Eastern Black Kingsnake
Lampropeltis nigra

** Harmless **

Common Name:

Eastern Black Kingsnake

Scientific Name:

Lampropeltis nigra



Lampropeltis is derived from the Greek words lampros which means "radiant" and pelta meaning "small shields".


nigra is derived from the Latin word niger which means "black".

Vernacular Names:

Black snake, chain snake, mole snake, Ridgway's king snake, thunder snake.

Average Length:

36 - 45 in. (90 - 114 cm)

Virginia Record Length:

Record length:

58 in. (147.3 cm)

Virginia Wildlife Action Plan Rating Tier III - High Conservation Need - Extinction or extirpation is possible. Populations of these species are in decline or have declined to low levels or are in a restricted range. Management action is needed to stabilize or increase populations.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: Unlike the species of eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula getula), this species has a much-reduced amount of the whitish to yellowish pigmentation. The dorsum is almost entirely black with a variable amount of tiny yellowish spots. The chain-like crossband pattern is generally lacking, though the yellowish spots of some individuals, especially young ones, may display some of this pattern. The ventrolateral are has yellowish spots, and the venter has yellowish spots or irregular patches. Posteriorly, the venter is darker. Small yellowish spots occur on the black head. Labial scales and the chin are yellowish, with the labials bordered in black *10760*. This is a large stout snake reaching a maximum total length of 2083 mm (82.0 in.). In Virginia, maximum known SVL is 1456 (57.3 in.) and maximum total length is 1621 mm (63.8in.). Adults are usually 36-45 inches in length *11523*. Tail length/total length ratio is 9.1-14.5 (avg. = 11.8+/-1.3,n=82).

SCUTELLATION: Ventrals 191-220 (avg = 209.6+/-4.4, n=108); subcaudals 20-54 (avg. = 44.7+/-5.0, n=102); ventrals + subcaudals 230-268 (avg. = 254.3+/-7.2,n=102); dorsal scales smooth; scale rows usually 21 (89.9%), n=79) at midbody,or 20, 22, or 23 (10.1%); anal plate undivided; infralabials 9-9 (78.8%, n=99), other combinations of 8-10 (21.2%); supralabials 7-7 (88.7%, n=97), other combinations of 6-8 (11.3%); loreal scale present; preoculars 1-1; postoculars 2-2; temporal scales usually 2+3/2+3 (85.0%, n=94), other combinations of 2-4 (15.0%).

COLORATION and PATTERN: Dorsal body color black with a series of 18-39 (avg. = 26.2+/-4.2, n=93) thin white to yellow crossbars (0.5-2.0 scales wide) or with an irregular number of small white to yellow spots; if crossbars present, most divide on the sides at about scale row 5 and the arms often connect with irregular white to yellow ventrolateral patches; crossbars often incomplete or broken and lateral bifurcations may not be present; crossbars on tail are not divided, they usually connect with the ventrolateral patches; venter black with continuations of the ventrolateral patches forming a highly irregular, alternating series of black and white patches, or venter black with small yellowish spots; ventral pattern sometimes faded and may be obscure; head black with varying numbers of white or yellow spots; infralabials and supralabials white to yellow and bordered in black. The head is not distinct from the neck and is small.*10760* Lampropeltis nigra is characterized by having much reduced white to yellow pigment. The dorsum is nearly all black with a variable number of small yellow spots. Crossbars are generally lacking but the yellow spots in some individuals, especially juveniles and immatures, may form a visible chain pattern. Yellow spots occur on the ventrolateral region, and the yellow on the venter occurs as spots or as irregular patches covering one to two scales. The venter is darker posteriorly. The head is black with small yellow spots. The chin and labial scales are yellow and the labials are outlined in black.*10760*

SEXUAL DIMORPHISM: Adult males (635-1456 mm SVL, avg. = 1036.9+/-206.3. n=37) are larger than adult females (660-1291 mm SVL, avg. = 921.7+/-157.4, n=27). Sexual dimorphism index is -1.12. The average number of ventrals are nearly identical (males 209.3+/-4.6, 191-218, n=56; females 20-.9+/-3.9, 199-215, n=49), but the number of subcaudals is higher in males (34-54, avg. = 46.9+/-4.4, n=54) than in females (20-51), avg. = 42.1+/-4.5. m=46). Consequently, the average number of ventrals + subcaudals is slightly higher in males (255.7+/-7.8, 231-268, n=54) than in females (252.3+/-6.0, 230-264, n=46). There are no substantial differences between sexes in tail length/total length ratio (males 12.1+/-1.3, 9.1-14.5, n=46; females 11.4+/-1.2, 9.5-14.2, n=34) and number of crossbands (males 26.3+/-4.0, 19-34, n=50; females 26.2+/-4.5, 18-39, n=40).*10760*

