The fox snake (genus pantherophis) refers to two similar subspecies of non-venomous snakes found in North America. The two recognized subspecies are the western fox snake (P.vulpinus) and the eastern fox snake (P.boydii).
Both these snakes have many similar features. The biggest difference between the two subspecies is their preferred habitat.
There’s actually a funny story as to the difference of the two species.
A few years ago, proposed that the Mississippi river be the dividing boundary for the two species of fox snakes.
Surprisingly, the paths of these two snakes in the US do not overlap each other.
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The western fox snake earned the name because it has the ability to emit a musky smell when threatened. This similar musky smell is also released by foxes.
Despite the name, the western fox snake has no physical similarities to a fox. And though this species has a slender, long body, the western fox snake belongs to the group of constrictors.
This essentially means that western fox snakes kill prey by squeezing them to death instead of say, injecting venom.
Where are They Found?
The western species is both found in many parts of the upper Midwest.
While the snake is most common in the Midwestern and western states, it is also found up north in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan.
Conversely, eastern fox snakes are located in a much smaller range across the US and Canada. This species is almost exclusively found near bodies of water. They can be found most prominently near the great lakes in Ohio and Michigan. Also, this species has been noted in Ontario, Canada.
Physical Attributes, Length, and Longevity
The western fox snake has considerable variability in color ranging from yellow, gray, brown or even tan. For the most part, they have more of a grayish base with pronounced black splotches.
Really the only difference between Western vs. Eastern fox snake is the base color. Unlike the western’s gray base, eastern fox snakes tend to have more of a brownish-tan instead of muted gray.
Their color is not uniform and typically consists of blackish browns spots with a lighter underbelly. The number of patches or blotches on the back may number 2-3 dozen depending on the length of the snake.
The underside is usually yellow but almost always has a dark/gray checkered pattern. The head of the western fox snake is usually dark brown, with the occasional orange hue. a
Because of this, western fox snakes are often misidentified as a copperhead and killed by humans.
The western fox snake is a medium-size reptile that reaches lengths of 3-5 feet long. Strangely, males tend to be slightly larger than females. Often times, female snakes tend to be longer than males — but not in this case.
Further, their thin elongated body is covered with tiny scales. The face is flat with a short snout. Their cute little tails also have circumferential dark rings.
When the snake is young, it may have two black lines on the head; one line from the eye to the jaw and another on top of the eyes. These lines fade as the snake matures.
Lifespan of Fox Snakes
In the wild, the lifespan of a western fox snake does vary because of predators, competition for food, and urbanization. Some reports say that these snakes may live anywhere from 15-20 years. However, in captivity, snakes tend to live on the longer end of the spectrum since they have little to no predators… unless you have a cat or dog.
Western Fox Snake
The western fox snake has become adaptable to a varied habitat; it may be found on prairie land, woodlands, pastures, farmland, and even marshes. It prefers to be in some type of protective area where it is shielded from predators.
These snakes are very rare in urban areas but may be found in the barn, shed, or other farming building where rodents are more likely to be present.
The western fox snake is an agile and strong climber but prefers to be on the ground. During the daytime, it will burrow itself in the ground or hide under rocks or crevices so that its body temperature remains low.
During winter, the snake usually hibernate underground where it can avoid the frigid cold temperatures.
Eastern Fox Snake
Quite the opposite, this species prefers cooler, damper natural habitats. They may look the same, but the Eastern Fox Snake is more often found farther north than it’s counterpart.
This long fellow tends to gravitate toward bodies of water like rivers, streams, and most commonly lakes.
You’ll likely have a better chance of running into the Eastern vs. the Western. The reason for this is because humans tend to gravitate toward water, too.
Sometimes, they can be hiding around houses that border lakes, rivers, etc. Don’t be alarmed, though. These snakes are hardly dangerous, but before getting too close, you should make sure it’s not a copperhead.
Role in the Environment
The western fox snake is much desired on farming and agriculture land. The reason is that each year, rodents and birds consume a significant amount of crops. Additionally, rodents can spread disease to livestock, attack baby chicks, and even go for the eggs.
The western fox snake is a highly efficient hunter, and has no problem at all fending off rodents and even small birds.
Unfortunately, the western fox snake, when young, also becomes prey in the food cycle; it is consumed by larger birds, other snakes, and wild animals.
Are Western/Eastern Fox Snakes Dangerous?
No, the snake belongs to the colubrid family (meaning large non-venomous snakes). The western fox snake does not possess any threat to humans, but unfortunately, the snake is often mistaken for a rattler (massasauga rattler), which also looks similar and many are killed by humans.
When the western fox snake is frightened or threatened, it will sometimes vibrate the tail on the ground and mimic a rattlesnake. Unfortunately, this behavior leads most humans to believe it is a rattler and kill it instantly.
The snake may bite a human, but since there is no venom, one may only see a puncture wound on the skin and feel a moderate degree of pain.
Fox Snake Bite
If you do get bitten by a Fox Snake, it likely won’t be too painful. Since either species isn’t venomous, you won’t have to go to the hospital or anything.
You likely won’t get bitten in the first place, because the snakes tend to slither away and emit an odor. They aren’t that aggressive.
In the rare case a Fox Snake bite happens, you’ll need to take standard precautions like any other injury.
First, if it latches on, do not yank the snake off. This is a constricting species of snake, and they will latch on when they bite. If yanked off, you can seriously damage your skin.
