There are dozens of subspecies of black and yellow snakes—black snakes with yellow patterns, yellow snakes with black patterns—you name it, they’re out there. Coloration and pattern varies so much in the serpentine world, and with such variance comes a new lexicon. You might encounter new words (but remember: they’re more afraid of you than you are of them!).
What are we talking about here? Striped, speckled, spotted or mottled—can you name them all? From the mildest to the wildest, join me as I guide you through the world of black and yellow snakes.
Snake vocabulary is colourful. It is important to know what certain keywords mean! Here I will run through a brief list.
Words used to describe a snake’s pattern
mottled—marked with spots or smears
blotchy—a sort of patchwork, uneven, streaky pattern
speckles—flecks of color, typically one or two per scale
lateral—running down its side
dorsal—running down its spine, like a dorsal fin
longitudinal—simply running lengthways, from head to tail
Myths and Misconceptions regarding black and yellow snakes
Black and yellow snakes have a number of myths and misconceptions written about them. Is a black and yellow snake always poisonous? How venomous are black and yellow snakes? Is a yellow snake with black stripes more or less dangerous than a black snake with yellow stripes? What about red stripes?
There is even a Rhyme to entrench the mythology. It’s true! – Well, no, the rhyme isn’t true. But it is true that The Rhyme exists. It goes like this:
Red touches black, venom lack
Red touches yellow, kill a fellow
The simple idea, presumably gained from a degree of experience, is that if a snake has red, black and yellow stripes, it is whether or not red touches yellow that dictates the danger level of the snake. While there is some truth to this – there are indeed examples where it stands up – it is not entirely watertight.
As a rule, if you see a snake in the wild, keep a safe distance. Identify it as best you can, but be aware that there are Doppelgangers in the snake world. Not all black and yellow snakes are as they seem—some are, in fact, yellow and black!
The Snakes in this Guide
This guide will introduce you to the following snakes:
- Common Kingsnake
- California Kingsnake
- Scarlet Kingsnake
- Garter Snake
- Plains Garter Snake
- Eastern Ribbon Snake
- Yellow Rat Snake
- Striped Racer
- Western Shovelnose Snake
- Ring-necked Snake
- Mangrove Snake, or Gold-ringed Cat Snake
- Eastern (or Harlequin) Coral Snake
- Rosy Boa
- Eastern Hognose Snake
- Pine Snake
- (Gulf) Salt Marsh Snake
- Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake
In it, I will give you information about each snake’s size, weight, location, appearance, habitat, diet, danger level, and whether or not it makes a suitable pet. Most of the black and yellow snakes in this guide are suitable as pets, but not all of them!
Common Kingsake (Lampropeltis getula)
FUN FACT: Other names include cow sucker, black moccasin, rattlesnake pilot and thunder-and-lightning snake. Awesome.
Fundamentals: The common kingsnake typically grows to a length of 3-6 ft, and weight 10-80 oz. That’s quite a broad scope but there are many subspecies to include! It is non-venomous and considered not dangerous.
Location: Common kingsnakes are endemic to the United States, and found just about everywhere, hence the ‘common’ appellation. They are also found in Mexico, and have been introduced to the Canary Islands, where their population has already reached 20,000! Maybe they should call it a rabbit snake, instead.
Appearance: Dark background color somewhere in the region of brown-blue or glossy blue-black. The common kingsnake normally has sparse, chain-like white bands. The higher above sea level it lives, the thinner its stripes tend to be. Some living in the mountains are completely black.
Habitat: This snake likes open grassy areas but also woodland, desert, foothills, streams, canals and swamps. Not a picky animal.
Diet: The common kingsnake eats other snakes. It hunts by clamping its teeth around the jaws of its prey. It sometimes eats venomous snakes, so it has to be very careful. But it is immune to most snakes’ venom, so doesn’t have to be too careful. It also eats amphibians, lizards and rodents, which it squeezes to death.
California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae)
FUN FACT: The California kingsnake used to be a subspecies of the common kingsnake, but is now recognized as a separate species.
