The Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) is a non-venomous colubrid snake, also referred to as the whip snake, endemic to the United States and northern half of Mexico. The coachwhip is one of the largest native snakes found in North America.
There are 7 subspecies and their range extends from coast to coast throughout the southern USA, from California to Florida, including Illinois, Nevada, Oklahoma, south-western Utah, southeastern North Carolina and South Carolina.
The species is also found in the northern regions of Mexico in Baja California, Querétaro and Sinaloa as well as Turner Island and Tiburón Island of the Gulf of California.
Their prefered habitats are relatively open territories. Usually found in desert scrub, sand dunes, prairielands, rocky hillsides and open oak and pine woodlands.
Found along beaches shorelines and river estuaries just up to the pinyon and juniper woodlands in mountain flanks. In the desert, these snakes usually occur in riverine and playa lake environments.
Some captive eastern coachwhips have lived up to 16 years, but little is known about the several coachwhip subspecies lifespan in the wild.
The coachwhip is a fairly thin-bodied snake with smooth scales a long and tapered tail, small angular head and proportionally large eyes with round pupils. An adult coachwhip may reach more than 8 feet in length, but the average is about 4 to 6 feet.
The color varies a lot depending on subspecies and range, but it mostly reflects their natural surroundings ensuring a proper camouflage. In the eastern parts of its range it usually has a dark brown to black color at the head and neck fading gradually to light brown at the tail.
In western parts their color ranges from dark brown, tan, yellowish to gray or even pinkish for the Red coachwhip also known as Red racer. Normally the belly is lighter colored in some cases with cross banding.
The snake's resemblance to the braided lashes of an 18th century British coachman's horsewhip coined is common name.
They are active during the daytime from April until October, coachwhips are most commonly seen in hot weather. In fact while most other snakes are inactive, the coachwhip is frequently observed during the hottest summer weather. At nightime and during cooler weather the coachwhip takes refuge in small mammal burrows or flat rocks.
They have good vision that's better than most other snakes, and are sometimes seen with their heads raised above the ground looking for prey or on lookout for possible predators.
Coachwhips are also good climbers, slithering quickly up shrubs or trees hunting prey or escape a threat. When feeling threatened the coachwhip will normally try to escape using its speed.
But if cornered, they will coil defensively, vibrating the tail in trying to mimic a rattlesnake, if handled they will fight fiercely and bite to defend themselves. These non-venomous snakes have needle-sharp teeth which produce lacerations when it bites, rather than punctures like fangs on venomous snakes do.
The best known myths about these snakes is that the coachwhip will actively chase people and whip them to death, that's false.The hoop snake legend, where a snake grabs its tail with its jaws and rolls itself like a wheel after prey, possibly refers to coachwhip snakes.
There are 7 coachwhip subspecies currently recognized by scientists.
Sonoran coachwhip (M. f. cingulum) - These snakes are found mostly in Mexico southward to Oaxaca in the US occurs in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern to west-central Arizona.
Eastern coachwhip (M. f. flagellum) - Found from eastern Kansas to eastern Texas in the west and North Carolina to Florida in the east.
Baja California coachwhip (M. f. fuliginosus) - Found throughout most Baja California in Mexico, and in a small area of southern San Diego County in California.
Lined coachwhip, (M. f. lineatulus) - These snakes are found mostly in Mexico and extreme south Arizona.
Red coachwhip or Red racer (M. f. piceus) - Found throughout southern California to northwestern Nevada and south through Nevada and much of Arizona.
San Joaquin coachwhip (M. f. ruddocki) - The San Joaquin Coachwhip, is is found in California, ranging from the Sacramento Valley southward to the San Joaquin Valley and westward into the inner South Coast Ranges.
Western coachwhip (M. f. testaceus) - Found throughout West and central Texas, New mexico, Colorado Kansas and Oklahoma and also in east Mexico.
Diet / Feeding
The coachwhip has a very keen eyesight making it an excellent hunter, they will actively hunt for potential prey.
Coachwhip snakes eat a wide variety of prey such as small rodents, amphibians, lizards, birds and birds eggs, insects or spiders and snakes including venomous snakes.
They are very fast-moving, agile snakes, that can move at top speeds of up to 4 mph similar to other racer like the blue racer snake. They use their speed to chase down racerunners and skinks, but the captured the prey isn't constricted instead it's consumed alive.
The coachwhip mating season occurs typically in the spring, often in late April and May.
Coachwhip are oviparous snakes, and the female lays the eggs in late spring and early summer. They use loose soil, piles of leaf litter, hollows logs and abandoned burrows of small animals as nest sites.
Females lay up to 24 eggs per clutch, although the average number of laid eggs is about 12. After an incubation period of 6 to 12 weeks, hatchlings are born in August or September.
They measure about 11 to 16 inches (28 to 40.5 cm ), and look different than the adult snakes, they have an overall tan coloration with small brown crossbars down the length of the body.
Conservation / Threats
The coachwhip snakes are considered by the IUCN as "Least Concern" species, due to it's extremely wide distribution and presumed large population in excess of 100,000 up to 1,000,000 individuals.
The several subspecies face no eminent major threats, and their populations are not currently declining. However their habitat is declining in some areas, due to development.
Like San Joaquin valley in the central part of California, where the local subspecies the San Joaquin Coachwhip is listed as "Special Concern" because of disappearing habitat.
Did You Know?
The highly venomous golden lancehead is found only in a tiny island off Brazil's coast.