Fox Snake Facts

Scientific Names: Pantherophis vulpinus and Pantherophis ramspotti

Eastern fox snake
Eastern fox snake (Pantherophis vulpina).

Pantherophis vulpina / Getty Images

The fox snake is a type of North American rat snake (colubrid). Like all rat snakes, it is a nonvenomous constrictor. Fox snakes somewhat resemble the appearance of copperheads and rattlesnakes and may shake their tails when threatened, so they are often mistaken for venomous snakes. The snake's common name is a play on words. One of the species names, vulpinus, means "fox-like" and honors Rev. Charles Fox, the collector of the species holotype. Also, disturbed fox snakes give off a musk similar to the odor of a fox.

Fast Facts: Fox Snake

  • Scientific Names: Pantherophis vulpinus; Pantherophis ramspotti
  • Common Names: Fox snake, foxsnake
  • Basic Animal Group: Reptile
  • Size: 3.0-4.5 feet
  • Lifespan: 17 years
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: North American wetlands, grasslands, and forests
  • Population: Stable
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Species

There are two fox snake species. The eastern fox snake (Pantherophis vulpinus) is found east of the Mississippi River, while the western fox snake (Pantherophis ramspotti) occurs west of the Mississippi River. Between 1990 and 2011, the eastern fox snake was P. gloydi, while the western fox snake was P. vulpinus. In the literature, P. vulpinus sometimes refers to the eastern fox snake and sometimes the western fox snake, depending on the publication date.

Western fox snake
Western fox snake (Pantherophis ramspotti). Veronica Kelly/USFWS (CC BY 2.0)

Description

Adult fox snakes measure between 3 and 6 feet in length, although most specimens are under 4.5 feet long. Mature males are larger than females. Fox snakes have short, flattened snouts. Adults have golden, gray, or greenish brown backs with dark brown spots and yellow/black checkerboard patterns on their bellies. The heads of some snakes are orange. Young snakes resemble their parents, but are much lighter in color.

Habitat and Distribution

Eastern fox snakes live east of the Mississippi River, while western fox snakes live west of the river. Fox snakes are found in the Great Lakes region, including Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, and Ontario. The two species live in different habitats and their ranges do not overlap. Eastern fox snakes prefer wetlands, such as marshes. Western fox snakes inhabit woodlands, farmlands, and prairies.

Diet

Fox snakes are carnivores that feed on rodents, eggs, young rabbits, and birds. They are constrictors that squeeze prey to subdue it. Once the victim stops breathing, it is eaten head first and whole.

Behavior

Fox snakes are active during the day in spring and fall, but they retreat to burrows or beneath logs or rocks during hot and cold weather. In the summer, they prefer to hunt at night. They hibernate in winter. The snakes are capable swimmers and climbers, but are most often encountered on the ground.

The snakes are docile and only hiss and bite if provoked. Initially, threatened snakes may shake their tails to make rattling sounds in leaves. They eject musk from anal glands, presumably so they smell less appetizing to predators.

Reproduction and Offspring

Eastern fox snakes mate in April or May, while western fox snakes mate from April to July. Males wrestle one another to compete for females. In June, July, or August, the female lays between 6 and 29 leathery eggs. The eggs measure between 1.5 and 2.0 inches long and are deposited in forest debris or beneath stumps. After about 60 days, the eggs hatch. The young are independent at birth. The lifespan of wild fox snakes is unknown, but they live 17 years in captivity.

Conservation Status

Fox snakes are listed as "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Overall, their population is considered to be stable or slightly decreasing. However, some states protect the snake, mainly to protect it from over-collection by the pet trade.

Threats

While fox snakes have adapted to live near agriculture and human habitation, habitat destruction may pose a threat. The snakes may be hit by cars, killed when confused with venomous species, or illegally collected as pets.

Fox Snakes and Humans

Fox snakes control agricultural pests, particularly rodents. Experts advocate increasing education about this harmless, beneficial snake to protect it from people who confuse it with venomous species.

Sources

  • Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael. The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. 
  • Conant, R. and J. Collins. Reptiles and Amphibians Eastern/Central North America. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1998.
  • Hammerson, G.A. Pantherophis ramspotti . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T203567A2768778. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-2.RLTS.T203567A2768778.en
  • Hammerson, G.A. Pantherophis vulpinus . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T90069683A90069697. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-2.RLTS.T90069683A90069697.en
  • Smith, Hobart M.; Brodie, Edmund D., Jr. Reptiles of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. New York: Golden Press. 1982. ISBN 0-307-13666-3.