BL Longform: Snakes of San Benito County

18 snake species call San Benito County home.

Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, is the most-reported phobia worldwide with about one third of adults expressing some abnormal apprehension of them. However, most snakes are harmless. In San Benito County there are 18 native snake species and only one, the Northern Pacific rattlesnake, is harmful to people, livestock or pets.

Snakes, like all reptiles, are ectotherms, that is they use an external source for heat. Because of this, most engage in a deep sleep during the winter. Now is the time they exit their winter dens and become visible. They feed on rodents, smaller reptiles, and amphibians, making them a vital part of their ecosystem.

A snake on the ground is often heating up. It might not have enough energy to move, or in the case of a rattlesnake, to strike. 

Snakes species native to San Benito County

The California glossy snake is found in the eastern part of the county in arid scrub, rocky washes, grasslands, and chaparral. Adults are 26-70 inches in length. Average length is 3-4 feet. It has smooth, glossy scales, a faded or bleached-out appearance and a short tail. This species is a tan or light brown ground color with dark brown blotches and dark edges on the back and sides with a pale, unmarked underside.

The California kingsnake is immune to rattlesnake venom and in a one-on-one conflict the kingsnake will most likely be the winner.

California Kingsnake. Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
California kingsnake. Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.

Found in most habitats, this snake can be up to four feet in length. Though most commonly found at 2.5-3.5 feet, Hatchlings are about 12 inches long. It has smooth, shiny, unkeeled (no ridge running the length) scales and its head is only slightly wider than its neck. It is highly variable in appearance. Most common morph between alternating bands of black or brown and white or light yellow, including the underside, where the light bands become wider.

It’s active during the day during cooler weather, and nocturnal and crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk—when temperatures are high.

It preys on a large variety of small animals, including rodents and other small mammals, lizards, lizard eggs, snakes (including rattlesnakes), snake eggs, turtle eggs and hatchlings, frogs, salamanders, birds, bird eggs and chicks, and large invertebrates.
It’s a powerful constrictor coiling tightly around its prey, restricting blood supply to vital organs.  

The California nightsnake is mildly venomous but unharmful to humans. It’s found in a variety of habitats, often in arid areas, from chaparral, sagebrush flats, deserts, suburban lots and gardens, mountain meadows, and grassland. This snake is 12-26 inches in length, but more commonly 8-12 inches. Hatchlings are about seven inches. This is a small, slender species with a narrow flat head, smooth scales and vertical pupils. Color varies, often matching the substrate, from light gray, light brown, beige to tan or cream, with dark brown or gray blotches on the back and sides.

California Nightsnake. Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
California nightsnake. Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.

There are usually a pair of large dark markings on the neck and a dark bar through or behind the eyes. Whitish or yellowish and unmarked underneath.

This snake is nocturnal, and crepuscular (active in twilight) and can be found under rocks, boards, logs, and other surface objects. It preys on a wide range of terrestrial vertebrates, mostly lizards and their eggs, sometimes small snakes, frogs, and salamanders. Females lay a clutch of 2-9 eggs from April to September.

The Common sharp-tailed snake is found in well-shaded, moist forest habitats dominated by Douglas fir and redwoods and in mixed woodlands with oaks and conifers. Adults of this species average 8-12 inches in length, with some nearly 18 inches long. Hatchlings are about three inches long. 

This is a small snake with a small head and a sharp point at the base of its tail. The head of an adult is typically medium to light olive-gray or brown with black flecking or blotches, occasionally with orange blotches. Dorsal coloration is rusty, brick-red, or orange-red.
Most adults have either faint or distinctly colored brick-red or orange-red dorsolateral (involving the back and sides) stripes extending from the head along the front third of the body where they blend into the body color.

Common Sharp-tailed Snake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
Common sharp-tailed snake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.

This species tends to be found most often on sunny days, and during the rainy season resting under objects such as boards, rocks, wood debris, gravel piles or leaf litter.

Using long teeth to hold on to its slippery prey, it feeds on slugs and their eggs and on slender salamanders.

Eggs are laid in June or July. Hatchlings emerge in mid-autumn.

Garter snakes are mildly venomous but unharmful to humans.

There are five garter snake species in the county.

  • Coast garter snake
  • Common garter snake

    Common Gartersnake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
    Common gartersnake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.
  • Diablo Range garter snake (aquatic) 
  • Two-striped garter snake

They are found in a  variety of habitats, including forests, woodlands, fields, grasslands, and lawns, but never far away from some source of water, often an adjacent wetland, stream, or pond range in size from 18 to 54 inches.

They also have a varied diet, such as slugs, earthworms, rodents, lizards and frogs, including tadpoles.