Fundamentals: California kingsnakes rarely surpass 3.5 ft in length, and are lighter than their common cousins, above—up to 50 oz. They are also not dangerous, which is good. The California kingsnake is, in fact, one of the most common snakes to own as a pet. They are easy to look after and come in a variety of colors.
Location: You guessed it—California, as well as other West Coast states.
Appearance: Similar in pattern and coloration to the common kingsnake, but notably smaller. Brown to black background with yellowish white markings—either longitudinal stripes or horizontal bands.
Habitat: These snakes like it up high, in cooler climes. They inhabit the Tehachapi and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, up to a height (above sea level) of 7,000 ft. The view from the ground ranges from grassland, marshland and deserts to chaparral (shrubland) and even suburban areas.
Diet: Same as the common kingsnake.
Scarlet Kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides)
FUN FACT: Its Genus, Lampropeltis, means ‘beautiful, shining scales’.
Fundamentals: The scarlet kingsnake is considered to be a good pet animal: it rarely bites, but is easily spooked. Scarlet kingsnakes are most active after sunset, so evening playtime is on the cards! It is a small snake, usually coming in at under 2 ft, and weighing 2-3 lbs.
Location: Southeastern United States—New Jersey to Louisiana, including Florida and Alabama.
Appearance: Thick rings in the order of black, yellow, black, red. Good news: Red and yellow do not touch! They are always separated by black rings. These are spectacular snakes—quite mesmerizing.
Habitat: These are rarely seen, due to their secretive and nocturnal habits. The scarlet kingsnake occupies pinelands, and is a proficient climber (as well as burrower. If you can’t see it, it is probably under a dead tree, or a rock.
Diet: Rodents, preferably, as well as small lizards and other snakes.
Garter Snake (Genus: Thamnophis.)
FUN FACT: Many garter snakes have two-colored tongues.
Fundamentals: Garter snakes are mildly venomous, but they lack the toxicity to really harm humans—only rodents, frogs and newts, etc. At worst, a bite will cause bruising and swelling, and a mild case of ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). These popular pet snakes range from 18 to 55 in., like a camera lens but in inches, and weigh just 3-8oz.
Location: Common throughout the United States, as far north as Alaska. These are the most common reptile in Yellowstone National Park!
Appearance: There are 35 species in the Thamnophis Genus. Not all are black and yellow, but most are. Specific prefixes include common, mountain, ribbon, plains and aquatic (garter snake). They usually have a dark background color – grey, brown or black – with one or more longitudinal dorsal yellow stripes, running from head to tail.
These snakes can be very vibrant and brilliant! Some have splotchy patterns, like a Jackson Pollock painting, which makes them look more intricately patterned. They typically have yellow or cream bellies. They are thin and nimble, lightweight and light-bodied.
Habitat: Garter snakes often show up uninvited in people’s gardens, earning them the colloquial name ‘garden snakes’. Other choices include farms and farmed land, wetlands, grassy knolls, prairies and forests. They like to be near water.
Diet: The garter snake is not a fussy eater, and will happily feast on birds and their eggs, rodents, lizards, amphibians and even fish—though it struggles to hold a fishing rod.
Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix)
FUN FACT: The plains garter snake is one of the snakes most tolerant to cold weather.
Fundamentals: The mild venom of the plains garter snake is not potent enough to harm humans. However, watch out for a nip. They make ideal pets, as they are small and easy to handle and care for, typically growing to 23-30 in., and weighing just 5 oz.
Location: From Canada to Texas, elevated up to 6,000 ft (or occasionally as high as 7,500 ft!).
Appearance: Dark grey-green background color, with a distinctive orange-yellow stripe running vividly down the length of its spine.
Habitat: Most often found in grassy areas near water sources, but also sometimes in urban areas.
Diet: Slugs, earthworms, amphibians, small mammals and birds, and salamander larvae.
Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus sauritus)
FUN FACT: Female ribbon snakes often eat their own offspring. OK, not so fun…
Fundamentals: This snake is non-venomous and rarely birds, it if it feels threatened it will excrete a foul smelling musk from its anal glands. Lovely, I know. Probably best left to its own devices. Its length ranges from 7-34 in., but is usually between 16 and 28 in., and it is very lightweight.
