Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum)

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Coachwhip
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • The coachwhip is one of the largest native snakes in North America.
  • It is thought that the coachwhip gets its name from the pattern on its tail, which looks like a braided whip.
  • An agile, fast-moving snake, the coachwhip can move at top speeds of up to four miles per hour.
  • The coachwhip has a very varied diet, feeding on lizards, birds, small mammals and large invertebrates.
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Coachwhip fact file

Coachwhip description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderSquamata
FamilyColubridae
GenusMasticophis (1)

A long, slender species (2) (3) (4) (5), the coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) is one of the largest native snakes in North America (3). The scales on the upperparts of this species are smooth (3) (4) and overlap each other (4), and it is thought that the coachwhip gets its common name from the pattern on its tail, which resembles a braided whip (2) (6).

The coachwhip has a relatively large, angular head (3) (4) which is somewhat distinct from the neck (4). This species’ big eyes (3) (4) (5) (7) have round pupils (3) (4), and are shielded above by a ridge of large, plate-like scales (3) (4).

There are several recognised subspecies of coachwhip (1) (5) (7) (8), ranging in colour from black or red to yellow-tan and even pink (2) (7). For instance, the western coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum testaceus) is typically light tan (2) to dark brown (9), with uniform colouration across its entire body (2). This subspecies is found in three forms, one of which has virtually no markings. In the other two forms, one is marked with narrow bands, and the other with broad bands (9).

In contrast, the eastern coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum flagellum) is often dark brown to black on the head and first third of the body, fading gradually to light brown or tan on the tail (2). However, some specimens may be nearly all black with a reddish tail, while others only have a dark head and neck (9). The colour of the eastern coachwhip’s belly usually matches that of the back (3). Whatever the colour form, the coachwhip usually has two longitudinal rows of dark spots running along its underside (2).

Young coachwhips are tan, yellowish-brown or brown above, and are patterned with dark crossbars along the back (2) (3) (7). The head is marked with cream-coloured spots and scales with white margins, neither of which are present in adult coachwhips (2). The belly is similar to that of the adult, with two rows of black spots (7).

Also known as
coachwhip snake, eastern coachwhip, lined coachwhip, prairie runner, red coachwhip, red racer, San Joaquin coachwhip, San Joaquin whip snake, Sonoran coachwhip, western coachwhip.
Synonyms
Bascanion flagellum, Coluber flagellum, Coluber testaceus, Herpetodryas flagelliformis, Masticophis piceus, Psammophis flavigularis, Zamenis flagelliformis.
Size
Total length: 106.7 - 167.6 cm (2)
Hatchling length: 27.9 - 35.6 cm (2)
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Coachwhip biology

The coachwhip is a diurnal species, meaning that it is active during the day (2) (3) (4) (7). It is thought to take shelter in crevices or animal burrows at night, and may also use such retreats in the winter (2). This species is typically active from March to October, or even until November in the warmer parts of its range (2) (7). An agile, fast-moving snake (2) (9), the coachwhip can reach top speeds of about four miles per hour on the ground (2), and is also reported to be an excellent climber (3).

A non-venomous species (3), the coachwhip has needle-sharp teeth (2) which produce lacerations rather than punctures when it bites (9). This species’ diet is varied (1) (2), depending on both geographic location and prey availability (2). Lizards, snakes, turtles, small mammals and birds and their eggs are all eaten by the coachwhip (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). This species is also known to feed on invertebrates (1) (2), such as grasshoppers and cicadas (2), and carrion (1). Interestingly, there have been reports of the coachwhip eating sidewinders (Crotalus cerastes) (4). Studies have shown that lizards make up the majority of the coachwhip’s diet, followed by mammals, snakes and insects (2).

After flushing its prey out of the undergrowth by gliding effortlessly through brush and grass (2), the coachwhip actively chases its quarry (2) (4), catching it with a sudden burst of speed. While in hunting mode, this species is almost constantly on the move (2), usually with the front part of its body raised a considerable distance off the ground (2) (9). In addition to being an efficient active hunter, the coachwhip is reported to be an effective ambush predator, lying in wait for its victims (2) (4), and can also locate its prey by chemical scent trailing (2).

