by Martha Hagameister
Most people are frightened when they encounter a snake of any kind during a nature hike. The gopher snake, found here at the Baylands, can be very intimidating because of its sheer size. Full-grown gopher snakes average between 4 to 5 feet in length, but some have been recorded at upwards of 8 feet long! Although they seem harmful, they are actually needed to keep the ecosystem functioning here on the Bay. If the gopher snakes are killed or removed from the Bay, the populations of the animals they depend on for food will become unbalanced. The ultimate result would be destructive to the entire Baylands area.
You can spot the gopher snake, also called the bull or pine snake, throughout western North America, from British Columbia down to Central Mexico. A member of the genus pituophis melanoleucus, the gopher snake has a pointed head and is usually light gray or tan in color with large black or brown rectangular blotches on its back. Aside from its physical description, the gopher snake can also be identified by its loud hissing that resembles a punctured tire. It actually hisses more loudly than any other snake in the United Snakes because of a small filament in its mouth. We should remember that just because the gopher snake may sound harmful, it is actually feeling threatened by us when it hisses.
The gopher snake, like all other snakes, moves by using "scoots," large scales that run the width of their bodies. Each scoot, attached to a rib, slides along the ground independently of the other scales. These scoots enable the snake to propel itself forward, but it cannot move backwards very efficiently because of the way the scoots overlap each other.
Gopher snakes mate in the spring, laying groups of 3 - 24 cream colored to white eggs that are between 2 and 4 ¼ inches long. Their eggs can be found in the summer months in sandy soil or under rocks. The young hatch in 64 - 79 days and are 12 - 18 inches long. Once they are a year old, they sometimes are up to 3 feet in length.
The gopher snake's name comes from one of its primary diet sources - the gopher. Since a grown gopher snake's diet consists mostly of various small rodents like the gopher, it is especially helpful in agricultural areas, because it can reduce rodent populations that typically harm crops. The gopher snake's diet also includes frogs, birds, and bird eggs. The gopher snake usually wraps its body around its live prey, constricting it until it dies. When hunting gophers living in their burrows, the snake crushes the gopher against the inside of the hole with its body. Once the snake's prey is dead, it then swallows it whole, sometimes taking up to a week to digest its food.
Gopher snakes can be seen at the Baylands laying in the sun during the summer months. They actually spend so much time exposed to the sun that they sometimes get skin cancer. However, the gopher snake's population is more threatened due to human actions than any other natural occurrence. They are often killed by those who don't fully understand the key function they serve in the ecosystem. Visitors to the Baylands should remember that this is the gopher snakes' natural habitat, and that they have a right to exist here without our destructive interaction.