Usually, it won’t happen.
But if it does, just pour some water on the snake (ideally ice water) and it will likely unlatch.
From there, clean it with soap and water, apply an antiseptic, and bandage the wound. If it becomes swollen or if you have any doubts at all, it’s always best to contact a medical professional for further advice.
The western fox snake, unlike many other snakes, is chiefly active during the day, especially during the cooler months of the year (Spring and Fall). During the summer, it is more active at night where cooler temperatures prevail.
The western fox snake does not like hot temperatures and thus the best time to see the snake outside is in the early morning. At this time, the temperatures are not so hot and the snake will be basking on rocks or vegetation.
The western fox snake is arboreal meaning it can live on land but also spends a fair amount of time in the trees. It is an excellent swimmer.
The western fox snake leads a solitary life except when mating. It is not aggressive at all and when it senses danger, it will retreat and hide. Despite the fact that these snakes are common in many parts of the US, many people most likely have never seen one; the reason is that the snake prefers avoidance.
How does the snake protect itself?
The fox snake is not aggressive; in fact, it is quite docile and prefers to retreat rather than fight.
When threatened it will:
1) shake its tail on the ground or leaves and mimic a rattler
2) it also gives a foul musky smell that will deter predators and
3) it will hiss loudly and give the appearance of making a strike.
Besides humans, other natural enemies of the fox snake include coyotes, hawks, foxes, and other larger snakes.
Western Fox Snake Diet
Like most snakes, the western fox snake is a carnivore and its diet consists primarily of rodents, mice, and voles.
However, if given the opportunity it will also swallow amphibians, young rabbits, small birds, other small snakes, and bird eggs. Its method of killing includes first subduing the prey and quickly constricting the soon to be meal.
In fact, most prey constricted by these snakes die within a few seconds as they are not able to breathe.
Eastern Fox Snake Diet
Eastern Fox Snakes will eat generally the same thing as westerns. The biggest difference in diet is that Eastern Fox Snake will rely more on lizards, frogs, toads, etc. because they tend to nest near bodies of water. Sometimes, they are also known to eat fish.
Fox Snake Reproduction
Mating usually takes place after the snake comes out of hibernation. By late March or early April, the snake will mate with the right partner. The gestation period is about 2 months and in August/September, the female will bury anywhere from 6-28 eggs under some leaves, log pile, or in a narrow crevice.
The eggs will hatch after about 50-60 days; however, the young are very vulnerable at this stage and only a few will make it to full maturity. The young babies are anywhere from 6-12 inches long.
Because the western fox snake does not make a good parent, the babies are left to fend for themselves at a very young age. The young western fox snake is much lighter in color compared to the adult.
Western Fox Snakes as Pets
First, Eastern fox snakes are typically not owned as pets due to their more sparse population. On the other hand, Westerns are fairly common as pet snakes — although not as popular as these pet snakes.
Yes, many people keep the western snake fox as a pet, primarily because it is non-venomous and very docile.
These Snakes can Stink! Be Wary.
Unfortunately, fox snakes are known to have a certain odor to them. While they are more than suitable for being pets, this is something to absolutely take into consideration.
If you’re going to live in close quarters with these fellas, it may not be the best pet snake for you. While the odor can be manageable with a lot of airflow, it sometimes can be rather bad depending on the snake.
Be sure to ask your breeder about odor control, and if their line of fox snakes tend to have a dank smell.
Because the snake can grow up to 3-5 feet, one needs a decent size tank. The small snake may be fine in a 20-gallon tank, but the mature snake may need a 30 to 50-gallon tank. Because there is always the risk that the snake may escape, a solid heavy lid that allows aeration is required. The floor can be covered with unscented coconut chips and or newspaper. Both are easy to clean.
The snake tank requires several accessories including hollowed logs, vegetation, stones, and rocks. All decor, stones, etc. should be properly sanitized before placing in the terrarium.
Since the snake prefers dark areas, one should create a den-like structure where the snake feels comfortable. A bowl of water should be placed inside and the water needs to be changed daily.
Since the western fox snake does not like excess heat, the temperature should be maintained between 75-80F. Like most snakes, this one prefers both a basking and ambient temperature in their terrarium. Be sure to have one side warmer, and one side more room temperature (72-75F).
In the wild, the snake kills the animal first and then swallows it whole. In captivity, there is always the risk that a live rat may injure the snake. So one should encourage a diet of frozen mice or rats, which are available from most pet stores. Plus, frozen mice are much easier to manage than live feeder mice.
Excess humidity should be avoided and the reptile should be regularly inspected for skin disease. While humidity control isn’t important with this species, if you live in a rather humid area or keep it in a damp place (think basement), it may be worth getting a humidity monitor.
Sometimes, these snakes may develop mouth ulcers which may make it difficult to eat.
Western Fox Snake Handling
This species tends to be docile and doesn’t mind being handled. That said, it’s best to take precautions with handling any snake. Again, one of the downsides of this species is that it will emit an odor as a defense mechanism So, when going to pick it up, if the odor intensifies, it may be best to leave her alone.
Fox Snake Conservation Status
Canada on the other hand, lists the Eastern Fox Snake as both endangered and threatened, depending on the population in question.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that humans kill many eastern fox snakes every year. As mentioned, it’s usually due to them being near water, and people mistaking them for more venomous snakes.