Species: Black pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus lodingi)
Favourite food: Small rodents
How they got their name: Fantom was hatched in captivity in 2006; when she arrived at Earth Rangers, we thought her black colour made her look like a phantom in the night!
Natural behaviours: Fantom is about 180 cm long, but she’s really good at coiling up to look much smaller
Favourite thing to do at the Earth Rangers Centre: She likes it when we mound up the dirt in her enclosure so that she can burrow tunnels through it
Here’s what Animal Trainer Laura has to say about Fantom…
People often ask us if Fantom is slimy, but she’s actually dry to the touch. Her whole body is covered in beautiful shiny, black scales that make it look as though she’s covered in a slimy or oily coating, especially if she’s recently shed an old layer of skin. If you’d like to know what her scales feel like, try rubbing your fingernails. A snake’s scales are made of a very similar material as our fingernails, and they feel almost exactly the same!
- These non-venomous snakes have heads designed to help them dig through the dirt
- They are found from New Jersey to Florida in pine forests with little undergrowth and sandy, dry soil
- When they catch their prey, they wrap their bodies around it and squeeze, suffocating it. Then they swallow their prey whole!
- Females will lay on average 7-11 eggs after which they do not care for the young, so baby Pine snakes are on their own from the moment they hatch
- Globally listed as least concern (IUCN, 2007) but their status is under review. The major threats they face are loss of their habitat, as well as degradation and fragmentation, as their homes get divided up and polluted
Pine snakes are a large species of snake that live in the United States. On average, they will grow to be 120-170 cm, but some have reached up to 250 cm! Don’t let their size scare you though because pine snakes are non-venomous constrictors and aren’t very aggressive towards people. You can tell Black pine snakes, like Fantom, from other subspecies because they are all black in colour. Pine snakes are active during the late morning and afternoon, and hibernate in dens during colder weather.
Pine snakes have a great head for digging, literally! Their heads are relatively small with a pointed snout, allowing them to push through soil easily. They also have a pronounced scale on the end of their nose called a ‘rostral scale’, which helps to protect them when rubbing up against rough surfaces or rocks. Thanks to these adaptations, Pine snakes can spend most of their time underground.
When threatened, Pine snakes will mimic the defensive behaviour of rattlesnakes. If hissing loudly and making themselves look bigger doesn’t scare away predators, Pine snakes will vibrate the end of their tail under nearby dry leaves, making a loud rattling noise. Most of the time, this ploy works and the Pine snake is left alone. Sometimes this mimicry works too well on humans because Pine snake subspecies, like Northern and Florida pine snakes, are often killed by people who mistake them for Eastern diamond-backed rattlesnakes.
Pine snakes are found in a large, patchy range along the Eastern coast of the United States. Northern pine snakes have the largest range, with populations living in parts of New Jersey, Virginia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. Florida pine snakes are naturally found throughout most of Florida, but also in parts of South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Black pine snakes have the smallest range and are only found in small pockets of suitable habitat in Southwestern Alabama,Southern Mississippi and Louisiana.
Their favourite habitats are large forests made up primarily of Pine trees in areas that are not fragmented by agriculture (cultivated crops, pasture or hay fields) or human development – that is how they got their name, after all. They prefer upland Longleaf pine forests growing in dry, well-drained sandy soils because these places are the best spots to dig burrows for nesting or hibernation. If Pine snakes can’t find their preferred habitat they make do with dry oak forests, old fields and borders of agricultural areas. In these places the soil may not be so easy to dig through and the pine snakes might instead choose to take over burrows that once belonged to rats or gophers.
Pine snakes are very picky about where they live; they have a specific set of features they look for in a habitat. This is because of their unique lifestyle as a burrowing snake and need to bask in the sun like many other cold-blooded vertebrates. The ideal Pine snake habitat is not just any kind of pine forest. The forest has to have sandy soil so the snake can dig, and little to no understory. The understory of a forest is made up of smaller shrubs, tree saplings and bushes that don’t reach the towering heights of the surrounding trees. When a pine forest develops too much of an understory, all of those shrubs and bushes send out a thick network of roots underground, making it difficult for Pine snakes to find a good, open spot to make their nest and lay their eggs. Scientists have also discovered that forests with patches of ground with no understory provide microhabitats for snakes to warm up in the sun (thermoregulate).
Pine snakes play an important role in their ecosystems by helping to control rodent populations. Sub-adult snakes are also a food source for other predators like raccoons, foxes, skunks and raptors.
