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South of the Border Shadow

I have a thing for dark colors; anyone who knows me well knows this fact, and it translates often to the animals and plants that I like most as well. Reptiles that can become solid black are universally highly coveted in the trade too, and this particular species currently has a high value for many reasons:

He's cute, he's black...but he's also a little naughty.

This is Tsefan, part of the more extended (currently) aspect of the Carlton Carnivores Family. Tsefan means Hidden in Hebrew, fitting for so dark a creature; he's a Mexican Black Kingsnake, a subspecies (as I consider, more on that shortly) of the common kingsnake that is found throughout most of the southern half of North America and part of the species that gave kingsnakes their common title. Hatched on June 6, 2019, he's still very, very young, but quite clearly sporting his own spunky personality.

Lampropeltis getula nigrita is a native of the Sonoran Desert along the northwestern coast of Mexico by the Sea of Cortez, in the states of Sonora, far northern Sinaloa, and just pushing up into southern Arizona where this subspecies intergrades with the California and Desert Kingsnakes (L. g. californiae and L. g. splendida respectively). Some now consider these subspecies along with several others in the getula complex to be their own distinct species; IMPO, though they tend to have distinctive patterns and within their ranges relatively isolated genetic lineages, these snakes differ relatively little in structural and behavioral terms and where they contact the other taxa hybridize freely, thus nudging me to remain classifying them as subspecies of one widespread species (as new evidence comes to light, this may or may not change). Some though even claim to place this subspecies within the California kingsnake; this, I believe, is much in error, as though the two subspecies intergrade readily at their boundaries the MBK is often distinctly thinner, possesses an obvious parapatric distribution beyond the intergrade region bounded by mountain ranges and the Sea of Cortez, and even the most heavily patterned individuals lose most of this definition while all locales of California kings (even dark Bajas like Halailah, seen in an earlier blog) maintain distinct if sometimes dark patterns.

The Mexican Black Kingsnake inhabits a very obviously desert region, and so is overall adapted to a relatively dry-tolerant lifestyle, but within this region is often found concentrated in areas with greater vegetation and water sources. This may be due to several factors, including the fact that vegetation and water also attract prey ranging from small rodents, birds, and lizards to even other snakes, including rattlesnakes of which the common kingsnake has some resistance to the venom. This is where the term "kingsnake" is derived, a creature that can even dine on the fiercest of their fellow serpents. The black color might seem counter-intuitive for an animal living in so hot a region, but as this is a snake most commonly active at night (when deserts often get surprisingly, even bitterly cold) its color permits camouflage in the deep shadow as well as a capacity to absorb radiant heat better and maintain activity well into the night. When young, MBK's often possess faint bands reminiscent of the banded or chain patterns of other common king subspecies, and around their neck and chin can often maintain patches of white, but with age most specimens lose the majority of their pattern and turn a solid deep chocolate to true iridescent bluish black.

Some of the white flecks this species can maintain are visible along Tsefan's sides here, though as their name suggests the rest of him is quite truly black.

MBK's grow to similar sizes as other common kings, with averages in the wild of 3-4 feet in length. In captivity though it's not uncommon for them to get even larger, pushing 5 feet, with records of over 6. They have high visual acuity compared to some snakes, hunting often by sight and keyed in on movement; anything that twitches and is smaller than they are is potential food for them.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, this predatory habit translates quite readily into captivity. Common kings as a whole are notoriously food-oriented, the MBK no exception, meaning rarely does one have issues feeding this species and they're often used as "garbage disposals," eating the food that other snakes in the collection may have refused. On the other hand, this is therefore also a snake that subscribes to the "if I spies it, I tries it" mentality (of which many versions are jokingly mentioned in herp communities), meaning that it's also not uncommon for a healthy king to, for no apparent reason, decide that their handler's fingers, thumb, hand, arm, clothing etc. looks tasty and must be nommed on. Some individuals are better than others, and many claim that the MBK tends not to do this as much as other subspecies, but if my Tsefan is anything to go by, they're certainly not immune to the tendency. Already several times, application of a light dab of hand sanitizer to his snout has been required to make him let go of a finger that he decided looked tasty, and one dare not handle any other snake before handling a MBK, otherwise all bets are off on getting one to release.

Seeking a spot to taste-test, perhaps?

Overall however, if one can tolerate this quirk of the species, MBK's are quite a rewarding and, as mentioned, highly coveted species to own as a pet. The Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) is often considered the crown jewel "big black snake" to own with its shiny jet black and blue or reddish hues and reputation as a very large, rare, docile creature, but for those who can't afford the high prices they and their relatives typically fetch (or have the time to fill out and certify applications for transporting and owning endangered species such as the Indigo), the MBK is sometimes referred to as the "poor man's Indigo." Still fairly sizeable (again, not uncommon in captivity up to 5 feet) and richly black and iridescently shiny, they are quite similar in appearance if not quite absolute size.

An adult MBK will require a tub or cage that is preferably at least 3 feet in length, furnished with a water dish large enough to soak in (though they do so less often than species like corn snakes) and a couple of hides on either side of the tank, as well as whatever other decorations might provide climbing perches or enrichment for the animal. Tank security is also a must; like many other colubrids, these are masters of escape. As a desert creature, they are not needy of particularly high humidity (though a moist shed box during molting periods is always good to offer if airflow in the cage is adequate), and expect warm conditions, the cool end of the tank in the low to mid-70's Fahrenheit and the basking spot up to 90 F. Food items should be approximately the width of or slightly wider than the thickest part of the snake, and this is one creature you definitely shouldn't feed whenever they act hungry; they are always acting hungry, and can quite easily overeat and become overweight or develop other issues.

A young MBK will often be flighty and sometimes defensive, nipping and rattling their tails, and younger individuals also tend to have the "if I sees it, I squeeze it" mentality more than adults who sometimes learn better, so regular, gentle handling can often promote an animal to become very amenable to interactions and a great pet. As with many snakes, this species will also live far longer than most people give credit for; 15-20 years is not unexpected, and 30+ years also not unheard of, so expect this to be an animal in the family for many years to come.

Each animal also will develop its own personality, like other species; Tsefan is still young and so tends more toward the "eat it or run away from it" dichotomy, but is developing into a very curious, active animal, and may well become a very docile individual as an adult. Here's hoping he'll become a little less inclined to tasting fingers as he grows, and become a great ambassador for these gorgeous reptiles.

Shiny and black, and growing ever more curious; here's to you Tsefan, hope you become a great teacher to others.

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