Location: Southeastern United States.
Appearance: The eastern ribbon owes its name to its slender, streamlined body. It has a prominent yellow dorsal stripe flanked by another on each side. It has a greenish white belly and pure white lips.
Habitat: Anywhere near a freshwater source, like a stream or a pond. Eastern ribbons are found both in and out of water, but not underwater. When frightened, they conceal themselves in bushes or water.
Diet: Small marine animals, such as fish, frogs, salamanders and tadpoles, which it swallows whole.
Yellow Rat Snake (Pantherophis aelleghaniesnsis quadrivittata—sorry, that one’s a bit of a mouthful)
This is a subspecies of the more common eastern rat snake (which is not yellow)
FUN FACT: The yellow rat snake, along with its cousins of various shades, helps to keep down rodent populations—mice to have around!
Fundamentals: Yellow rat snakes can grow up to 7 ft, but are relatively lightweight for their length. They are not dangerous as such, as they kill by constriction. If very frightened, they may bite, which is especially common during feeding time. Normally they will just get defensive—they adopt a posture known as the ‘kink’, in imitation of a fallen branch. Not uncommon as pets.
Location: Southeastern stretches of the United States.
Appearance: Mid- to dark yellow, sometimes with an orange tint. Four longitudinal stripes run the length of its body, either side of its spine and on its sides. These stripes can be black, brown or olive.
Habitat: Anywhere there is food! Wetlands, grassy areas, forests and farmland.
Diet: Rodents, birds and their eggs. As in, the birds’ eggs, not their own eggs.
Striped Racer (Masticophis lateralis), or California whipsnake
FUN FACT: Its defense mechanism of creating a buzzing sound by vibrating its tail is akin to that of a rattlesnake, causing confusion between the two.
Fundamentals: Striped racers prefer to run and hide than fight, but they are known to be aggressive, and easily spooked. Not recommended for first-timers who want to own a snake. They typically grow to 3-4 ft, and weigh up to 5 oz.
Location: California whipsnakes are found in… California! They especially love coastal California.
Appearance: Long, slim, black and yellow-bellied. This superfast racer snake has two long, thin lateral racing stripes, which run the length of its body and increase its speed by approximately 50%!
Habitat: Foothills, woodland and desert scrub—anywhere they can find their daily bread, really.
Diet: Insects, small mammals and birds. Most of all, however, this snake likes to eat lizards, which it swallows, alive and whole.
Western Shovelnose Snake (Chionactis occipitalis)
FUN FACT: If harassed, the western shovelnose will make mock strikes with a closed mouth, to frighten its perceived opponent.
Fundamentals: The western shovelnose is regularly found in homes, as a pet, but it can be difficult to feed. Therefore it is not advised for a first-timer. It is non-venomous and mostly not dangerous, as it is non-confrontational, spending most of its time (in the wild) beneath the sand. Its saliva is mildly irritating. It grows to a maximum of 1.5 ft, and is very lightweight.
Location: This crepuscular ground dweller is a sturdy burrower, so spends a lot of time underground in the deserts of Nevada, Arizona and California. It rarely sees humans.
Appearance: Small, slender and smooth-scaled. Its background color is yellow or cream, and it has large saddles of black or dark brown (sometimes found alternating with orange or red) running across its body, from head to tail. While these may at first appear to be stripes, they are actually kite or diamond shapes which sit across the back of the snake, like a saddle on a horse. Its blunt snout allows it to “swim” through the sand.
Habitat: The desert! Hey, someone has to live there. Western shovelnose snakes love dry areas with little vegetation—sandy and rocky locales, away from humans.
Diet: Scorpions, spiders, insects, centipedes and reptile eggs. Not particularly appetizing for me, personally.
Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus)
FUN FACT: Ring-necked snakes have a unique defense mechanism. When frightened, this black and yellow snake curls up its tail into a corkscrew shape and exposes its brightly colored, red-orange belly.
