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Alterna-tive beauties

One's a headache, the other a relief. Both are beautiful, and hopefully will eventually grow up to become phenomenal educational ambassadors. Meet Gideon and Gubler, two male Blair's phase gray-banded kingsnakes from two different Texan locales:

Gideon, the first-aqcuired and biggest headache of the two. More on that shortly.
Gubler, the more recent and more forgiving of the two. And here showing off the HUGE eyes these guys never seem to lose.

Lampropeltis alterna is a species of kingsnake that ranges from the Carlsbad region of New Mexico south through the Chihuahuan Big Bend and Trans-Pecos regions of Texas (from which most lineages have been collected), all the way down to just south of Saltillo and Torreon in northeast-central Mexico. It is a species that was once extremely abundant in herpetoculture and has fallen off in numbers in captivity more recently due to the explosion of species like corn snakes and ball pythons, but still retains a very strong and nearly cult-like following of keepers due to their incredible variability and brilliant coloration in all forms. Gideon is a 9-Mile North locale (which from what I can find likely means parents came from the road cuts 9 miles or so north of Sanderson, TX) while Gubler is a Highway 277 locale (considered one of the quintessential roads to cruise for this species, and a road stretch where many other unique southern snakes, like the Trans Pecos and Baird's ratsnakes, have also originated), and many, many more locales are kept in pure lines: Davis Mountains, Chisos Mountains, Christmas Mountains, Sanderson, Loma Alta, and so on. Some localities are more likely to produce certain color versions, but the diversity of appearances in this species can be found just about anywhere if one looks hard enough.

Shot from above on Gideon showing the classic Blair's pattern.

Gray-bands were once classified as subspecies of the L. mexicana complex (of which all subspecies have now been elevated to species, partly as none of their ranges overlap and appearances are quite distinct), then classed as two different species based on the two main color forms (to be discussed shortly), before finally being grouped as one singular taxon. They are middle desert specialists, not quite found in the truly hot lowlands but also not truly montane species either; rather, they're found in the central band from 1200-7500 feet in elevation, and love to live in rocky places with lots of cracks, ravines, or holes carved into the stones where they both hide and search our their preferred prey. In many places along the Texas-Mexico border preferred habitat now includes "road cuts," the sections of limestone hillside cut away to make flat driving paths and exposing the shattered rock beneath on either side of the road. Many a snake have been located on these late at night. Nocturnal as a rule, they're almost never seen during the daytime but come out to wander the rocks and cliff faces searching for food. Adults are generalists typically, but all ages and especially the juveniles prefer the often more common lizards which they root out in the crevices and constrict to kill. This habit shows up often especially in new lines of wild-collected or newly captive-bred animals, and is the source of most of the headaches associated with this species.

In appearance there's no mistaking an "alterna." Adults can reach 4 feet long, a sizeable but not huge snake, with a fairly slender build (though it's not uncommon for them to get a little chunky, especially in well-fed captive animals -though one should always strive for slender, healthy animals rather than heavy feeding which causes obesity). Their heads are large and distinctly triangular, a big strike against that myth that says snakes with triangle heads are venomous (these have no venom at all). Most amusing perhaps is their eyes: typical for most youngsters in any animal, this species never grows out of that juvenile bug-eyed look, with their orbits always sticking out to the sides and large rounded pupils very distinct against the typically much lighter color of the irises. Most have a faded or strong stripe that runs back toward the jawline behind the eye too, and some amount of black speckling or overcast on their crown.

As mentioned earlier it's typically claimed that gray-bands come in two distinct color morphs: the Blair's phase like my pair, and the Alterna phase. Once they were thought to originate from different parts of this species' range and so represent two species or subspecies, with the Blair's from the eastern Trans-Pecos region and the Alterna in the west around the Big Bend area and further on, and though one may be more common in those respective regions either "morph" may show up just about anywhere. Blair's are characterized by broad orange bands bordered by black edging on the gray background (and the first band behind the head is usually the longest), while Alterna have more numerous much narrower orange bands or no orange at all within the black, and often separated by smaller pure black lines or speckles; the black bands may themselves be edged by a bright white halo. The orange may be anywhere from bright peachy or traffic cone shades to an almost brick red, while the gray background might be white woodsmoke to nearly black itself (personally, I'm a sucker for the darker versions with high contrast). These general morphs often tend to breed true too, though intermediates between the two forms are also common and just about any combo of the different color varieties will also show up. Gideon and Gubler are both very high contrast animals with the background on the lighter side, but there's always a possibility (and I hope) that one or both of them could darken with age

Gubler exploring the "crevice" between my fingers. Very young now, but he'll eventually grow to be an impressive animal.

