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Western Fox Snake Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

Common Name:Western Fox Snake
Scientific Name:Pantherophis Vulpinus
Life Span:12 to 20 Years
Length: 3 to 5 feet
Clutch Size:10 to 20
Habitat:Forest Edges, Pastures and Fields
Country of Origin:United States (Midwest)

Physical Description

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Western Fox Snakes usually range between 3 to 5 feet in length. The longest Western Fox Snake recorded is 179 cm. Males are generally larger than female snakes. They feature blotches in their bodies, with light brown to dark blotches. Their heads vary from reddish to brown color. Because of some specimen’s reddish head, they are usually mistaken as copperheads and killed for that reason. Their underside is yellow in color, with black checkers. The scales in their body are weakly keeled. 

Young Western Fox Snakes look different from adults. They have dark spots still but are rich brown in color, typically edged with dark brown or black. Their head features a dark transverse line that is anterior to their eyes. There is also a dark line from their eyes to the angle of their jaw. Dark rings also stretch along their tail. As they age, the line on their head fades away. On average, Western Fox Snakes have about 41 blotches. 

Etymology

Quite interestingly, Western Fox Snakes do not look like foxes, thus the name. However, it is because when these snakes feel threatened, they tend to emit a foul odor that is said to smell similar to that of a red fox fart. Another interesting feature of these snakes is that their entire body is covered with scales, eyes included. For this reason, they cannot close their eyes or even blink.

Just like many other animals, Western Fox snakes have also gone through name changes. They used to be classified as Elaphe Vulpina, but now they are being referred to as Pantherophis Vulpina. This species is closely related to corn snakes and rat snakes. Juvenile Western Fox snakes resemble closely black rat snakes, which makes it difficult for some to differentiate them. 

Taxonomy

The classification of Western fox snakes as a species has been an influx in recent years. Following the mitochondrial DNA analysis conducted in 2002, all rat snakes found in North America and North of Mexico were transferred to an older genus, Pantherophis. Before reaching the name Pantherophis Vulpinus as an agreed name, it was given Pantherophis Vulpinas and Pantherophis Ramspotti by others. 

Still, such genus change became controversial and was not readily accepted by all authorities. For this reason, further morphological and molecular analysis was conducted in 2010. After such, it was finally separated from its older genus and finally classified with its current name. 

Similar Species

Other similar species to the Western Fox Snake is the Eastern Fox Snake. In fact, in the state of Missouri, these species are only mainly identified with their difference in geographic distribution. Eastern Fox Snakes are found only in some counties along the Mississippi River, while the Western Fox Snakes are restricted to a few counties located at the Northwestern Corner of the State.  

Interesting Facts

Western fox snakes are usually active in the daytime, especially in the spring and fall. In summer, they are usually active at night. They know how to swim and climb. Even though they are not venomous and do not have rattles, they are often mistaken with rattlesnakes since they sometimes shake their tails. They also strike and hiss when threatened. 

Habitat and Range

Western Fox Snakes are usually found in prairies, farmlands, woods, stream valleys, as well as dune habitats from Michigan (central Upper Peninsula), through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, and into the Nebraska, Missouri, northwestern Indiana and South Dakota regions. These snakes are found in areas that are fairly close to bodies of water. Just like other snake species, they are usually found basking in grassland clearings and nearby the edges of marshes. 

Life Cycle

The life cycle of Western fox snakes is pretty much similar to that of other snakes. In captivity, little is known of their life cycle and habits. What is known, however, is that courtship and mating usually happen in April, typically right after emerging from their hibernation at overwintering dens. Male fox snakes usually have to wrestle with each other for the chance to mate with females. 

Around June or July, the female snakes lay their eggs in rotten logs or stumps, leaf litter, and sawdust piles. The eggs also hatch around August or September.  These eggs hatch around the 60 day period of incubation. The hatchlings look similar to Western Ratsnakes and are usually about a foot in length.

These snakes are found to be a welcome sight in farmlands. In these areas, they tend to consume a huge number of rodents that are otherwise harmful to crops, even transmitting parasites to the present captive animal stocks. 

They can be opportunistic feeders at times, eating fledgling chickens or eggs, which is why some even call them a chicken snake. 

