WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Milk snakes? They don't really milk cows, do they? Rest assured, milk snakes do NOT milk cows. Long before our time some dairyman with a sense of humor must have noticed a milk snake or two in his barn. When he didn't get the desired quantity of milk from his cow(s) he may have remarked that the milk snakes must have sucked the cows dry the night before. In spite of their name, the hard working milk snakes had simply been drawn to the barn while seeking their normal dinner of mice. Even if it could suck milk, an amount equivalent to the body volume of a milk snake would hardly be missed from a milk-producing cow. I have been assured by those who know, that a cow wouldn't stand still while six rows of needle-sharp teeth were clamped on her teat.
Milk snakes are members of the large snake family Colubridae that belongs to the genus Lampropeltis, making them a subcategory of kingsnakes (all snakes in the genus Lampropeltis are kingsnakes), and to the species triangulum which distinguishes them from other species of kingsnakes. Thus milk snakes consist of Lampropeltis triangulum and its respective subspecies. In his monograph, Williams (1998) recognizes 25 subspecies of the milk snake Lampropeltis triangulum.
The current trend in herpetoculture is to refer to various milk snakes using both common and scientific names though the general use of scientific names is becoming increasingly widespread usually at the subspecific level when referring to milk snakes. For example, herpetoculturists in the course of their conversations will commonly use "hondurensis" or "campbelli" or "annulata" to refer to those respective milk snake subspecies.
Scientific names are used because they standardize, eliminate confusion, and insure one common international language in biological classification and identification. Common names are considered to be too localized in nature and their variation would confuse international communications. Latin and Greek are the chosen languages for scientific names. The standard format for scientific names is as follows: first, the genus, then the species. For example, all milk snakes belong to the genus Lampropeltis and the species triangulum. If there is more than one subspecies, the species name is repeated again as the subspecific name of the originally described animal for the species. In all other subsequently described subspecies, the subspecific name will be different although the genus and species will remain the same as in the originally described species name. For example, when originally described (for simplicity I am disregarding previously used and revised names) the eastern milk snake was known as Lampropeltis triangulum. That was it, two names. Later many other variations or subspecies of milk snake were discovered. For example, the Pueblan milk snake, which was named after J. Campbell, the man who brought it back to science, was described as Lampropeltis triangulum campbelli. The eastern milk snake, to distinguish it from the other triangulum subspecies, had its scientific name repeated at the subspecific level and became Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum.
If you are wondering who gives the snakes these names, it is the person who "describes for science" the animal who gets to assign the name and submit it for acceptance to a board of peers. Some snake names mean nothing (that we can figure out), most are something of a description. For instance "Lampropeltis"-the genus referring to kingsnakes-was derived from lampros which is Greek for shining, beautiful, and pelte from the Greek meaning small shield. Roughly translated, Lampropeltis could mean small beautiful shield, presumably referring to the shiny scales of the kingsnake.
Taxonomy is a field which is continually updated as new information is acquired on the relationships between various species and subspecies. There are roughly speaking, two trends of thought in taxonomy. The "splitters" are the taxonomists who will name a new species or subspecies on the slightest differences. The taxonomic "lumpers" want fewer groups and want to consolidate the existing ones. The ultimate "lumper" would consider all 25 subspecies of the milk snake colour or geographic variations that should all be called Lampropeltis triangulum with no subspecies. As a rule, herpetoculturists place a considerable emphasis on geographical variants and would probably prefer a standardization of a language that allows for a descriptive isolation of these variants.
Tricolors? This is a term most often used by herpetoculturists to generally describe many kingsnakes and most milk snakes with the ringed three-colour pattern. There are many venomous and other non-venomous species of snakes that are also tricolored but most are not popular either because they are dangerous or because of their difficult captive requirements.
Distribution: The milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) is an American species from from southeastern Canada south to northern South America. The various subspecies inhabit swamps, deserts, and mountains. They live in a wide variety of habitats capable of supporting reptiles.