As a general rule, established captive-bred gray-bands make pretty fantastic pets, with an easy setup for their housing and typically very docile dispositions (unlike some other kingsnakes, like Tsefan the Mexican Black who loves trying to eat fingers). As many line-bred locales, or even general "mutts" for the less choosy, as there are now and with the variation in appearances that can be found, there's no shortage for personal taste and little reason to gather animals from the wild for pets anymore. Good thing as well, as captive-bred animals are far less likely to carry parasites and also far less likely to be problem feeders. But, with the babies there is one major hang-up for the ease of this species: though it is growing slowly less common in captive lines, these snakes are naturally lizard eaters, and quite a few neonates want literally nothing else. Some, even, are simply a pain to get eating anything at all.

Gideon is my prime example of this difficulty. Though when he was received around 7 months ago I was promised he was already feeding on scented pinkies (and they typically like the scent of their native prey only, so fence and brush lizards etc. rather than the more easily acquired anoles or house geckos), upon initial, and then the many subsequent, attempts to offer such to him he had no interest. Thus, I began running through the list of techniques that gray-band breeders have developed to battle this trouble: live pinkies, "brained" pinkies (splitting the skull open so that the gray matter could be smelled by the baby, which works for some stubborn feeders), covering the pinkies in "lizard juice," offering the frozen lizards themselves that I had for scenting, hiding the food near the hides in the tank, leaving food overnight, boiling pinkies (no clue why, but this works for many), and then even putting him through a one-month brumation (a period of lowered temperature to simulate their winter inactive period). Nada. Not a thing. The only thing that got food into him was force-feeding, a process no pet owner ever wants to deal with.

Enter Gubler:

Blurry heads are pretty standard in snake pics...they never sit still. Gubler here has slightly thicker black bands than Gideon, making them fairly easy to tell apart even with similar patterns otherwise. He's also got much darker eye bands.

Wanting a gray-band that I could actually feasibly use as an educational animal who wouldn't up and quit feeding in the local high school classroom, I went to search for another, and acquired this adorable new guy. And just as promised by this breeder this time, the very first attempt at giving him a boiled pinkie he took it right off the tongs, and hasn't missed a meal since. Naturally, about 2 weeks after Gubler arrived Gideon finally decided that he, too, would eat a boiled pinkie left in the cage, so there's hope for him yet! Of course as of writing this he is now in shed and so refusing food again, so the headaches continue hence...

Unlike some milk snakes, the orange bands don't quite encircle the belly on most of these. The black does though.

Once the babies are convinced that rodents are, in fact, food however, this species is typically pretty smooth sailing. As desert animals, they don't need specialized enclosures to hold in humidity (though occasionally one might appreciate a moist shed box for those molting periods) or huge water dishes for soaking, and do well on the typical mid-70's F cool, upper 80's (or slightly warmer) hot gradient for thermoregulation, and an adult can be kept fairly comfortably in a 3 foot long or so enclosure with variable height. Being rock crevice dwellers, they like their hide boxes and tight spaces, though it's not a bad idea to include some branches or other furniture for them to clamber up too; they climb a lot more than one might imagine. Being nocturnal, they're not often seen out and about during the day so gray-bands don't make particularly terrific display animals, but if you catch them after dark they're often prone to wander all night long.

Such a classy pattern...

If you find a reliable breeder therefore who takes the time to ensure their animals are established, gray-bands truly are fantastic pets, and quite a bit more eye-catching than a lot of the more common species everyone is so used to now. Babies can be skittish and the occasional individual will sometimes taste-test the handler, but typically this is a laid-back, very inquisitive species as adults, meaning they're great for around kids and educational settings, and not likely to trigger a reaction in people like big snakes will. Plus those bug eyes are endearing, and sure to hook at least a few more folks on reptiles.

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