Behavior

These snakes are adapted to ground life, thus being considered as terrestrial animals. Still, they can climb trees easily, as well as other vertical structures, and swim in bodies of water. They are observed to bask under the sun in order to increase their body temperature and gather energy that is needed for their daily activities. 

They are generally active in the daytime, especially during spring and fall. They also become active at nighttime during the summer season as they avoid the high temperatures of the daytime. During the winter months, they usually hibernate underground.

Western Fox Snakes do not produce venom. Even though they may strike as part of their defense strategy, they are completely harmless to humans. While they do not have a rattle on their tail like rattlesnakes, they still produce a vibration that resembles the rattling sound when they shake their tail, or when they are scrubbed against leaf litter. They also deter their potential predators by hissing. When these snakes are encountered, they generally do not bite or strike, though they are known to release a mild musk coming from their scent glands, located at the base of their tail. 

These snakes are found spending most of their summer days hiding under debris while retaining the warmth of the sun. They have strong bodies, allowing them to climb trees with the utmost east. However, they still prefer crawling on the ground. They also make good use of their ability to swim well. In fact, many Western Fox Snakes have been found crossing rivers.

During the active part of their season, they usually travel long distances. Since they usually bask on the road for warmth, they are often hit. Males, in particular, are usually hit in the spring, while females are hit during their egg-laying season while searching for ideal sites for laying their eggs. In the fall, young snakes usually travel to their places of hibernation and are usually hit by automobiles. 

Housing

A simple setup for hatchling Western Fox Snakes includes a 10-gallon terrarium. Substrates can and should be added to the setup. Among the favorite options on a substrate include reptile carpet, reptile bark, and aspen shavings. Some keepers prefer the latter, as these snakes love to burrow. 

At one end of the prepared enclosure, an under-tank heating pad can be installed, adjusting it to provide a hot spot with a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the enclosure, you can also prepare a hide that is close to the hot spot, half in and half out, to make sure. 

This setup will result, not just to the preparation of a nice thermal gradient inside the enclosure, but also to a mini-gradient in the hide. On the cooler end of the enclosure, you can place another hide, along with a water bowl. 

Just like other reptile terrariums, having a secure top is a necessity. If you decide to place sliding front doors or a sliding top for your enclosure, make sure that they are closed securely all the time, even locked in most cases. These snakes may accidentally escape when given any slight chance. 

The housing setup can be the same for larger and older snakes. Up to two Western Fox Snakes can be housed inside a 40-gallon terrarium. If you choose to house two, you can simply double the number of hiding places, providing an extra water bowl. 

Use an appropriately sized heat pad in order to establish the thermal gradient and hot spot. They usually come in different sizes, usually based on the size of the enclosure where they will be used. 

Temperature and Humidity

These snakes have a requirement of about 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit ambient temperature. They are provided easily using under tank heaters, heat cable, and heat tape. Temperatures may be easily controlled using a thermostat and monitored using three thermometers. One should be placed on the warm part, an inch over the substrate. Another is placed at the basking site and the third an inch over the substrate on the cooler part. The basking site should range within 85 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature while dropping to 75 degrees Fahrenheit at night. 

Humidity, on the other hand, should range from 35 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with the higher end being used during shedding. Humidity may also be monitored using a hygrometer, increasing it using a large water bowl. Humidity can also be balanced using a mister, fogger, or spraying every day.

Lighting and Decors

Fluorescent light can be used, attached to the top of the screen. This serves both as a decoration and a need for the snakes. It adds a nice touch to the terrarium, allowing you to see the snake inside. You can also provide your pets with 12 hours on and off day and night cycle. 

Other decorations inside the terrarium will also do well. Some keepers tend to be creative with their decorations. Among the options include branches, cork bark rounds, and rocks. When opting for the latter, it is imperative to make sure that they cannot fall over and secure in place, as it may injure your snakes. 

Plastic plants can also look realistic, adding to the aesthetic appeal of the terrarium. Make sure, however, that whatever décor you decide to add is easy to remove, easy to replace, and easy to clean. More decorations can be placed inside the terrarium. Note, though, that the more extra stuff you place inside the terrarium, the more space you are preparing for your snakes to explore, crawl into, and hide on.

