Eastern Coachwhip Masticophis flagellum flagellum
Male - Marlboro County, SC
Male - Marlboro County, SC
Photo By Gerry Salmon

Description: This is a slender but long serpent that has is generally black on the front quarter to half of its body and light brown on the rear. There is usually a short transition area between the black and brown and the brown usually gets lighter towards the long tail. Some brown scales can be bi-colored in the color transition zone and in sections at mid-body. These minor color variations can suggest banding, but are often very subtle and easily missed against the dominant contrasting color scheme. The ventrals in the black area are also black and the ventral in the brown areas are light brown to tan with some minor dark pigment towards the edges. Some people considered this dark front and light rear to be reminiscent of a coachman’s whip and so the snake was dubbed a Coachwhip.

Description: Variations in this snake are uncommon. The black anterior on some specimens may be dark brown or sometimes lighter brown consistent with the posterior. Occasionally, the snake may be all black. These variations have not been recorded in the coastal plains, however.

     Coachwhips are big snakes, with possible adult lengths of over 96". Conant described the record at around 102". Typical adult lengths are 48" to 72", but these snakes should be considered mature at just over 42". The largest recorded males are generally larger than the largest recorded females.

     Young Coachwhips look very different from the mature snakes. They display a complexly patterned anterior that generally suggests a light snake with fuzzy, gradated crossbars. The head is generally dark but with pale edges on the head plates that sometimes bleed into the center. The eyes are very large in juveniles and are gold in color. The pattern on immature animals fades towards the rear as in adults. Hatchling Coachwhips can be over 24" but typically are less than 18".

     The Coachwhip’s scales are smooth and rows number 17 at mid-body. Ventral counts range from 194 to 207 with 103 to 119 subcaudals. The anal plate is divided.

Biology and Behavior: Coachwhips are non-venomous but can be extremely defensive. The primary defensive mechanism is flight and they are the fastest snakes in North America. Besides fast, they are extremely graceful and can disappear into small opening without slowing down. If cornered or caught they will excrete musk and will generally be very ambitious about biting. Because of their size, Coachwhips can deliver a painful bite, even though the bite can actually cause no more harm than some minor superficial lacerations. If the snake is grabbed by the tail, it may thrash and twist so wildly that it can break it off. This behavior is similar to behavior I have observed in Coluber constrictor. Some Coachwhips have been known to feign death after other defensive behaviors fail.

     Coachwhips are diurnal snakes. All specimens we have observed were in the middle of the day or under shelter later in the day. They are active animals and range over large areas and they are most active when the temperatures are high and the skies are clear. Cloudy or rainy weather drives them to shelter.

     This is a strong snake that will eat any animal that is big enough to make a decent meal and small enough to subdue and swallow. They typically capture prey by grabbing it with their mouths and holding it against the ground or other stable surface, using a loop of its body if necessary, until it stops or reduces its struggling and then swallows it, usually alive. Their teeth are fixed well in their mouths and can be relatively long for a colubrid, which is why their bites can be so painful.

     Breeding data for Coachwhips in the coastal plains is lacking, but they have laid eggs in June and July in captivity, suggesting a fall or early spring breeding period. Clutch sizes recorded varied from 6 to 15, but no natural nests have been recorded and captive egg deposits are few.

     Coachwhips are high strung and do not often do well in captivity unless given a large enclosure. One record of a captive Texas specimen reported a lifespan of over 17 years.

Range and Locality Data:  Nationally, this species occurs throughout the south central and southeastern US and northeastern Mexico. Conant reports a gap in the range of the eastern form in southern Louisiana and up along the Mississippi River, which is likely due to wet habitat. In the coastal plains, the Coachwhip reaches its northern most range in southeastern North Carolina but is well represented throughout the coastal plains of South Carolina.

     Coach whips prefer open or relatively open dry areas. Pine flatwoods and pine scrubs are chief habitats, but some specimens have been recorded from maritime scrubs and coastal dunes. Areas with wide spread agriculture are also acceptable habitat, especially where surface debris is left about for shelter. This is a large snake, however and so it is conspicuously absent from urban and suburban areas where limited open space and larger prey is scarce.

     These snakes seem to be quite common in the areas they occupy. Though, they are habitat sensitive and so records tend to cluster in certain regions. They are sympatric with Coluber constrictor in almost all areas, but C.constrictor will take over entirely where denser human habitation occurs.

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