Origin of captive specimens: Many milk snakes are still being collected in the wild. Some, like the Louisiana milk snake (L. t. amaura) are easily collected in winter when the swamps freeze by splitting open decomposing logs above the frozen water line. Many subspecies are collected by the non-habitat destructive technique of "road cruising." You simply drive slowly at night through suitable habitat and watch for the milk snakes on or near the road, or "spot light" nearby banks, ditches, etc. This is most effective during early summer nights. The eastern milk snake (L. t. triangulum) and the scarlet kingsnake (L. t. elapsoides) are two U.S. subspecies of milk snake which are still commonly collected in some numbers from the wild for the general pet trade. Fortunately several thousand of the larger milk snake subspecies are now produced annually in captivity. As a general rule, I would strongly recommend the purchase of a parasite- and disease-free, acclimated, captive-produced animal over the acquisition of a wild-caught animal.
Size: As you would guess with 25 subspecies spread over such a large area, the adult sizes of the subspecies vary. Some of the smaller North American subspecies are adult at 18 inches while some of the Central and South American forms reach nearly six feet in length.
Color variations and patterns: Most of the 25 recognized subspecies are remarkably similar, many bearing a theme of bands around the body (with variations in numbers and widths) of three basic colors: red/orange, yellow/white, and black. There is one subspecies from Central America (L. t. gaigae) that hatches as a tricolor then turns solid black as an adult. The eastern milk snake (L. t. triangulum) looks more blotched than banded with tricolor rings. There are also some unusual color "morphs" being produced in captivity (striped, solid colors, unusual patterns, etc.) and you can expect more unusual combinations to be produced in the future. Some triangulum subspecies have been cross-bred with each other, and a few have been interbred with other species and even genera, so expect almost anything to show up on the pet market. I prefer to keep the subspecies "pure" and trace lineage to avoid breeding siblings where possible, although most combinations can make good captives. Be aware that even the scientific experts can't always identify all the wild-caught animals to the sub-specific level. If this is important to you, be selective and either capture your own or get yours from a reputable breeder.
Sex determination: There is no obvious sexual dimorphism in milk snakes (external differences between male and female). To determine the sex of juveniles, a male's hemipenes can be everted by, starting 3/4" to 1" past the vent on the underside of the tail, applying gentle pressure with your thumb and rolling towards the vent. This method isn't foolproof, but if you see hemipenes you will know that a particular animal is a male. If nothing "pops" (the process of manually everting the hemipenes is called "popping") you should still use a very small probe to confirm the sex of a probable female because the hemipenes don't always evert with this method.
With adults, a sexing probe will be needed to determine sex accurately. Rather than describe the process of probing, it is recommended that you find an experienced individual to show you how. A snake can be severely injured by improper application of the procedure. Experienced herpetoculturists and sales personnel at specialty reptile stores should be happy to demonstrate it for you on a prospective purchase.
Growth rate and reproduction: Most snakes grow all their lives, although the majority of their growth will be in the first few years of life. With optimal conditions and unlimited food, most milk snakes can reach adult size and reproduce in two years. Some female milk snakes will start breeding at two years and will continue laying one to three clutches of eggs for the next eight to ten years. Others will also start laying at two years of age but ultimately will become stunted and never really do well or grow to a large size. It would be wise to wait until the third year before breeding your snake.
Longevity: Milk snakes have lived for over 20 years. The average life span is probably ten to fifteen years.
Milk Snake Subspecies
Common Name Scientific Name Origin Louisiana Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum amaura USA Andean Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum andesiana Columbia Mexican Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum annulata USA, Mexico Jalisco Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum arcifera Mexico Blanchard's Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum blanchardi Mexico Pueblan Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum campbelli Mexico New Mexico Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum celaenops USA Conant's Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum conanti Mexico Dixon's Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum dixoni Mexico Scarlet Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides USA Black Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum gaigeae Costa Rica, Panama Central Plains Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum gentilis USA Honduran Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum hondurensis Honduras, Nicaragua Ecuadorian Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum micropholis Panama, NW South America Pale Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum multistrata USA Nelson's Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum nelsoni Mexico Pacific C. American Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum oligozona Mexico, Guatemala Atlantic C. American Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum polyzona Mexico Sinaloan Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum sinaloae Mexico Smith's Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum smithi Mexico Stuart's Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum stuarti El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua Red Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum syspila USA Utah Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum taylori USA Eastern Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum USA
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