Eastern Foxsnake Pantherophis vulpinus

Small adult from Tippecanoe County

Identification

This relatively long, brown to tan or yellow snake is similar to many other blotched or banded Indiana snakes, but found only in the northwestern part of the state. Though most of the snake is a dull brown or tan color, the head is sometimes a rusty red-brown. This snake is closely related to Gray Ratsnakes and shares their slightly keeled scales and checkerboard of dark squares on the underbelly. However, this is a slightly smaller species that often grows to around four feet (1.2 m) long and, only occasionally, exceeds five feet (1.5m) in length.

Adult from Tippecanoe County
Ventral view of juvenile from Tippecanoe County
Juvenile from Tippecanoe County

Eastern Foxsnakes are most likely to be confused with Eastern Milksnakes, though they are slightly larger. In fact, the two snakes have remarkably similar dorsal and ventral patterning even down to the dark bar that connects the eyes. Notably, Eastern Foxsnakes have slightly keeled scales, whereas Eastern Milksnakes have glossy smooth scales. Also, Eastern Foxsnakes have a more defined neck and head than Eastern Milksnakes. Northern Wtersnakes are superficially similar, but have more heavily keeled scales, more complete bands, and lack the dark bar connecting the eyes. The more robust Bullsnake is a lighter, white-yellow color with black bands that become indistinct and checkered toward the head.

Ecology and Conservation

The Eastern Foxsnake is a prairie grassland and farmland snake that prefers moist habitats to drier ones. It thrives in areas like fields and railroad right-of-ways. The distribution of the western fox snake in Indiana is limited to the northwest corner of the state. The Eastern Foxsnake preys mostly on small rodents that it kills by constriction. It may also prey on birds and their eggs. When threatened, it vibrates its tail. If the snake is in leaves, this vibration may create a sound similar to a rattle that often causes people to confuse it with a venomous rattlesnake. If cornered, this snake will coil, raise its head, and possibly strike.

The Eastern Foxsnake is a State Imperiled species in Michigan, a State Threatened species in Ohio, and a State Endangered Species in Missouri.

Distribution

Eastern Foxsnakes are only found in the northwestern part of the state but inhabit a wide range of habitats including forests, old fields, and prairie. They frequent wet areas such as the margins of wetlands and streams and may even be found along the grassy margins of irrigation ditches in agricultural landscapes.

Taxonomy

The taxonomic history of ratsnakes (the group to which the Eastern Foxsnake belongs) is contentious and complicated. For many years, North American ratsnakes were placed in the genus Elaphe, but Utiger et al. (2002) demonstrated this genus to be paraphyletic and recognized the genus Pantherophis to remedy the situation. Burbrink (2007) recommended the use of the genus Pituophis, and Collins and Taggart (2008) proposed the use of the genus Mintonius for these snakes, but few herpetologists support these recommendations.

Previous taxonomic classifications of the foxsnakes described a single species (P. vulpinus) with two subspecies: the Western Foxsnake (P. v. gloydi) and the Eastern Foxsnake (P. v. vulpinus), with Indiana's foxsnakes belonging to the former. Some scientists recognized these two subspecies as distinct species. Crother et al. (2011) suggested the existence of two species of foxsnakes that did not correspond to these subspecific names; thus, they proposed sinking P. v. gloydi, recognizing a new species--the Western Foxsnake (P. ramspotti), and using the common name "Eastern Foxsnake" for P. vulpinus. Thus, regardless of one's position on these propositions, Indiana's foxsnakes certainly belong to the species P. vulpinus.

These snakes are members of the family Colubridae, which is represented by a total of 28 species in Indiana.

Literature Cited

Collins, J. T., and T. W. Taggart. 2008. An alternative classification of the New World Rat Snakes (genus Pantherophis [Reptilia: Squamata: Colubridae]). Journal of Kansas Herpetology 26:16-18.

Conant, R. and J. T . Collins. 1998. Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Third Edition, Expanded. Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY.

Crother, B. I., M. E. White, J. M. Savage, M. E. Eckstut, M. R. Graham, and D. W. Gardner. 2011. A Reevaluation of the Status of the Foxsnakes Pantherophis gloydi Conant and P. vulpinus Baird and Girard (Lepidosauria). ISRN Zoology.

Minton, S. A. Jr. 2001. Amphibians and Reptiles of Indiana. Indiana Academy of Science, Indianapolis, IN.

Utiger, U., N. Helfenberger, B. Sch├Ątti, C. Schmidt, M. Ruf, and V. Ziswiler. 2002. Molecular systematics and phylogeny of Old and New World ratsnakes, Elaphe Auct., and related genera (Reptilia, Squamata, Colubridae). Russian Journal of Herpetology 9:105-124.

Distribution Map
Distribution map of Eastern Foxsnake (Pantherophis vulpinus)
Photographs