise harmedConsult your local wildlife authority for the right advice for your situation and locality.

Rattlesnakes vs Kingsnakes

FeatureRattlesnakeKingsnake
1. Scientific NameCrotalinae CrotalusLampropeltis getula
2. Size2 – 6 feet2 – 6 feet
3. ColorsRusty and earthy colors spanning from deep brown to gold.Varies. Generally, brown, black, red, green, yellow, white.
4. RangeSouthern Canada to Argentina.Eastern Canada to Southern Ecuador.
5. Hunting BehaviorVenomous ambush predator.Aggressive hunter and constrictor.
6. Breeding SeasonMarch to August.May to Late July.
7. Lays EggsNo (Ovoviviparous).Yes (Oviparous).
8. VenomYes – highly venomous.No (Constrictors).
9. Life Expectancy (In captivity)20-37 years20 to 30 years
10. DietMice, Rats, Frogs.Mice and Rats. Kingsnakes also eat other snakes.

Overview of Rattlesnakes

Rattlesnakes are believed to have originated from the Sierra Madre Occidental region of Mexico. However, today, they are primarily present throughout North and South America.

The majority of them are endemic to the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.

As an ectotherm (unable to regulate its body temperature like a warm-blooded animal), rattlesnakes rely on their surroundings for heat.

Rattlesnakes, like all snakes, don’t have external acoustic openings, and their middle ear organs are less specialized than those of other vertebrates. As a result, their hearing is limited, but they can detect vibrations in the ground sent to the auditory nerve via the skeleton.

As the rattlesnake grows, its skin does not grow along with it, so it has to shed and grow a new one, usually three or four times a year. Juvenile rattlesnakes are born with fully functional fangs and venom, allowing them to kill prey immediately. The bite of a rattlesnake is so potent that if left untreated, it could be lethal.

Fun Fact: Even though most people fear rattlesnakes, they are beneficial to the ecosystem because they help control the population of small mammals.

Related: What do Rattlesnakes Eat?

Overview of the King Snake

There are multiple kingsnake species, each with its own preferred habitat.

For example, the Eastern kingsnake can be found in humid forests along the eastern seaboard, Appalachians, and Alabama. The California kingsnake is located in Baja, Mexico, and the western United States, where it lives in the desert, arid grassland, and rocky hillsides.

The kingsnake is non-venomous, and its bite isn’t harmful to humans, however King Snakes have been known to attack and even eat rattlesnakes.

Pet kingsnakes can be bred in captivity or caught in the wild. They are calm, medium-sized, resilient reptiles that make excellent first-time snake pets.

According to The Florida Museum of Natural History, there are seven distinct species of kingsnakes; common kingsnake, the eastern kingsnake, prairie king snake, California kingsnake, Mexican king snake, Florida king snake, and the scarlet king snake.

This snake likes immersing itself in water, and if kept as a pet, it is advisable to provide it with a humidity box or a hiding place partly filled with damp sphagnum moss to aid it in the shedding process. When threatened, the snake coils into a ball, hides its head and plays dead to confuse its aggressor. They are often confined separately in captivity due to their snake-eating proclivities.

Fun Fact: Some kingsnakes are also called milk snakes, a name they got from the belief that they drink milk from cows since they are usually spotted in barns with a high concentration of rodents.

Comparison Between Rattlesnake and Kingsnake

1. Behavioral Characteristics

Kingsnake

Rattlesnakes and kingsnakes have different behavioral characteristics that help them adapt to their surroundings.

For instance, rattlesnake scales have nanochannels that form a labyrinth-like network that is absent in kingsnakes. Having the nano-texture scales, they exhibit a rain harvesting behavior in arid areas.

When the water comes into contact with their skin, the droplets coalesce and stick, forming shallow puddles that the snake then sucks.

The scales of a kingsnake do not trap water as they are so smooth, and the water slips off the snake’s body.

Both the king snake and rattlesnake are solo hunters and rarely travel or live in groups.

They also brumate alone but can sometimes be found hibernating in large groups. During periods of extreme cold, rattlesnakes come together in dens and form swarming balls with their bodies for heat.

In terms of defense, the scarlet kingsnake mimics the venomous coral snake to fool and startle its predators by flashing its own red and black rings in quick and jerky movements. The snake also secretes a foul-smelling musk when threatened by its predators.

On the other hand, rattlesnakes hiss and rattle their tails as warning signals in the face of danger. If approached, the rattlesnake will coil up, raise its head in a defensive posture, rattle, flick its tongue and hiss as a dare for the predator to come any closer

2. Physical Features

Some of the physical features to look out for when differentiating this two species include;

  • Kingsnakes have a tiny, narrow line behind their eyes and a dark spot on top of their heads shaped like an arrowhead, while rattlesnakes have thick bands of color going back from their eyes.
  • The head of a rattlesnake is triangular, while that of a king snake is round.
  • The rattlesnake’s tail has a ring-like shape called a rattle, and that of a king snake ends in a point.
  • Kingsnakes have colorful and varied color patterns often absent in rattlesnakes.
  • Rattlesnakes have diamond-shaped pupils, somewhat like a cat’s slits, whereas kingsnakes have spherical pupils.

3. Do They Hibernate or Brumate?

kingsnake

While most snakes are known to hibernate (a condition where animals spend the winter in a dormant state), rattlesnakes and kingsnakes do not hibernate. Instead, they Brumate.

Brumation is a situation where they become less active and lower their metabolism by 70%, and can come out of their dens and move around a bit when the weather conditions are favorable.

When the weather turns cold, they go back to their dens again. During brumation, they can survive on little or no food at all. However, some rattlesnake species that have not adapted to the cold seasons hibernate inside pack rat dens or other reptiles such as the desert tortoises.