Branches for climbing can also be prepared for exercise while also encouraging increased basking for these snakes. They will usually climb low branches, as they are not really great climbers. Fake and natural foliage may be placed inside the cage in order to improve their hiding locations. These hide boxes may come in the form of PVC pipes, half logs, as well as half flower pots. Rocks may also be added for the basking spots if they are placed above a heat source, as well as a basking light where the rocks can warm. A big water bowl is recommended highly, thus allowing the snake to soak if they want to. 

Hibernation

Western Fox Snakes usually hibernate in man-made structures or rocky crevices extending below the frostline. They typically emerge from hibernation around April and are especially active until October. Right after they come out of winter hibernation, the male snakes will start looking for females, initiating the mating process. 

Feeding and Diet

Western Fox Snakes eat smaller mammals. Occasionally, they also eat birds. Other items in their list of food include deer mice, meadow voles, fledgling birds, eggs, as well as newborn rabbits. They are constrictors, which means that they kill their prey first by constriction, before swallowing them. 

In captivity, the food items prepared for these snakes are similar to what they have in the wild. However, they are usually fed primarily on mice. It is suggested that only pre-killed mice be provided as food because live prey can possibly seriously injure, or even kill captive snakes. This is because they are mainly not familiar with eating live prey. Captive snake keepers recommend feeding of properly thawed frozen rodents. Hatchlings may be fed once every 5 to 7 days, juveniles every 7 to 10 days, and adult snakes every 10 to 14 days.

Impact on Human and the Environment

Western fox snakes serve a valuable role as a controller of the population of destructive rodents. Some may mistake them as the copperhead, though the dark brown, round blotches of these fox snakes are highly different from the uniquely hourglass-shaped marks of the copperhead snakes. 

As predators, these snakes also help in controlling other animals, particularly rodents. Even though they have the capability to defend itself by attempting to bite, by vibrating their tail rapidly, and by emitting a stinky musk when attacked, they often become food for hawks, as well as other natural predators. 

How to Care for Western Fox Snakes

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Western Fox Snakes are relatively shy snakes. The larger the cage and the wider the terrarium is, the better it is for the snakes. Wider cages allow for better exercise while fulfilling the urge of this species to explore. Custom designed cages may be created though they are not utilized commonly in the pet trade. However, there are also custom enclosures that are created with little imagination and ingenuity, offering amazing naturalistic setups. 

The substrates selected should be dry and easy to clean. Reptile carpets newspapers and paper towels are among the favorites among hatchlings, and helpful when it comes to monitoring fecal output. Avoid using cedar or pine shavings, as they have aromatic oils, which may cause irritation on the snakes, even resulting in respiratory issues to some. 

Breeding and Reproduction

The mating and courtship behaviors of Western Fox Snakes have not yet been studied quite extensively. In 1936, however, a study was conducted to assemble a review of everything that was known regarding the mating and courtship behavior of this species. 

Laboratory and field observations of these behaviors of Western Fox Snakes were done during a three year period. The observations were done from late October until the early part of June. The snakes were kept inside an enclosure, inside a well-ventilated greenhouse, thus providing natural temperature and lighting. The temperatures at the daytime range between 8 to 29 degrees Celsius. There was no significant difference recorded between the temperature inside the greenhouse and the external environmental temperature. 

A group of 12 snakes, six of each sex, were kept inside the enclosure for observation. Throughout the three-year period, a different group was under observation each spring. According to the results of the observations, copulatory performances and complete courtship were observed twice in nature, and 12 times in captivity. 

There were other occasions that resulted in 12 incomplete performances. These courtship and mating behavior can also be divided into three phases. It usually starts with chasing, then tactile and mounting, and finally, biting and intromission. 

The chasing part is usually started by male snakes. Before chasing, the male snake usually looks restless, moving randomly while the female stays in a resting position. The male snake, occasionally, while moving, makes contact with the female. This contact usually includes tongue-flicking, starting from any part of her body, gradually reaching her head. 

The female snake usually responds by moving away rapidly, thus stimulating the male to chase her. When the female finally appears receptive, the chasing will stop, and she will allow the male to approach her, contacting the mid-part of her body.

This will then start the tactile and mounting phase. As the female stops moving, the male will move forward along her side, flicking his tongue rapidly, gently nudging her at mid-body. The male snake will then start his forward jerking motions, with others the entire or part of his body. Every jerk has two opposite motions. First, the dorsal part throws forward, and second, the ventral part throws backward repeatedly. 

