By Emily McNulty
Have you ever seen a snake while hiking in the hills? Did this unexpected reptile have long, yellowish orange stripes, a long, skinny body and whip-like tail? If it did, you may have crossed paths with an endangered species– the Alameda Whipsnake.
The Alameda whipsnake, Masticophis lateralis euryxanthus, is a fast-moving subspecies of the common chaparral whipsnake and can easily be confused as such. To tell them apart, check for the Alameda whipsnake’s yellow-orange side stripes and solid light stripe between the nose and eyes.
Like most humans, this striped snake is diurnal, meaning that it’s active by day and sleeps at night. The Alameda whipsnake is found in coastal scrub and oak woodland communities in the mountains of Contra Costa, Alameda, and northeastern Santa Clara counties.
In order to hide itself from predators, the Alameda whipsnake likes to inhabit areas filled with rock outcrops and talus as well as locations where it can hold its head high off the ground. Rocky hangout spots have the added bonus of attracting lizard populations—one of the whipsnake’s favorite afternoon snacks.
While the Alameda whipsnake does like to chomp on lizards, humans have nothing to fear. This special snake is not a threat to humans. To the contrary, it is the snake that should be fearful of us.
Urban development has devastated Alameda whipsnake habitat to the point where they have been considered an endangered species since December of 1997. This active snake needs the right balance of protective shrubs and sunshine– called chaparral. Most of the Bay Area’s chaparral zones have been replaced by green landscaping. On the other hand, zones where chaparral is still present have gotten too dense and shady for the snake.
Local land managers are now experimenting with prescribed burns to help thin areas of dense chaparral and bring the landscape closer to the state that existed prior to European settlement in the East Bay. Hopefully, if we humans act quickly like our friend the Alameda whipsnake, we will be able to save precious habitat for this snake and many other native critters.