Check out how big this guy was! Almost six foot tip to tip.
Look at the incredible scale/color pattern on the tail (below). Stunning!
You can also get a feeling for how long the tail is in this picture. The "vent" (or area where the snakes goes to the bathroom out of, near my right pinky) is visible in this picture. Basically a snake's tail starts at the vent.....
He was also pretty easy to handle due to the cool weather, which I'm told is not typical for this snake. Jeff and Ed recounted stories of folks they know getting tagged by Coachwhips....apparently they have an penchant for nailing over-enthusiastic Herp-nuts in the face!
The cool weather also worked in our favor for picture taking. This is normally a pretty jittery species. Although previously placed within the Genus Masticophis, it is currently in the Genus Coluber....which also includes a species we encounter around our study areas alot: the quick-moving Racer (Coluber constrictor). Coachwhips are definately fast. They've been clocked at maximum speed of 3.73 miles/hr (6.01 km/hr) by Mosauer (1935)!! Not bad for a critter with no arms and legs.
A snake moving that fast through scrub and brush is basically gone before the person trying to catch them even realizes what they've seen. So for us to be able to catch and photograph them was incredible.
So, much like Racers, Coachwhips are sleek and fleet predators that use their speed to actively forage and chase down food. I like to think of them as a "run-n-gun" type forager :). In addition to that maximum speed of nearly 4 mph that I mentioned before, they have been clocked to prowl normally at a speed of roughly 0.3 mph (Mosauer 1935). While hunting, they are known to crawl with their head and neck off of the ground (Cooper et al, 1990), but will lower their heads and barrel forward when prey is detected.
They eat just about anything, including many of the lightning fast little lizard species found in their habitats: racerunners (Cnemidophorus sp.), fence lizards (Sceloperus sp.) and skinks (Plestiodon sp.). Mammals, birds and other snakes are also consumed. Work by Hamilton and Pollock (1956) found reported the following food items in the stomachs of 45 Coachwhips analyzed: Lizards (68.9%), mammals (17.8%), snakes (8.9%), insects (8.9%), birds (2.2%); and turtles (2.2%).
According to Ernst and Ernst (2003) there is an interesting folk tale associated with Coachwhips. This states that if pestered by a human, a Coachwhip will quickly grab the leg of the hapless homonid with the front part of its body and lash them with the long, thin ends of their tails.
Believe it or not (and I was shocked by this), such claims are completely untrue! ;)
And with that, I finally conclude my series of posts about our herpin' trip to the Sandhills in spring of 2011. It was a great trip and I've got to thank Jeff and Ed for taking time out of their weekends to show us around, not for any real scientific purpose...but just to have some fun.
We all need to have alittle fun now and then, don't we?
Thanks for a great trip, guys!!
Cooper, W.E., Jr., D.G. Buth and L.J. Vitt. 1990. Prey odor discrimination by ingestively naive coachwhip snakes (Masticophis flagellum). Chemoecology 1:86-91.
Ernst, C.H., and E.M. Ernst. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithonian Press.
Hamilton, W.J., Jr., and J.A. Pollock. 1956. The food of some colubrid snakes from Fort Benning, Georgia. Ecology 37:519-526.
Mosauer, W. 1935. How fast can snakes travel? Copeia 1935:6-9.