Have you ever seen a Pine snake sticking its tongue out at you? Well it isn’t doing it to be mean! The snake is just taking a sniff. What you do with your nose, snakes and other reptiles, do with their tongues. Snakes are able to smell their environment using their tongue thanks to something called the ‘Jacobson’s organ’, found on the roof of the snake’s mouth. When you see a Pine snake flicking its tongue in and out, it is actually collecting scent particles. The Jacobson’s organ detects the chemical signals of the smells and informs the brain of what is in the surrounding area. This behaviour is really important for hunting because it helps the Pine snake tell when prey is nearby.
Pine snakes love mice, rats, moles, squirrels, pocket gophers, voles, lizards and smaller snakes. When one of these animals is close, the snake will position itself and wait patiently for its prey to come within striking range. The Pine snake will then lash out in a swift strike, catching the animal in its fangs. The Pine snake then quickly coils its body around the animal and begins to squeeze, or constrict, using their incredible muscles. As the prey tries to inhale to take a breath the snake constricts further, maintaining a tight grip around the animal. Once the animal has been suffocated the snake swallows it whole. Pine snakes have also been known to eat eggs which are also swallowed whole and broken open by the snake’s powerful throat muscles. Once the egg is broken inside their throat the Pine snake will swallow the liquid part and sometimes spit the shell back up.
The breeding season for Pine snakes happens once a year. Breeding usually falls between April and May, and eggs are laid about one month after. Females lay eggs in underground nests; sometimes several females will share a single nest. On average, females will lay about eight eggs, but they can have as few as three or as many as 24! Once the eggs have been laid, the Pine snakes do not guard their nests. In fact, they do very little to conceal the nest, relying instead on the size and depth of the nest to protect the young. The eggs are at the bottom of a chamber, protected by a long thin tunnel that can reach at least 1 m in length, making it very difficult for predators to dig for them.
The young hatch from their eggs and make their way out of the nest in August or September. Hatchlings are usually no more than 50 cm long and are very vulnerable to predators. Using their sense of smell, the young Pine snakes can avoid trails left by likely predators as they make their way to the forest. Although it is unknown how long these snakes can live in the wild, in captivity they usually live for about 15 years.
Baxley DL and CP Qualis (2009). Black pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus lodingi): spatial ecology and associations between habitat use and prey dynamics. Journal of Herpetology 43:284-293.
Baxley D, GJ Lipps Jr, and CP Qualis (2011). Multiscale habitat selection by black pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus lodingi) in Southern Mississippi. Herpetologica 67:154-166.
Encyclopedia of Life. Black Pine Snake.
IUCN Red List. Pituophis melanoleucus (Pine Snake).
- Least concern (IUCN, 2007). The Black pine snake is a candidate for a threatened/endangered listing in the United States (USFWS 2011)
- Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation are major threats to Pine snakes
Pine snakes are considered to be a species at risk because their population is declining and they face real threats that challenge their ability to survive in the wild.
Most threats that Pine snakes face have to do with habitat. Human activities like farming and construction, for example, are pushing the Pine snakes’ already fragmented habitats even farther apart, leaving populations isolated and of increasing conservation concern. Population isolation caused by habitat fragmentation is the main issue facing the Black pine snake, whose actual area of liveable habitat is much smaller than that of other subspecies. In fact, the threats facing the Black pine snake are so great that in Mississippi it is listed as state endangered and it is currently a candidate to be listed as a threatened species in the United States.
In addition to the population becoming more isolated, Pine snake habitats are being degraded and becoming less suitable for them to live in. This is due, in part, to policies that prevent periodic forest fires. Forest fires are a naturally occurring process generally occurring every several years that helps to clear away dead trees, understory growth, and release nutrients, leaving the large, living trees relatively unharmed. Since Pine snakes need special areas with little understory growth to make nests, restricting forest fires and letting the understory grow really thick makes it hard for Pine snakes to survive.
Protecting reptiles like Pine snakes isn’t an easy job. It takes special conservation efforts over very large areas of land to make sure their habitat doesn’t get fragmented or degraded. In some areas Pine snake home ranges are nearly 400 ha, the size of 889 football fields! There are not many places left in North America where large areas of forest can be found. While lots of Pine snakes live in protected areas, they are still feared by many and are often mistaken for more dangerous snakes. Education is an important step in protecting them. Many Pine snake deaths can be prevented by teaching people about snake identification and the ecological benefits of having them around.
Black pine snakes are not well-studied reptiles. As scientists learn more about their ecology, such as habitat use and needs, we will be in a better position to develop management plans to conserve remaining populations.