Michigan Society of Herpetologists
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Description: The Queen Snake is a small-headed, slender, brown, olive, or gray snake with a light yellowish stripe on each side, on the second and upper half of the first scale row. These side stripes continue onto the labial scales and meet on the lower part of the rostral (nose) scale. Three dark dorsal stripes may be visible in young and some adult Queen Snakes. Striping often fades in old individuals, which may become practically unicolored. The chin and throat are yellow, and the belly is also yellowish, with four brownish lengthwise stripes that may. merge or become obscured toward the tail. (Note that the two outer dark bellystripes occur on the lower half of the first scale row and the adjacent edges of the ventral scutes, and are flanked above by the yellow side stripes.) There are 19 scale rows at midbody; these scales are keeled, and the anal plate is divided. Total adult length: 34 to 92.2 cm (13.4 to 36.3 in).
The sexes are often difficult to distinguish based on external characters. Male Queen Snakes have relatively longer tails than females. Males have from 65 to 89 subcaudal scutes (average = 76), with the tail from 23 percent to 34 percent of the snake's total length, Females have 54 to 87 subcaudals (average = 69), with tails equal to 19 percent to 27 percent of total length. Young Queen Snakes range from 17.5 to 23 cm (6.9 to in) in length and are colored much like the adults, although their markings(especiajly the belly stripes) are more distinct.Back to Top
Confusing Species: Garter and ribbon snakes have an unstriped belly, a light stripe down the middle of the back, and a single (undivided) anal plate. In Graham's Crayfish Snake, the light side stripe is broader (on scale rows 1, 2, and 3), and the yellowish belly is either unmarked or with a single row of dark spots (or a faint dark line) down the center.
Distribution and Status: Queen Snakes range from the southern Great Lakes area south to the Gulf Coast (western Florida panhandle and adjacent Alabama) and eastward through the western Carolinas and central Virginia to southeastern Pennsylvania. There is a disjunct population in north-central Arkansas. Within the Great Lakes basin, this snake is known from the southeastern corner of Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois through northern Indiana, Ohio, and the southern and western portions of Michigan's Lower Peninsula (an isolated population occurs on Bois Blanc Island, in western Lake Huron). The range continues south from Lake Erie to western New York, and in Ontario from western Lake Erie north to Georgian Bay.T
Queen Snake numbers have declined in many places due largely to habitat degradation, although they can be locally common where ideal habitat remains. This is generally an uncommon and local species throughout most of its Great Lakes range; it is considered to be endangered in Wisconsin.Back to Top
Habitat and Ecology: Queen Snakes are most often found in or near warm, shallow, rocky-bottomed streams with an abundance of crayfish; they also inhabit the edges of ponds, lakes, marshes, ditches, and canals. The edges of inhabited bodies of water may be largely open or partially to mostly forested, but totally shaded sites are avoided. These snakes often bask on debris at the water's edge or in overhanging shrubbery or tree branches; if disturbed, they dive into the water and either hide near the bottom or swim along the shore for a short distance before emerging. When not basking or foraging, Queen Snakes often remain concealed beneath flat rocks or woody debris on the shoreline. They are usually inactive at night.
Queen Snakes in the Great Lakes area tend to be active from late April or early May until sometime in October or early November, depending on local climatic conditions. They reportedly hibernate near the water in mammal crayfish burrows or other underground shelter.
The Queen Snake's primary food source is crayfish. Since large crayfish are protected by a hard exoskeleton and will defend themselves with their claws, the snakes prefer to eat those that have recently molted and are still "soft-shelled." Prey is sought by probjng under rocks and other submerged objects, with the sense of smell (or, more precisely, the large tongue and vomeronasal organ) playing a major role in its detection. Occasionally (and opportunistically) a small fish or tadpole might be taken, but the Queen Snake can be considered a crayfish specialist.
Herons and raccoons are known to eat Queen Snakes; other likely predators include large fish and frogs, other snakes, hawks, otters, and mink. Ironically, crayfish are a potential danger to young Queen Snakes, since a small snake can drown if grasped in a crayfish's strong claws. Queen Snakes prefer to avoid confrontation with potential predators, but some individuals will bite if cornered or seized, and nearly all will smear an attacker with malodorous feces and anal musk.Back to Top
Reproduction and Growth: Queen Snakes mate in spring, probably most often in May. Fall mating is suspected by some biologists but has apparently not been confirmed. A courting male will approach a female with much flicking of his tongue, probably seeking chemical cues to her identity and readiness to mate. He then crawls over the female, aligns his body with hers, and may (according to one observer) "bounce" the forward part of his body, in a rapid vertical oscillation, on that of the female. To copulate, the male must align his vent with that of the female.
In late summer or early autumn (late July to September) the female gives birth to 5 to 31 (usually about 10 to 12) young. The little snakes grow quickjy, increasing in length by 50 percent to 80 percent in their first year, and perhaps nearly as much in the second year, after which time growth slows considerably. Both sexes may reach sexual maturity when two years old, but females probably do not actually breed until their third year. Longevity in the wild is unknown, but a zoo captive lived over 19 years.Back to Top
Conservation: This very specialized snake is vulnerable to various forms of pollution and habitat alteration and is now scarce or absent in many Great Lakes area streams that once harbored healthy populations. Siltation from urban or agricultural runoff may reduce or eliminate the crayfish on which Queen Snakes depend. A preference for narrow streamside habitats makes these snakes particularly vulnerable to direct human persecution, and they are often killed by fisherman who erroneously believe that they consume game fish.Back to Top
The above information has been reproduced or complied from the field guides with permission to use such material from the author, James Harding, for the sole use of educating the public on native Reptiles and Amphibians. The field guides used were: