What is a Coachwhip Snake?

Stephany Seipel

The coachwhip snake, Masticophis flagellum (M.f.), is part of the Colubridae family. The snakes in this species have narrow, elongated bodies with heavy scales over their rounded eyes. They range in size from around 3 feet (0.9 m) to well more than 8 feet (2.4 m) in length. Coachwhip snakes vary in appearance depending on the subspecies and geography.

Although not poisonous, a bite from a coachwhip snake can be painful.
Although not poisonous, a bite from a coachwhip snake can be painful.

The red coachwhip snake, M.f. piceus, inhabits deserts, sagebrush and grasslands in southern California, Arizona and Nevada. The front halves of their bodies are often red, pink or black. Some have wide black or brown crossbands. The color gradually grows lighter toward the tail. They are good climbers and can climb into shrubs and trees.

One environment that coachwhip snakes can occupy is the desert.
One environment that coachwhip snakes can occupy is the desert.

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Eastern coachwhip snakes, M.f. flagellum, are found along beaches, in scrublands or around sand hills in the southeastern United States. Their dark brown or black heads gradually fade into light tan scales with black outlines, giving them the appearance of a braided whip. Juvenile eastern coachwhips are somewhat lighter in color than the adults, with brown or tan scales and indistinct banding.

Western coachwhips, M.f. testaceus, live in deserts, scrub and grasslands across Mexico and the southwestern United States. They vary in color from pink to yellow, brown or tan. Many western coachwhips have short, dark crossbands on the front of their bodies that become wider toward the tail.

Other coachwhip snake varieties include the Sonoran coachwhip, M.f. cingulum, a snake from southern and central Arizona and Mexico. It has a light pink body with dark bands. Baja California coachwhips, M.f. fuliginosus, are light or dark gray with zigzagged banding, while lined coachwhips, M.f. lineatulus, are tan or gray snakes that mainly inhabit Mexico and New Mexico.

Coachwhip snakes eat by crushing their prey in their jaws. They feed on a variety of large insects, lizards, birds and rodents. Unlike many species of snakes, coachwhips are diurnal, or awake during the day. They have a tendency to bask on roads and feed on roadkill, so they are often killed by oncoming traffic.

They are oviparous, or egg-layers. They lay clutches of between three and 12 eggs in early summer. The young snakes hatch between 45 and 70 days later.

Members of the coachwhip snake species are generally high-strung and nervous. They warn those approaching by vibrating their tails and hissing. They are fast-moving and prefer to flee rather than strike, but will defend themselves aggressively against perceived predators if they are disturbed. Coachwhips are non-venomous, but they can deliver a painful bite if handled.

The coachwhip snake inhabits southern California, Arizona and Nevada.
The coachwhip snake inhabits southern California, Arizona and Nevada.

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