Fundamentals: This is a secretive, nocturnal or crepuscular snake, so you’re unlikely to spot it during the day. They are nonaggressive and only have small fangs, so they are safe to handle. It presents only a mild danger, and grows up to 15 in. It is very light.
Location: Common throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Appearance: As you might have guessed, this snake has a single stripe around its neck. This stripe is yellow, yellow-orange or bright red, starkly contrasted with its dark, smoky, olive-grey or dull black background color. There are a few populations which don’t have this neck band, which is awfully confusing. Otherwise, patterns vary greatly—from black ventral spotting, a single wide, speckled, splayed or broken dorsal stripe of vivid yellow, or red-orange, to simple olive-black.
Habitat: Various, but it prefers areas with ample cover, and good spots for making dens—woody debris, riparian environments and moist soils—these are a few of their favorite things.
Diet: Slugs, worms and salamanders, but also frogs and juvenile snakes.
Mangrove Snake, or Gold-ringed Cat Snake (Boiga dendrophila)
FUN FACT: Despite its name, the mangrove snake tends to occupy rainforests, not mangroves.
Fundamentals: Not advised as a pet, as they are not known to be easygoing on their captors. While there are zero confirmed fatalities, mangrove snakes can be aggressive, nervous and prone to bite. Plus, they grow up to 8 ft, and are correspondingly heavy.
Location: Mangrove snakes are found all over Southeast Asia, from the mainland (Myanmar, Vietnam etc.) to the archipelagic nations of the Philippines and Indonesia.
Appearance: Mangrove snakes are typically sleek, shiny and mostly black. They have a series of bright yellow transverse bands. Its belly is a bluish black and is sometimes pocked with yellow. Its throat is yellow.
Habitat: Oddly enough, most often found in lowland rainforests, not mangroves.
Diet: Small mammals, birds and reptiles.
Eastern (or Harlequin) Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius)
FUN FACT: This snake is otherwise known as a candy-stick snake, because of its patterning.
Fundamentals: The harlequin coral snake has the second strongest venom of snake—not advised as a pet, though it lacks an effective system to deliver that venom. It is reluctant to bite, and therefore bites are rare. For this reason, production of the antivenom has been discontinued. All the more reason not to get bitten… This snake is usually less than 31 in. in length, and is lightweight, owing to its slim body.
Location: North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Appearance: Slender, with a blunt head not much wider than its neck. Its snout and the top of its head are black, and it bears a pattern of alternating, transverse rings, black, yellow and red, along its entire length.
Habitat: Pine forests and brushy, open, dry areas. Eastern coral snakes are known to make frequent visitations to tortoise burrows when they are available.
Diet: Frogs, lizards and smaller snakes.
Rosy boa (Chlarina trivirgata)
FUN FACT: New rosy boa morphs appear on a semi-regular basis, as there are many captive breeders experimenting with different genetic variants.
Also, rosy boas are among the slowest snakes in the world.
Fundamentals: Rosy boas make the perfect pets! They are docile, non-aggressive, diminutive and come in an eclectic array of colored patterns. They are not dangerous, very mellow and incredibly slow. If threatened, a rosy boa will curl up into a ball. They will grow up to a maximum length of 3.5 feet, and weigh very little.
Location: Native to northern Mexico and southwest USA. Their color variations depend heavily on location, though there have been cases of one subspecies being found within the territory of another.
Appearance: Very variable! Rosy boas come in a dazzling range of colors, from whitish-cream with black, orange or pink-red stripes, to smoky silver with olive stripes. Some are speckled or mottled, with a pixilated effect in its pattern; others have thin, neat stripes.
Habitat: Deserts and sparsely vegetated areas with rocky outcroppings for cover.
Diet: Rosies mostly like to eat small mammals, but will also feed on lizards and birds.
Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon patirhinos)
This snake goes by many colloquial names, including spreading adder and deaf adder, blow viper and hissing sand snake.
FUN FACT: There is an old myth which says that the snake projects its venom on a sharp outburst of breath, allowing its deadly venom to kill a man from 25 ft. Note: not true.