JUVENILES: Juvenile L. getula getula are patterned as adults. Juveniles of L. nigra have thin crossbars and irregular lateral spotting. The bifurcations of the crossbars are usually not present, nor are the ventrolateral patches. The juvenile dorsal pattern apparently breaks up with age in Virginia L. g. nigra as it does in some other areas. At hatching, juveniles are 208-277 mm SVL (avg. = 244.6+/-21.9, n=33), 238-317 mm total length (avg. = 280.2+/-25.1, n=32), and weigh 6.3-9.1 grams (avg. = 8.1+/-1.6, n = means of 3 litters).*10760*

CONFUSING SPECIES: The only other black snakes in Virginia are Coluber constrictor and Elaphe obsoleta. Neither of these species has white or yellow crossbars or spotting on the head and venter; both have a uniform black to gray dorsum. The dorsum of P. obsoleta may show a narrowly defined blotched pattern in some snakes, especially in southwestern VA. but the lateral white to yellow pigment is lacking. Juveniles of these snakes have a series of brown blotches on the gray dorsum.*10760*

GEOGRAPHIC VARIATION: geographic variation in Virginia L. getula is expressed in pattern, color and scutellation. The differences in pattern between species has been described above. The L. nigra pattern is confined to the southwestern corner of VA., whereas, the chain pattern in L. g. getula occurs in snakes to the north and east of the New River drainage. Some individuals in the southeastern corner of VA. have reddish crossbands, as well as wider crossbands than snakes to the north and west. Scutellation in L. nigra is within the range of variation exhibited by L. g. getula in number of ventrals (nigra 203.0+/1.4, 202-205, n=4; getula 209.8+/-4.4, 191-220, n=106), number of subcaudals (nigra 49.3+/-2.1, 47-51, n=3; getula 44.9+/-4.4, 34-54, n=99), and number of ventrals + subcaudals (nigra 252.7+/-1.2, 252-254, n=3; getula 254.6+/-6.9, 230-268, n=99).*10760*

REPRODUCTION: reproduction in L. getula has been little studied in Virginia. Mating presumably takes place in the spring. Size at maturity is about 600 mm SVL for both sexes. Known egg laying dates in Virginia are between 16 and 22 June. Clutch size is 9-17 (avg = 12.6+/-3.2, n=5). Ernst and Barbour reported clutch sizes of 3-24 eggs (avg. = 10.8) for this species. Eggs averaged 37.5+/-2.5 x 20.7+/-1.0 mm (length 32.8-44.6, width 19.4-23.4, n=36) and weigh 8.4-10.7 grams (avg. = 9.5+/-0.7). Laboratory incubation time for these eggs was 60-62 days. Hatching occurred on 14-18 August.*10760* 10-24 eggs are laid in June/July and hatch in August/September.

BEHAVIOR: King snakes are noted for vibrating their tails when disturbed and for discharging musk from glands at the base of the tail, when picked up. Individual temperment varies, but many specimens will constrict one's arm when held and will chew, rather than bite. A defensive behavior sometimes exhibited is hiding the head in a ball of coils.*10760* These snakes are usually secretive by day, hiding under logs or Boards or in rotten stumps or animal burrows. They are most often seen in the open at dusk or dawn or on cloudy days. These snakes seldom climb. They are surprisingly fast on the ground, but when cornered it may coil, strike and vibrate its tail.

LIMITING FACTORS: These snakes are immune to venomous snake venom and actually eat venomous snakes when given a chance. They are preyed upon by raccoons, opossums, and skunks. The longevity record for this subspecies is 19 years and 3 months *11523*.

References for Life History

  • 1006 - Linzey, D.W., M.J. Clifford, 1981, Snakes of Virginia, Univ. of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, VA
  • 2582 - Wright, A.H., Wright, A.A., 1949, Handbook of frogs and toads of the United State and Canada, 640 pgs., Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, N.Y
  • 10760 - Mitchell, J. C., 1994, The Reptiles of Virginia, 352 pgs., Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC
  • 11523 - Thorp, T.J., 2001, Personal Communication, Expert Review for GAP Analysis Project, Three Lakes Nature Center and Aquarium


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Verified County/City Occurrence

Lee County
Scott County
Washington County
Verified in 3 Counties/Cities.


Virginia is home to 28 species of frogs and toads.


We have a large diversity of salamanders consisting of 56 different species and subspecies.


Virginia is home to 9 native lizard species and two introduced species, the Mediterranean Gecko and the Italian Wall Lizard.


The Commonwealth is home to 34 species and subspecies of snake. Only 3 species are venomous.


Virginia has 25 species and subspecies of turtle. Five of these species are sea turtle.