Garter Snakes give birth to live young.

The Diablo Range garter snake is the only aquatic garter snake in the county. It’s found throughout the county north of Bitterwater. Inhabiting creeks, streams, small lakes and ponds, in woodland, brush and forest and grassy ecotones, adults are 18-40 inches long but more commonly 18-28 inches. 

Diablo Range Gartersnake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
Diablo Range gartersnake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.

Neonates, or newborns, are 7-10 inches.

This snake is gray, brown or black with a distinct yellow or orange stripe on the back and a light stripe along the lower part of each side on the second and third scale rows. There may be small alternating dark spots on the sides, most noticeable on juveniles. The throat is white or yellow, sometimes bright yellow. The underside is bluish or greenish sometimes with pink or yellow marks. Young are born in late summer or early fall.

The Long-nosed snake is found throughout San Benito County except for a very small area at the tri-county point. Inhabiting arid and semi-arid deserts, grasslands, shrublands and prairies, this snake is 6-60 inches long—usually 16-30 inches. Hatchlings range from 1-11 inches.

Long-nosed Snake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
Long-nosed snake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.

This is a slender snake with smooth scales and a head barely wider than the body which has a long pointed snout with a countersunk lower jaw. Most individuals are red, black and white, with a saddled pattern. The dorsal color is white and usually heavily speckled with black and red from the alternating red and black saddles. 

It preys on lizards, including eggs, small snakes, small mammals, nestling birds, possibly bird eggs, and insects. Small prey is overpowered, large prey is killed by constriction.

Eggs are laid June to August.

The Monterey ring-necked snake is mildly venomous but not harmful to humans.

Monterey Ring-necked Snake. Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
Monterey ring-necked snake. Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.

Found in moist habitats, including wet meadows, rocky hillsides, riparian corridors, gardens, farmland, grassland, chaparral, mixed coniferous forests, and woodlands, the adults range from 11-16 inches.

This is a small species with smooth scales. It’s gray, blue-gray, blackish, or dark olive dorsal coloring, with a bright orange to reddish underside, speckled with a few small black markings.
The underside of the tail is a bright reddish orange.

It preys on small salamanders, tadpoles, small frogs, small snakes, lizards, worms, slugs, and insects.

Eggs are laid in summer. Sometimes nests are communal.

The Northern pacific rattlesnake is a subspecies of the Western rattlesnake. 

Californiaherps.com says of the rattlesnake bite: “A bite from a rattlesnake can be extremely dangerous, but rattlesnakes are not aggressive or vicious. If rattlesnakes are given some space and enough time to escape to a safe place, they will. They will not strike without a reason: they will strike at a potential meal and they will defend themselves from anything they perceive as dangerous. They avoid striking and biting because it uses up their valuable supply of venom which they need to kill and digest their food.

Shape of western rattlesnake head. Photo courtesy of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR)
Shape of western rattlesnake head. Photo courtesy of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR)
Western Rattlesnake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
Western rattlesnake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.

They do not need to coil to strike. Young are probably less dangerous than adults as they do not have as much venom. A rattlesnake will inject less venom if it has just preyed and is still rebuilding a venom supply.”

Found in rocky hillsides, talus slopes and outcrops, rocky stream courses, rocky areas in grasslands, mixed woodlands, mountainous forests, pinyon juniper, sagebrush. Adults are 15-36 inches long, sometimes up to 48 inches, with 60 inches being the longest.

This species is a heavy-bodied pit viper, with a thin neck, a large triangular head, and a rattle on the end of the tail consisting of loose interlocking hollow segments. Pupils are elliptical.
Scales are keeled. It has two pits that are used to sense heat when hunting warm-blooded prey—one on each side of the front of the head above the mouth. The ground color is variable, matching the environment—olive-green, gray, brown, golden, reddish brown, yellowish or tan. Dark brown or black blotched markings, usually with dark edges and light borders, mark the back, with corresponding blotches on the sides.

Dorsal blotches mark the front two-thirds of the body, change to dark bars on the body and dark and light rings on the tail, which are well defined and of uniform width. The underside is pale, sometimes weakly mottled. It usually has a light stripe extending diagonally

Juvenile Western Rattlesnake. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.
Juvenile Western rattlesnake. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.

from behind the eye to the corner of the mouth. Young are born with a bright yellow tail with no rattle—just a single button that does not make a sound. They grow rattles and lose the yellow color as they age.
The pattern is brighter on juveniles than on adults.

