Western Milksnake (Lampropeltis gentilis)
The Milksnake is a small to medium-sized snake. Its color pattern is highly variable, with red or orange blotches outlined in black and separated by lighter bands. The general coloration of the lighter bands seems to distinguish two color phases in Arkansas: gray and white/cream. The black outlining may not extend completely around the red/orange blotches, especially toward the head; this gives the snake a more banded appearance. The belly patterning is usually black and white checkered. I have caught a few individuals that had a mostly plain, creme belly.
Two subspecies, the Louisiana Milksnake (L. t. amaura) and Red Milksnake (L. t. syspila), occur in the state. There seems to be no clear way to distinguish between these subspecies. In the past, head coloration has been used, but its reliability is questionable. I have personally caught numerous Red Milksnakes that have displayed a gamut of different head colorations. For now, the best indicator of subspecies in Arkansas may simply be to check a range map.
This species can be distinguished from the less common Scarletsnake (the other nonvenomous "tricolored" in Arkansas) by the shape of its head. The Milksnake has a decidedly more rounded snout than in the Scarletsnake. Also, the Milksnake (usually) has a patterned belly, whereas the Scarletsnake's is plain.
This species of coralsnake mimic can be distinguished from the venomous Texas Coralsnake by the shape and coloration of the head and alternation of colors. The Texas Coralsnake has an all black, round head and "red touches yellow". The head coloration of the Milksnake is variable, but I have never seen one with a solid, coal-black head (like a Coralsnake). Also, the bands of a Coralsnake completely encircle the body
This tricolored snake is sometimes incorrectly called a Scarlet Kingsnake. Lampropeltis elapsoides is the true Scarlet Kingsnake and is not found in Arkansas.
Although some field guides indicate that this species prefers moist habitats, I have personally found just the opposite to be true. I have found the vast majority of Milksnakes in dry, rocky habitats such as rocky pastures, rocky hillsides, and similar areas with numerous "flipping rocks". I have had good success finding this species in abandoned rock quarries and also along SW-facing embankments of dirt roads or ponds. I especially target "rock on rock" areas or areas with a clay substrate.
My searching technique seems to turn up a fair number of individuals going through shed cycles. It seems reasonable, therefore, to believe that these areas may represent micro-habitats for shedding, but may not be reflective of where this species spends most of its time.
Being a secretive snake, this species is seldom seen exposed. It can be uncovered from its hiding spots under rocks, tin, rotten logs, and other debris. It is probably nocturnal. I have only found two specimens that were not sheltered under something. One was seen foraging through leaf litter around some big boulders just at dusk. The other was seen stretched out and basking, half-buried under leaf litter in front of some boulders on a SW-facing hillside along a dirt road. (The preceding days had been very rainy.) It was also about two feet away from a large, basking Timber Rattlesnake! I found this out only after I fell down to my knees, slapped down on the Milksnake, and then heard rattle, rattle, rattle under my arm pit!!! Yikes!!! (It was that bold red, black, and white coloration that just popped out at me and I didn't even see the Timber Rattlesnake. Luckily, I escaped the mistake.)
Some field guides indicate that this species may be found crossing roads during or after rainfall. I don't completely doubt that this is true, but I have never found one searching this way.
Mating in this species occurs in the spring, shortly after emergence from hibernation. The females lay eggs in the summer and their eggs hatch in early fall.
This species eats a variety of prey: small mice, lizards, and other snakes. Being a Kingsnake (genus Lampropeltis), this species is well-known for its tendency to eat other snakes, including venomous species. It is a species that is built "long" for consuming other snakes. However, due to the generally small size of specimens in this area, venomous prey is likely limited to young Copperheads and Pygmy Rattlesnakes. I have little doubt that a Milksnake would be just as happy to eat a skink or Ring-necked Snake.
This species is an active forager. Prey is seized, constricted, and swallowed. I have offered skinks to some captive specimens. It is not uncommon for the snake to grab onto the tail of a skink and have the tail break off. The snake seems content to eat what it grabs before darting off after the rest of the prey item. I imagine Milksnakes end up with several "snacks" of skink tails in the wild.
The temperament of this species varies greatly, but is generally gentle if handled carefully and given a chance to tame down. I have found captive specimens will tolerate handling only for a short time, but grow increasingly impatient. Occasionally, an individual will be relatively "wild" and never seems to be completely calm.
The defense for this species is its secretive nature and bright coloration which alerts predators to the fact it may not be a good meal. Although this species shares only a small concurrent range in Arkansas with the venomous Coralsnake, it likely benefits from mimicry. When the range of all Coralsnakes and subspecies of Milksnakes is considered, the pattern seems clear. The subspecies of Milksnakes appears to mimic the look of whatever Coralsnake occurs in the same area. This sometimes fools people, too!
One interesting behavior of this species is that it will often thrash (as though feigning strikes) when uncovered. It seems to time these thrashes to the immediate threat, such as a hand reaching down. Once in hand, it seems to abandon the thrashing but may bite, poop, and/or emit a foul-smelling musk.
The Red subspecies has no special protections in Arkansas. The Louisiana subspecies is monitored by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission as a rare species. When uncovered, this species is often mistaken for a Coralsnake and killed. Sadly, this even occurs in areas, such as northern Arkansas, that fall well outside of the Coralsnake range.