Fundamentals: Eastern hognoses are very popular pets, as they are docile and easily housed. They are non-venomous, and fabulous, usually measuring 20-33 in. (max 45 in.).
Location: This snake can be found throughout most of Florida, parts of Texas and Minnesota, Ontario and Quebec.
Appearance: Upturned snout with a point, at the end of a relatively thick body—this snake is girthy, thick-set. Its coloration varies hugely, running all the way from yellow through orange, red-brown, olive and tan to brown or grey. Irregular blotches of brown or black cover the snake from head to tail.
Habitat: Oak woodlands, cultivated fields, pine forests, scrublands and sandhills—these snakes aren’t picky!
Diet: Toads, mainly. But this snake will also happily devour insects, frogs and smaller snakes of other species.
Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus)
FUN FACT: The pine snake has an unusual method of hunting, whereby it enters animal burrows and squishes its prey (sometimes multiple animals) against the burrow walls, using its heft and bulk to its advantage.
Fundamentals: Pine snakes can be difficult to breed, but are usually docile in temperament. They make good pets, but are not recommended to first-time snake owners. They usually grow to 4-6 ft, but can be as long as 8 ft, and weigh up to 8 lbs.
Location: Southeastern United States—North and Soul Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia and New Jersey—but it is not a continuous population.
Appearance: Its background color ranges from off-white through cream and yellow, and is sometimes tinged with light grey. The back and sides are covered in dark blotches, often black or reddish brown, darker and denser closer to the head. Its belly is white or pale.
Habitat: Oak woodland and pine forest, scrubland, mountain ridges and sandy pine barrens, up to 9000 ft. These snakes are excellent climbers and burrowers, but they also make use of burrows abandoned by other animals.
Diet: Anything from small mammals to birds, birds’ eggs, lizards, amphibians and insects.
(Gulf) Salt Marsh Snake (Nerodia clarkii), or bay moccasin
FUN FACT: Its Latin name is derived from the name of American naturalist John Henry Clark.
Fundamentals: Salt marsh snakes are non-venomous and not particularly aggressive, but have been known to bite. They grow to 30 in., and are not particularly heavy.
Location: Different subspecies can be found in different parts of the United States—the Atlantic on the coast of Florida, the Mangrove in different locations within Florida, and the Gulf between central Florida and south Texas.
Appearance: This is the only striped member of the Nerodia genus. It has four stripes of varying brilliance highlighting the upper part of the body; two are normally brown, two are yellow-brown, or tan. Its belly is dark, but is bisected by a light stripe which runs down its centre.
Habitat: You might have guessed this one. Did you say ‘salt marshes’. Well done! It’s unusual to find them in freshwater.
Diet: Small fish and invertebrates.
Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake (Hydrophis platurus)
FUN FACT: This aquatic serpent is the only sea snake to be found in American waters. Most others live in tropical Asia or Australian seas.
Also, a new subspecies was discovered in 2017 and dubbed the ‘yellow sea snake’. It is almost entirely yellow, with a few black spots.
Fundamentals: This animal is not household-friendly. Firstly, it belongs in water. Secondly, it is highly venomous. Thirdly,—OK, two reasons will have to do. It weighs in at approximately 3 oz., and grows up to 3.5 ft.
Location: Widespread in Indo-Pacific waters, found in waters as far-spread as Madagascar and East Africa to Southeast Asia, Japan, New Zealand and even Hawaii and California.
Appearance: Streamlined and aqua-dynamic, this snake has a vivid, block-yellow belly and narrow body, with a patterned, oar-shaped tail to help it swim faster. Its top side is jet black.
Habitat: Unable to travel overland, this snake is only ever seen in the sea or trapped in a tide pool.
As you can see, there is a veritable smorgasbord of wonderful snakes out there, and the vast majority of them are not endangered. But be careful if you come across them in the wild—similarities in patterns and coloration mean that many black and yellow snakes are hard to distinguish from more or less dangerous ones.
If you would like to own a snake as a pet, it is best to do some more thorough research into the specific snake you would prefer. Many of the snakes in this guide are pet-friendly, but some definitely are not!