The Western diamondback rattlesnake hibernates in groups of ten to twenty in the same area, and other species can even Brumate in groups of 1000 snakes.

4. Predators and Threats

Although both snakes have a common predator, such as hawks, bobcats, coyotes, and skunks, the rattlesnake has other major enemies uncommon to the kingsnake. Fascinating enough, the kingsnake is a threat and a predator to the rattlesnake.

Humans also kill rattlesnakes more than kingsnakes and other species due to their venomous nature. Most people thus consider them a threat. Deer, antelope, and cows also tend to trample on the snake as they consider it a threat.

Humans do not usually kill the king snake due to its docile and tamable nature. Moreover, Rattlesnakes are preyed upon intensively as neonates when they are still weak and immature.

Their populations are seriously threatened in many locations due to habitat degradation, poaching, and eradication campaigns.

5. Climbing Ability

A rattlesnake in a desert

Some species of rattlesnake can climb trees. Most of them are not good at climbing compared to the kingsnakes, which are excellent climbers.

Climbing rattlesnakes do so in search of food, shed their skin, or find a mate.

Rattlesnakes can’t climb vertical walls because they lack the grip to hold them on the wall’s surface. They can, however, climb on low-lying rocks in their habitat. Kingsnakes climb fast on trees and rocks and can go up straight walls.

6. Conservation Status

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, most rattlesnake and kingsnake species are not endangered (IUCN).

However, the organization’s Red List of Threatened Species lists three rattlesnake species as species of concern.

The Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake is a species of concern because it is only found on Santa Catalina Island, and humans and feral cats tend to over-hunt them. The long-tailed rattlesnake is listed as rare, and its population is decreasing due to habitat loss brought about by logging and agricultural activities.

 As it is only found in a tiny area of Mexico, the Tancitaran dusky rattlesnake is also classed as “endangered.”

There is also a red list of endangered kingsnakes like Todos Santos Island snake and Eastern kingsnakes. Although the cause of the decline is unknown, some experts believe it is due to invading fire ants swarming and eating kingsnake eggs or freshly hatched juveniles.

7. When Are They Active?

Mexican Black Kingsnake

Rattlesnakes and kingsnakes are most active in the early mornings and at dusk into the night.

In moderate climates, they are diurnal (active during the day). However, during summer, these snakes sleep during the day to avoid direct sunlight and sleep at night during cooler spring and fall.

However, the kingsnake is more active than the rattlesnake.

Kingsnakes are larger than rattlesnakes and thus have to feed more. Therefore, instead of ambushing their prey like most rattlesnakes, they actively hunt for their food. Kingsnakes are among the snakes which have a very active activity cycle during fall.

The males of both snake species are most active during fall as they try to get attention from the females for mating purposes. These snakes are most active when they are starving.

8. Navigation

While rattlesnakes use heat-sensing organs located in the pits near their eyes to navigate, kingsnakes use the Jacobson’s organ in their fork-shaped tongues to smell and taste the surrounding environment.

The heat-sensing Jacobson’s organ gives rattlesnakes a heightened sense of smell, knows when to lie low, and waits to attack prey.

Even though most snakes have poor eyesight, the rattlesnake depends on its sight to a certain degree when navigating. Its eyes contain rod cells adapted to nocturnal use and cone cells capable of some color vision. A rattlesnake’s vision is more acute during daylight conditions.

On the other hand, kingsnakes have inferior vision compared to the rattlesnake because their eyes are positioned at the sides of their round head. Nonetheless, king snakes do have a good close-up sight. Moreover, these snakes use special sensing organs on their skins which react to heat and vibrations in their surroundings.

9. Breeding and Mating

Snake Mate

Most female king snakes lay 3-29 eggs during early summer. The eggs typically hatch in late summer, and the hatchlings are usually about 5-8 inches long.

These hatchlings do not necessarily look like their parents, and they have different colors. For example, some are born with grey or black dorsal saddles. They assume their parents’ features as they grow up. As soon as the juvenile snakes hatch, they are usually equipped to hunt and fend for themselves.

Rattlesnakes often mate during spring or early summer, depending on where they are found. Southern species mate when they emerge from hibernation in the spring, but northern species breed in the autumn and store the sperm for the following year.

Rattlesnake eggs will remain in their mother’s pouch until they hatch. Most of the time, 8-10 infants are delivered simultaneously and are roughly 10 inches long.

Fun Fact: Rattlesnakes usually take longer to mature. Hence, the female reproduces once every three years while king snakes reproduce once a year after reaching sexual maturity.

10.  Feeding Pattern and Defecation

Adult rattlesnakes feed only once every two to three weeks in the wild, while adult kingsnakes feed every seven to ten days.

Juvenile rattlesnakes and king snakes feed more often, mostly twice a week, between five to seven days because they are undergoing a period of rapid growth. These snakes only feed when they are hungry, and the king snake can go six months without food.

For both of these snakes, defecation usually starts in 2-3 days as the digestion process continues. Once the meal has been converted to poop, the snakes pass it through an anal orifice called the cloaca, located at the end of the snake’s belly and the beginning of its tail.

More Snake Comparisons:

Conclusion

Rattlesnakes and king snakes are some of the most common snake species in North America. They have distinctive physical features ranging from appearance to color since they come from different families. For instance, the rattlesnake is an ambush hunter, while the king snake is an active hunter.

King Snakes may not look similar to rattlesnakes, but plenty of other snakes do.

Check out our other article 7 Snakes that Look Like Rattlesnakes (but aren’t)

These two snakes are essential for their ecosystem as they help control the population of small rodents and reptiles. Also, since the king snakes feed on other snakes, it helps to keep the numbers of venomous snakes in check.  

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