When provoked, the coachwhip will attempt to drive off potential predators by vibrating its tail rapidly, making a sound much like that of a rattlesnake (2). It will also strike out if cornered (2) (3), but will generally elude predators with a sudden burst of speed (2), by climbing into trees and bushes (2) (7), or disappearing into the burrows of small mammals (2).

Mating in the coachwhip typically takes place in the spring (2) (3) (4) (7), often in late April and May (2). The coachwhip is an oviparous species (1) (5) (8), and the female lays its eggs in late spring and early summer (2) (3) (4) (7), using a variety of areas as nest sites, including piles of leaf litter, loose soil, the hollows of decomposing logs, and the abandoned burrows of small animals (2). Female coachwhips lay clutches of up to 20 eggs (1) (5), although typically about 12 or 13 eggs are laid (2). The young snakes hatch in August or September (2), after an incubation period of between 6 and 12 weeks (1) (2) (7).

Although little is known about the lifespan of the coachwhip in the wild, captive eastern coachwhips have been known to live longer than 16 years (3).

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Coachwhip range

The coachwhip is found over much of the southern half of the USA (4) (5), from California to Florida (1) (5), including Nevada, south-western Utah (1), Oklahoma, Illinois and South Carolina (8). This species also occurs in northern Mexico (4) (5), as far south as southern Baja California, Sinaloa and Querétaro (1) (4) (8), as well as on Tiburón Island and Turner Island off the coast of Sonora in the Gulf of California (4).

The various subspecies of coachwhip occupy different parts of this species’ range. For instance, the eastern coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum flagellum) is found throughout Florida, except for the Florida Keys, and also occurs in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and eastwards to North Carolina (3).

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Coachwhip habitat

The coachwhip is adapted to a hot, dry climate (2), and can be found in a range of arid or semi-arid open habitats (1) (2) (9), usually with sandy or rocky terrain (2) (4). This species occurs in grasslands, savannahs (1) (2) (7) (9), scrub (1) (3) (7), pine flatwoods (2) (3) and in prairies (1) (2). The coachwhip can also be found in swamps and creek valleys (1) (7) (9) and in salt marshes (4).

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Coachwhip status

The coachwhip is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Coachwhip threats

There are currently no known major threats to the coachwhip (1).

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Coachwhip conservation

There are no known conservation measures specifically in place for the coachwhip, but this species’ range includes several protected areas (1).

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Find out more

Find out more about the coachwhip and its subspecies:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Carrion
The flesh of a dead animal.
Diurnal
Active during the day.
Incubation
The act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Invertebrates
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
Oviparous
An animal that reproduces by laying eggs, which hatch outside the mother’s body.
Prairie
An extensive area of flat or rolling, predominantly treeless grassland, especially the large tract or plain of central North America.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Werler, J.E. and Dixon, J.R. (2000) Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  3. Florida Museum of Natural History -  Eastern coachwhip (November, 2013)
    http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/herpetology/fl-guide/masticophisfflagellum.htm
  4. Grismer, L.L. (2002) Amphibians and Reptiles of Baja California, Including its Pacific Islands, and the Islands in the Sea of Cortés. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  5. Mattison, C. (2005) Snakes. HarperCollins UK, London.
  6. Illinois Natural History Survey - Coachwhip (November, 2013)
    http://www.inhs.uiuc.edu/animals_plants/herps/species/ma_flagell.html
  7. Herps of Texas - Coachwhip (November, 2013)
    http://www.herpsoftexas.org/content/coachwhip
  8. The Reptile Database (November, 2013)
    http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/search.php
  9. Conant, R. and Collins, J.T. (1998) A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
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Coachwhip  
Coachwhip

© Leo Keeler / Animals Animals

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