Last week, The Watershed Project staff visited the Point Pinole Regional Shoreline to gather data on native oysters and other marine invertebrates. We were searching for oysters, anemones, algae, crabs, and other life. What we found, was much more. Only a few feet away from the reef, along the paved path in the tall grasses, I spotted something slithering around out of the corner of my eye. Making me stop in my tracks, I slowly recognized what this neighbor of our oyster reef was: it was a beautiful, spotted, sneaky snake!
Though the coloring reminded me of a rattlesnake, I quickly scanned its body to its tail, and seeing a lack of “rattle” or white and black stripes, I knew it was something different. Although similar in color and pattern to the venomous rattlesnake, this was in fact, a non-venomous Pacific Gopher Snake.
Often mistaken for a rattlesnake, the gopher snake is very common in our East Bay grassland prairies. In addition to being non-venomous and its different tail, it can also be distinguished from a rattlesnake as its head is slightly narrower. The Pacific Gopher Snake, or Pituophis catenifer, uses its similarity to rattlesnakes to its advantage, often confusing predators by shaking its tail in the grass to sound like a rattlesnake.
To defend itself, the gopher snake will puff up and curl its body, and strike with a closed mouth, warning off potential predators with its nose. However, when you come across one of these snakes, it is still best to give it space by slowly backing away and walking in the opposite direction.
Gopher snakes are most active during the day, although on exceptionally hot days they can be found slithering around after sundown. They can live up to 15 years in the wild and are adaptable to a variety of habitats, including prairies, forests, and deserts. Hunting on small mammals, birds, and eggs on land, they also find their way to ponds to enjoy some tasty frogs.
During the winter, gopher snakes hide out in what is called a “hibernaculum,” or a den they share with other members of its species. During the summer, females will lay 2-8 eggs, often sharing protected spaces for their eggs with other female gopher snakes.
This summer, when you are out enjoying your local watershed, look out for these beautiful and majestic snakes!
Photo Credits: Gary Nafis, www.californiaherps.com