As soon as the male snake starts jerking, the female also responds with the same movements. When both of them jerk together, the male will lift his head slowly from the lateral midpoint position, then to the dorsum of the female. As soon as the male snake reaches halfway between the mid-body of the female, he starts to twitch his tail from side to side. At first, the movement is slow but becoming rapid a few seconds after. The male will eventually mount the female completely. 

When this happens, both the male and female snakes start twisting their tails around each other until they are tightly intertwined. This marks the end of the tail-twitching of the mail while initiating a back and forth rubbing of the posterior part of his body against the body of the female until their ventral surface becomes juxtaposed. This continues until intromission finally happens. 

While the male snake still assumes the mounting position, the female will keep her jerking motions. In some instances, she may even shorten the posterior part of her body, forming S-shaped curves that correspond to the body of the male. 

The courtship and mating behavior of this species is similar to the behavior of other colubrids. Similar patterns have been observed in almost every phase of the mating activity. These similarities in the behavior become evident first during the chasing phase. Male snakes show extensive chasing early in the courtship. During the tactile and mounting phase, the female snake shows her reception by stopping after being chased, allowing the male to nudge her midbody. 

These snakes also exhibit biting behavior just before the actual copulation, and right after the intromission takes place. The male snake usually grasps the female tightly behind their held, holding their position throughout the entire duration of the coupling. The biting behavior may have also enhanced the receptivity of the female snakes. It does not look like an action to stop the escape of the female snake, either.

Unfortunately, not all baby snakes can survive and reach adulthood. As a matter of fact, less than 10% survive as a result of predators. Baby snakes are prone to everything, including skunks, foxes, owls, eagles, hawks, raccoons, coyotes, large bullfrogs, as well as other snakes. 

Impact on Humans and the Environment

These snakes are beneficial as they help in keeping the pest populations go down. They usually thrive in agricultural lands, preying on rodents and rabbits. On humans. Western Fox Snakes pose no harm. There are no unusual negative effects that they have on the human population. 

Threats and Conservation

Because of the reason that Western Fox Snakes are usually mistaken as either rattlesnakes or copperheads, they are killed indiscriminately. On the contrary, these snakes are beneficial and harmless to the environment and to humans. Their population also suffers from illegal collection, habitat destruction, and motor vehicle accidents. In terms of population, however, they are currently considered as stable, and as such, merits no concern status in any organization.

Where to Get Western Fox Snakes

Western Fox Snakes are not easy to find all the time. However, they have currently become more common as the number of captive breeders also increases. At times, they can be found from online sources, specialty reptile stores, and reptile shows. It is recommended to purchase captive-bred Western Fox Snakes since they are generally free from potentially dangerous illnesses that they have acquired from the wild. 

FAQ Section

Is a Western Fox Snake poisonous?

Western Fox Snakes are non-venomous colubrid snakes. Humans usually kill these snakes when they hear the rattling sound that they produce, resembling the sound of the poisonous rattlesnakes.

Where are Western Fox Snakes found?

These snakes are usually found in various regions in South Dakota, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin. 

What do baby Western Fox Snakes eat?

Baby fox snakes feed on smaller mammals, including voles, mice, and baby rabbits. They also feed on birds.

Why are these snakes called fox snakes?

The name of fox snakes comes from the odor that they emit when disturbed. They emit a skunk-like or musky fox odor. 

Do fox snakes actually rattle?

Western Fox Snakes do not rattle in the same way that rattlesnakes do. They are non-venomous snakes that shake their tails when threatened. If the tail is close to a cardboard box or dry leaves, it may make a sound that is similar to the sound produced by rattlesnakes. 

How do Western Fox Snakes look like?

The ground color of Western Fox Snakes ranges from gray, greenish-brown, yellowish or tan, filled with dark brown, larger blotches on their back, while the sides are covered with smaller blotches. Their belly is generally yellow in color, marked with some black checkered pattern. 

What do Western Fox Snakes eat?

The diet of Western Fox Snakes is primarily based on mice, frogs, rabbits, voles, birds, as well as other small animals. These snakes belong to the constrictor group, squeezing their prey to death. 

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