Central Texas Whip Snake (Masticophis taeniatus girardi)
Austin, Texas: July 2002

On August 2nd, I went to a local Austin zoo supply house to pick up the weekly ration of mice, rats, mealworms and crickets for the critters presently occupying my terrarium enclosures. While there I learned that a species of whip snake had been caught and brought in by a customer.  I looked at the snake and decided to add it to the terrarium now occupied by two other snakes and a centipede. That turned out to be a mistake. Several weeks later the centipede and this snake got into a tussle while I was out of the lab and the centipede won. I found the snake on its back, dead, with a large gash in its head caused by the centipede. My guess is the snake attempted to attack the centipede, but grabbed the wrong end. The centipede then mounted a lethal attack and, with its venomous jaws, won the battle against this non-venomous snake. 

As is often the case, the exact species of this snake was, for some time, in doubt. It was caught in Austin, where a species known as the Central Texas Whip Snake (M. t. ornata, in some taxonomical lists, M. t. girardi in others; the latter is recognized today by most authorities) is common. However, M. t. girardi has, according to some descriptions, a black upper body, with white patches on its sides, and a salmon-colored belly. The specimen caught in Austin has no side patches, but has white stripes on each side and a thin, faint black stripe down the middle of each white stripe. The belly is salmon in color on its lower one third, but is yellowish in the middle third, and trends from yellow to white toward the head. From the head down toward the middle a series of black markings are found on the belly as well.

The most striking feature of the snake pictured here is its head, whose dorsal crown scales are charcoal black with white margins. Large scales, typical for a member of the Colubrid Family of snakes, cover the dorsal head surface. The snake has large eyes with circular pupils, suggesting the snake relies heavily on vision for prey acquisition and tracking.

Notice the pale "crossband" on the back of the head in this specimen. Actually it is more like a narrow stripe than a band, but the Desert Striped Whip Snake (M. t. taeniatus) does not have even this stripe. The stripe goes from one side of the snake to the other, just behind the snake's neck. The pale margins of the crown scales are also distinguishing features of the Central Texas Whip Snake. However, as this specimen suggests (and many other specimens of other species I've examined prove the same point) coloration varies within many species of snakes so much that it is difficult to list all the possibilities. Focus on the crossband across the back of the head, and the pale margins of the crown scales, and you will probably correctly identify this snake as the Central Texas Whip Snake.

When I first picked this fellow up it showed no outward aggression toward me. Some whip snakes are known to have nasty dispositions, leading a few people to rename the genus "Nasty-cophis." They bite repeatedly when handled, although their bite is not dangerous and the teeth are unable to penetrate human skin. This specimen was very well behaved and made no attempt to bite.

When placed in a terrarium with a great plains rat snake, a lined snake, and a centipede, it showed no aggression to any of its fellow critters, at least at first. The lined snake soon sidled up alongside it, treating it with what seemed to be a form of affection (a personality trait of this particular lined snake). The great plains rat snake, though not affectionate, took its new terrarium-mate in stride. After a week or so, I noticed that the somewhat impatient and almost hyper behavior of this snake had begun to get on the nerves of the centipede; from time to time the two of them would tangle. I should have realized this would, eventually, lead to an unfortunate incident...

Reports on the behavior of this snake include a penchant for gliding along in meadows with its head perched high, peering just over the tops of the grasses. In a short-grass prairie, where the tops are less than 18 inches high, such behavior would give this snake a commanding view of the ground ahead, allowing it to sneak up on lizards, its favorite prey. 

Besides lizards, whip snakes also eat small insects, small birds, bird eggs, and small rodents. After it was placed in the lab terrarium it was observed eating a cricket.

Originally I identified this snake as a desert striped whip snake, Masticophis taeniatus taeniatus. The genus Masticophis denotes the more common braid-like body markings of many species in this genus (missing in this specimen and in several species of this genus). The species, taeniatus, refers to the stripes on the snake's body.

This identification, while warranted from published information on Texas snakes, would place this snake far outside its known territory. M. t. taeniatus is not usually found in Texas except in the extreme western portion of the state, around El Paso and along the border with New Mexico.

My guess was that it was transplanted here by someone who captured it in its usual habitat and released it in central Texas. Another possibility was that the known territory for this snake is too restrictive, and the desert striped whip snake occupies a much larger area than is presently recognized. It seems clear, today, from the pale margins of the crown scales and the crossband behind the head that this is the Central Texas Whip Snake and that my earlier identification was in error.

For more information on this snake, you may want to refer to Alan Tennant's book " A Field Guide To Texas Snakes"  page 168, and Werler & Dixon "Texas Snakes", pages 188-192.