This species of rattlesnakes preys on birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, and small mammals, including mice, rats, rabbits, hares, and ground squirrels. Adult California Ground Squirrels are immune to rattlesnake venom.
The female keeps her fertilized eggs inside her body and gives birth to living young. Mating usually occurs in the spring. Litters average from four to 12 young, which are born between August and October. Young are born with one pre-button (rattle), which is made of keratin, replaced several days later with a full button when the snake sheds its skin. It develops a new bottom each time it molts, which can be several times before adulthood. When the snake shakes its tail the interlocking hollow buttons vibrate creating the rattle sound.  (More on Rattlesnakes.)

The Pacific gopher snake is found in a variety of habitats, open grassland and brushland, mixed woodlands, coniferous forest, agricultural farmland, chaparral, marshes, around suburban homes and garden sheds, and riparian zones, from lowlands to the

Pacific Gophersnake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
Pacific gophersnake Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.

mountains. Adults range from 2.5-9 feet long. Hatchlings are fairly long, generally around 15 inches. It is a large snake with heavily keeled scales, a narrow head that is slightly wider than the neck, and a protruding scale on the tip of the snout that is bluntly rounded. Ground color is straw or tan, with large square dark chocolate blotches or saddles along the back and smaller gray spots on the sides.  The back of the neck is dark brown. The underside is cream to yellowish with dark spots. There is often a reddish color on the top, especially near the tail. There is usually a dark stripe across the head in front of the eyes and a dark stripe from behind each eye to the angle of the jaw. Juveniles tend to have a darker and more compact pattern than adults.

This species preys on small mammals, including pocket gophers, moles, rabbits and mice, along with birds and their eggs and nestlings. Occasionally it eats lizards and insects. 

Females lay one to two clutches of 2-24 eggs between June and August. Eggs hatch in 2-2.5 months.

Racers are mildly venomous but not harmful to humans. 

There are four racer species in the county.

  • Baja California coachwhip
  • California striped racer
  • San Joaquin coachwhip (subspecies of red racer)
  • Western yellow-bellied racer

Found in open areas in canyons, rocky hillsides, chaparral scrublands, open woodlands, pond edges, and stream courses, racers range from 3-4 feet in length and occasionally reach 5 feet. Hatchlings are about 13 inches.

They are fast-moving snakes with a thin body and a long, thin tail, large eyes, a broad elongated head, a slender neck, and smooth scales. The striped racer is dark brown to black with a wide solid yellow-orange stripe on each side extending from the back of the eye to or beyond the vent. The underside is cream, tapering to orange or pink toward the tail.

They prey on lizards, small rodents, small birds, frogs, salamanders, and small snakes.
Juveniles will consume large insects.

They lay eggs in late spring or early summer which hatch in two to three months.

The Southern rubber boa is found in the Northern tip of the county.

Northern Rubber Boa. Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerpes.com.
Northern rubber boa. Photo credit in photo. Used by permission of CaliforniaHerps.com.

This species inhabits grassland, mountain meadows, chaparral, woodlands, along streams and in deciduous and coniferous forests. Adults are 14-33 inches in length. Typical size of adults is 15-25 inches. Newborns are 7.5-9 inches.

This is a small constrictor with a stout body and a thick tail with a blunt end that looks a little like a head, and smooth, shiny small-scaled loose and wrinkled skin, which gives the snake a rubbery look and feel.
Eyes are small with vertical, elliptical pupils. The top of the head is covered with large scales. Males usually have anal spurs, which are small or absent in females. They are light brown, dark brown, pink, tan, or olive-green above, and yellow, orange, or cream colored below. Usually uniform in color on the back, but sometimes dark spots or mottling occurs, especially in northern populations, possibly due to scarring.

This mostly nocturnal species preys on small mammals, birds, salamanders, lizards, snakes, and possibly frogs.

Females bear 2-8 live young between August and November.

The Western black-headed snake is mildly venomous but not harmful to humans. It’s found south of Tres Pinos as well as in grassland, chaparral, oak and oak-pine woodland, deserts, along the rocky edges of streams and washes. It’s often found beneath rocks, plant debris, and other surface cover. This species is one of the smallest snakes in California—about 3.5-15.5 inches in length. 

It’s a thin snake with a flat head and smooth, shiny scales. The body color is brownish or beige and unmarked. The top of the head is dark brown or black, with a faint light collar between the dark cap and the body color. This collar may or may not have a border of dark dots. The belly is whitish with a reddish stripe that does not extend all the way to the edge of the ventral scales.

It preys on millipedes, centipedes, and other insects.

Its reproduction is not well understood. A clutch of 1-3 eggs is laid from May to June.
This probably means that the young are hatched in late summer.

For more information on the snakes described in this article see CaliforniaHerps.com.


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Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.